Settled into new homes, refugees in US say they are working for a better life for all
Alex Mutabazi and his family came to Tennessee to escape the violence in Central Africa. He has since started a church to help other refugees. Photo by John Partipilo | Tennessee Lookout.
By States Newsroom staff
Violence, persecution and wars amid a global pandemic added to the growing number of displaced persons around the world last year.
The United Nations reports that 11.2 million people were displaced from their homelands in 2020, bringing the total number of displaced persons in the world to 82.4 million.
Of those forced to flee their homes, 1.4 million had to leave their country. According to the U.N., Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees in 2020, taking in just under 4 million people, the majority coming from Syria. Colombia was next, taking in more than 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans. Germany, Pakistan and Uganda also are in the top five hosting countries, with each resettling more than a million people.
The United States was far below those numbers, resettling 11,814 refugees last year.
President Joe Biden, who campaigned on promises of facilitating immigration and increasing admissions for refugees, recently, increased admissions from 15,000 to 62,500. Immigrant rights activists say more needs to be done.
Between October and May, the U.S. admitted 3,250 refugees, according to Department of State data.
For World Refugee Day, reporters at States Newsroom spoke to several refugees who agreed to tell their stories.
Petronille Kabanga, 52, Democratic Republic of the Congo
By Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror
Petronille Kabanga’s husband worked as a journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2003, he took a picture of a protest where the military killed nearly 100 people, Kabanga said. He was warned to not publish the photos because they contradicted the government’s account that a few people were killed. But he published the photos.
Soldiers then came to their home, and took her husband. Kabanga went into hiding for a few days with their six children. But they weren’t safe anywhere. Her husband was released and came back with a message.
“Run away, just go,” he was told. The family fled their home and country.
For 13 years, they lived in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. They had their seventh child there.
“Living in the camp is not easy. I didn’t know how to cook with the firewood, that was my first experience, go and do the garden, go fetch water, it was not easy,” Kabanga said.
In May 2016, the family resettled in Arizona. Her children, now ages 25 through 15, adapted well to school, play sports and are going to college. She wants to teach other refugees to value school and encourage their children to get an education, before starting to work.
“Maybe I’ll do a workshop with the parents to teach them the value of the school. It is for the benefit of their children and their parents,” she said.
The couple recently opened an African imports store in north Phoenix where they sell handmade furniture, jewelry boxes made from wood, leather baskets and natural fiber decorations made in Congo. They also sell cooking ingredients and frozen food.
Kabanga’s also aching to help young women and girls in the Kasai region where she’s from. The province is rich in minerals like diamonds, but also known for the armed groups that terrorize the area. The region, and the country, is experiencing food insecurity.
“People are suffering,” Kabanga said. “It’s shameful …. my country, there’s too many things. I want to help women with the school, maybe we can buy a sewing machine for them.”
Jaime Enrique Ramirez Corredor, 65, Colombia
By Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror
Jaime Enrique Ramirez Corredor was forced to leave Colombia in 2014. His business in a rural community of sugar cane growers was targeted by right-wing paramilitaries who threatened to burn down his house. He fled to neighboring Ecuador. Four years ago, Ramirez arrived in Arizona as a refugee.
“It’s been seven years since I don’t see my family and my kids,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “And it hurts. Colombia hurts.”
Last year, out of the 58 refugees who arrived in Arizona, three of them were from Colombia, the state Department of Economic Security reported.
In 2018, Ramirez worked in the tortilla-making section of El Super, a grocery store. A sack of flour he was lifting fell and he injured his right arm. He couldn’t work, and lost his income. Ramirez lived out of his car for six months.
Since arriving in Arizona, he’s found it difficult to feel like he belongs.
“I feel very alone here,” he said.
Ramirez now works informally as a private driver. Recently, he’s been moved to tears after watching videos on his phone of police brutally responding to massive anti-government protests that began on April 28 in the South American country of 50 million people.
“We, the older generation, were incapable of handing over a better country to our young people because of cowardice,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez has attended gatherings from Colombians living in Arizona to bring awareness about the social upheaval that’s resulted in 68 deaths, most allegedly at the hands of police.
He said he feels sad and powerless watching the deadly repression of protests. But he also speaks up against any government that keeps its people in poverty, in hunger.
“I’ve never been someone who stays silent about injustices,” Ramirez said. “The crimes committed (abroad) by the U.S. government throughout the years are many. It is curious that the government that produces the most refugees is the U.S., and here is where refugees arrive from different places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Nejra Sumic, 34, Bosnia
By Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror
Nejra Sumic was 6 years old when a civil war forced the little girl and her mother to flee Bosnia and Herzegovina. They didn’t just leave their life behind. Nejra’s dad had gone missing.
“I was 6, but I remember everything,” Sumic said. “We were separated from my father. We didn’t know his whereabouts for a year.”
Sumic and her mother had fled to Croatia. There they found that the mine where her father worked was turned into a concentration camp, where he was held captive.
A year later, thanks to a British journalist who uncovered her dad’s whereabouts, her dad was freed and they reunited in Croatia. The refugee family was then displaced to Spain on a military ship. They lived there for three years until they were resettled in the U.S.
Sumic arrived in Arizona in 1995. That year, Arizona became the home of 445 refugees from Bosnia. Thousands more will follow in the years to come.
Now, Sumic works as national field manager at We Are All America, a national campaign advocating at the local government and Congressional levels for refugees, people seeking asylum, those with Temporary Protected Status and immigrants.
Sumic said she’s found solace in this work.
“I think in a way it’s helped me heal from a lot of the trauma knowing what that experience is like,” Sumic said. “That journey allows me to be of service in a way that I feel is the best way I can be of service. I’m lucky to have that as a job.”
Sumic also advocates for more funds to help refugees resettle and thrive in their new communities.
“With World Refugee Day coming up, it’s an opportunity for us all to reflect that there are other people around the world who are still suffering and experiencing war, famine, all sorts of things,” she said. “We cannot shut our doors. We need to continue to welcome people with open arms. Nobody deserves to live in a place where they are not safe, where they cannot raise their family.”
Mohamed Juma, 29, Sudan
By Faith Miller | Colorado Newsline
After Mohamed Juma, his seven younger siblings and their parents escaped Sudan during a civil war and humanitarian crisis, they spent eight years waiting in a Kenyan refugee camp. They were finally accepted as U.S. refugees in 2013.
Juma now visits elementary and middle schools to talk to Colorado students. From personal experience, he speaks of the challenges that “refugees and immigrants face when they come to the United States.”
On top of the trauma of war and displacement, Juma’s family faced plenty of challenges.
When they first arrived in Aurora, Colorado, it was April and snowing — not at all like Kenya. They didn’t speak English, and didn’t know anyone except for Juma’s uncle, who’d arrived from the same refugee camp a couple of months earlier. Making friends was difficult.
“People in the U.S. are not friendly like back where we came from,” Juma reflected. “You cannot go and just knock on somebody’s door.”
But case workers and other refugees in Aurora helped the family with housing, job applications and transportation.
Juma, now 29, speaks Swahili, Arabic and English, among other languages. He works as a community navigator to help new arrivals feel safe and welcome. As an investment associate, Juma also supports community members who want to start their own businesses.
Juma wants people from the U.S. to understand that immigrants and refugees are human beings, and “not here to, for example, take your jobs.”
“They’re just families trying to help their children to have a better life,” Juma said, adding: “So just forget the hate … let’s just spread love and see how we can learn from each other.”
Naquetta Ricks, 54, Liberia
By Faith Miller | Colorado Newsline
After a firing squad executed her fiance in Liberia’s 1980 military coup, Naquetta Ricks’ mother secured a medical leave of absence from work and fled with her children to Chicago.
The family moved to Colorado a few months later. Without a lawyer, their attempts to gain asylum status were at first fruitless. Then in 1986, a path to citizenship opened up when then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation granting amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants.
Today, Ricks represents her Aurora community in the Colorado House of Representatives.
After losing races for the University of Colorado Board of Regents and Aurora City Council, Ricks contemplated staying out of politics — until Donald Trump was elected president, and she noticed increasing negative rhetoric about immigrants.
Last year, 717 refugees, asylees and Special Immigrant Visa holders arrived in Colorado, according to the Colorado Refugee Services Program. Most were originally from Afghanistan, Cuba or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We really need people who are going to talk about the contributions of immigrants,” she said. “They are underrepresented. They are underserved when it comes to politics, and so I think it was important to have some different voices to bring the true reflection of immigrants to the table.”
As a Democratic state representative, Ricks draws on her experience as a business leader — having served as president of the African Chamber of Commerce of Colorado — a refugee, a single mother, small business owner and mortgage broker. She’s passionate about helping community members achieve home ownership.
But just like adjusting to a new country far from home, winning an election took a lot of work, she adds.
“It was a seven-year journey,” she said.
Nga Vương-Sandoval, Việt Nam
By Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror
Nga Vương-Sandoval left in fear, running, fleeing war in Việt Nam. She was 3.
“We hastily ran and boarded a rickety old cargo ship that was not intended for human passengers,” Vương-Sandoval said in a November 2020 TED talk. “As our ship leisurely drifted away from the land, we gazed in horror. At that moment we became refugees.”
Vương-Sandoval was first displaced to Guam, and then resettled in the U.S. She lived in Arkansas and Alabama before settling in Colorado.
She is a Denver resident and an accomplished leader and advocate for refugees. Vương-Sandoval works with state legislatures and advocates in Congress for the U.S. to welcome more refugees and address the core problems that cause displacement.
“Human beings will not need to flee their homes if there was peace, if there wasn’t instability,” she told Arizona Mirror.
Vương-Sandoval remembers when earlier this year, President Joe Biden broke his campaign promise to reverse the previous administration’s historically low refugee admission numbers. After backlash for keeping the 15,000 yearly admissions from the Trump years, the Biden administration changed course and raised the refugee cap to around 62,500 — still below the expected 125,000 target.
“You need to keep your promise because every number represents a human being,” Vương-Sandoval said.
Globally she thinks addressing displaced, stateless people needs to be a priority.
“We have 26 million refugees in the world, and yet it is something that is not even in the forefront,” Vương-Sandoval said.
Basma Alawee, 35, Iraq
By Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror
Basma Alawee and her family lived in Baghdad. She had a material engineering degree and worked in the oil industry. Her husband worked with American troops as an interpreter. But they were threatened and Alawee, her husband and their 1-year-old daughter were forced to leave.
When the three were resettled in the U.S. in 2010, Alawee was eager to share her skills and knowledge. She struggled to validate her degree in the U.S. and instead taught math and science to middle and high school students.
“I felt for a time that my skills were wasted,” said Alawee of Jacksonville. “I started teaching math and science, but always felt like there are so many wasted skills from refugees when they come.”
She helped create and translate materials for GED and citizenship classes. Alawee then learned that many other highly-skilled refugees and immigrants faced similar challenges to her.
“That is what activated me,” Alawee said. “I started understating that our struggles as refugees are connected with the struggles of immigrant communities and minorities communities that are Americans themselves.”
She joined the Florida Immigrant Coalition to advocate for different refugee and immigrant communities.
“The U.S. and other countries are part of the root cause of why we forcibly migrated,” Alawee said.
Now, she works for a national campaign at We Are All America in leadership training and advocacy for the refugee community because everyone has their own truth to tell.
“My truth is not going to be the truth as others. I cannot represent the woman from Congo who lived all her life in a refugee camp, or the mother from Central America, or even represent the struggle of the LGBTQ community,” Alawee said. “We need to shift from being advocates to organizers. Instead of me going to represent them, I am training and empowering my community so we can go together and represent, not speak on behalf of one another.”
Halima Hamud, 22, Somalia
By Audrey Dutton | Idaho Capitol Sun
Halima Hamud’s family fled the Somali Civil War in the early 1990s and spent almost 20 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. That’s where she was born.
Hamud remembers crying when her family left the only home she knew to come to the U.S. in 2009. Her family was among 98 refugees from Somalia to resettle in Boise, Idaho, that year — and hundreds more Somali refugees have since resettled since the mid-2000s.
Hamud started school in Boise as a fourth grader at Whitney Elementary and took several years to learn English.
“I didn’t even know how to do math — adding and subtracting — because I was so focused on the environment,” she said. “I was being bullied, sometimes I was the only girl wearing a hijab in the class. … Kids are ruthless sometimes.”
She began to wear jeans and take off her hijab at school.
“I did fit in, but it was at a very high cost, because it wasn’t me,” she says. “I was doing something that deep in my heart I didn’t want to do, just to fit in.”
The harassment didn’t end with childhood; the bullies just got older. Recently, someone called her the “N word” while she was shopping.
“Being a Black Muslim woman in Idaho is just very difficult,” she said, but chose to focus instead on “what this city and this community can do for you.”
She pointed to Idaho’s refugee-focused nonprofits and Boise’s large refugee community. She credited them, and two teachers (“Miss Robin” and “Miss Rowe”) with helping her find her place.
Hamud plans to graduate from Boise State University next May. This year, she was the fifth BSU student to win the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship.
Arnobia Bernal Ramirez, 57, Colombia
By Hannah Gaskill | Maryland Matters
Maryland became home to 763 new refugees in 2019, and one of them was Arnobia Bernal Ramirez, 57.
Bernal Ramirez fled Colombia to Ecuador with her son, who has a cognitive disability, in 2016 after she was exploited and threatened by a local group. Unable to escape the danger, Bernal Ramirez applied for asylum in the U.S.
As a Spanish speaker, she spoke to Maryland Matters through Andrea Sanchez, an intern at Asylee Women Enterprise, a Baltimore organization that helps asylum seekers.
“She did live a bit of a calm life [in Ecuador] for a while, but [the harassers] ended up following her there,” Sanchez said.
Through tears, Bernal Ramirez said she felt alone when she arrived in Baltimore and was constantly paranoid that she and her son would be discovered.
“She was constantly living in fear that one day those people would find her, recognize her and her son on the street and kill [them],” said Sanchez.
Unable to speak English or communicate with her 35-year-old nonverbal son, Andres, Bernal Ramirez hid from the world for months until she connected with Asylee Women Enterprise (AWE), where she found support and a job.
“At first she was very reluctant,” said Sanchez. “She felt as if she wasn’t worthy of getting help or any resources.”
But Bernal Ramirez said crossing the threshold at AWE felt like learning “what it was to live again.”
And while some people can be “hateful,” Bernal Ramirez admires the community she’s found.
“She doesn’t really even think the stereotypes [of immigrants] matter just because of the sheer amount of people that do actually care … and think that immigrants are worthy of being here,” Sanchez said.
Alex Mutabazi, 45, Democratic Republic of Congo
By Dulce Torres | Tennessee Lookout
Alex Mutabazi, 45, lost everything during the yearslong violence that spread through much of Central Africa.
After the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed millions, millions more fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to escape. Among the refugees were rebel groups, which prompted an invasion of Congo, resulting in widespread destruction.
Among the chaos, Mutabazi, his wife, seven children and extended family struggled to survive. Among the victims of the war was his mother, and after losing his property and livestock, the family had nowhere to go.
“I could not eat when my family could not eat and were dying,” he said.
A peace treaty was signed in 2003, but conflicts continued into the next decade. In 2016, Mutabazi and his family migrated to Tennessee into the political turmoil that comes from changing presidential administrations.
Mutabazi’s family was one of 2,051 that migrated that year to Tennessee, most being from Congo, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. Advocates helped them resettle, but refugees still struggled with discrimination due to language barriers and limited knowledge about local laws.
Seeing this, Mutabazi founded a church, called His Grace Christian Life Church, so the community could gather, worship in their own language and discuss the problems affecting them in their daily lives.
By August of this year, Mutabazi and his family will have been in the U.S. for five years and hope they will soon be able to start the process of becoming American citizens. Mutabazi has founded two churches in Nashville and Knoxville and has 155 members.
With another child on the way, Mutabazi knows the struggles of being a refugee hundreds of miles away from their homeland and hopes Joe Biden’s administration will fulfill his campaign promises to facilitate admission to the U.S.
“Life in Africa is so tough because of many reasons. Right now, in my country, they are having a war,” said Mutabazi. “I wish my four brothers will be able to join us here, because where they are now, they are not safe.”
Manasse Matala, 19, Zimbabwe
By Noah Taborda | Kansas Reflector
Manasse Matala, 19, endeavors each day to ensure he does not waste the educational opportunities available to him in the United States.
Matala and his family resettled in Wichita, one of an estimated 3.4 million Zimbabweans who have fled their home country to escape violence and killings. Kansas’s culture came as quite a shock, especially for someone whose English was shaky.
Through his studies, Matala said he overcame many of those language barriers. Still, the lack of fluency did affect his French-speaking family.
“My mom didn’t know how to speak English and it would be very hard for her to communicate or to find something like a job,” he said.
Now, Matala is hoping to bring inspiration and hope to more refugees through, of all things, speaking. He graduated from Southeast High School in May, and while he plans to pursue a degree in pre-medicine, he also wants to be a motivational speaker.
His message is a tried and true one — hard work pays off. Matala channels his own personal experience from things as difficult as overcoming language barriers to learning piano or playing soccer to demonstrate this.
He has also considered physical therapy as a possible career path. Whatever directions he takes, he wants to dispel misconceptions that refugees are a burden on their new country.
“I asked some of my friends about what you think about refugees, and everyone is telling me this bad stuff. I didn’t show my sadness, but it did break my heart a little,” Matala said. “We can’t just come in and start acting without even knowing the culture. We don’t even know what is going on.”
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