Saturday, August 29, 2009


By Amina Tahera
August 29, 2009

Imagine - you are a married person with children, going about your life and working as hard as you can with your spouse to provide for your family. Perhaps you are a journalism professor, an electrician, a teacher, human rights worker trainer or a doctor. You worry whether your children are studying hard enough to qualify for government-funded higher education. Off and on, you think about getting more exercise and eating healthier because your doctor warns you about taking better care of yourself, and though you know that any medical issues for you and your family are covered by the government's medical plan, you want to be there for your family. Now life is not perfect, there is a lot of corruption, injustices, violence and other problems in your society, but these challenges are just a part of what you expect in life. You are at least partially mentally prepared to deal with them. Overall, you feel that your life is relatively stable.

Then one day, it happens, completely outside of any expectation you might have had in life… War comes to your front door, family members are kidnapped or killed, and those who are left must escape. You find yourself a refugee and are given an option of going to another country. You arrive in the United States with the help of an agency - grateful, but emotionally and physically injured by your experiences. You somehow gather the courage to decide you will start again from the generously-given little that you have, determined to build a better life for you and your children. Still, you have to learn a new language, adjust to your new cultural and social surroundings and help your children do the same. You have to learn how to navigate this new bureaucracy that you are unfamiliar with, all the while providing for your family and caring for them as they each need you, your love and support in a time that is difficult for them as well. Hope is one of the few things you somehow have to carry an abundance of. Most of all, you want and desperately need the means and opportunities for yourself and your loved ones to earn their keep, obtain the education they need to build a better life, and meet the needs of basic everyday life.

You are an Iraqi refugee, now trying to build a life for yourself in the US. Taking it one day at a time, you are hoping the best for you and your family for the years to come. But this is not fiction, it has happened to many. Here are some of their stories……

Ahlam is now a single mother, living in a 1 bedroom apartment with her 13 year old son Abdullah, and her 11 year old daughter Ruqayya. With help from others, she recently founded the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, in hopes that she and other refugees can help each other connect with people, resources and opportunities that will help them settle into this new life more effectively. She now struggles to meet their needs for rent, utilities and basic necessities. Though they receive food stamps, she cannot stretch them enough to buy the fresh fruits and vegetables required for her son who suffers from Hepatitis A and C. She herself has to deal with the challenges of having only 1 working kidney. Both her children work very hard in school. They truly value and cherish any opportunity to learn and improve. Ruqayya is somewhat precocious but serious for her age and she proudly shows me how she learned to count to ten in French after being shown just once three weeks ago. Abdullah is protective of his mother and clearly cares greatly for her and though he has been through a lot, he is trying hard to adapt to this new life. Not only are they learning in school, but they have to learn about the rules for living in Chicago, like not opening the apartment door right away when someone knocks. The few job opportunities Ahlam has found all involve long commutes to far out suburbs and leaving her children for the day and some of the evening – this is especially hard for her since she sees how much her children need her during this crucial adjustment period. As a single parent, she faces that additional challenge of not having a partner to share the responsibilities of childcare and earning money. Paying monthly rent, utilities and CTA card expenses are always a problem. She hopes that through the network she is forming, she will be able to facilitate this struggle for herself as well as other refugees. God-willing as things get better and more stable for her and her family, she dreams of her children reaching their full potential and being successful in the studies and ambitions for the future.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Somali Refugee on Life and Survival

It isn’t easy for soccer enthusiast and Wheaton, IL resident, Bisharo Amir, 17, to speak of her past. “My mother gave birth to my little brother under a tree, with the sound of bombs and machine guns blasting, and through it all my brothers and sisters who were small children were crying for her attention,” she shudders. “Can you imagine that?”

Bisharo is originally from Somalia. When war broke out with Ethiopia nearly two decades ago, her family and hundreds of thousands of others fled to Kenya. “It was very sudden. No one knew what was happening. For power and money, friends betrayed each other,” she says of the embattled nations. Bisharo, then three, spent her childhood in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which was originally established in 1992 for the 20,000 refugees fleeing Sudan.

“My little niece there,” she points to a three-year-old, “children her age shouldn’t have to see so much killing, so much blood, but they have. That’s not good. I don’t think about it, otherwise I won’t be healthy mentally, physically, emotionally. I just don’t think about those days,” says Bisharo. “I can’t believe that a 7-year-old had a gun and wanted to kill people.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at the height of the civil wars in Ethiopia and Somalia in 1991 and 1992, thousands of wounded and famished refugees arrived daily in Kenya's remote border regions. Fighting in neighboring Sudan prompted the flight of thousands more to Kenya, mostly boys escaping the conflict and/or forced military service. By 1992, UNHCR had established 17 refugee camps in Kenya to care for a refugee population of 420,000. 1

As Bisharo explains, refugee camps can be largely lawless. At Kakuma, not only were there diverse refugee populations from all over Africa, but there were also ethnic groupings from a single country who were in conflict with each other back home. “We look very different from Somali people,” says Bisharo, lifting her hijab. “Their hair is straight, ours is curly. We are from Somalia but we are Bantu and we were enemies,” she says.

Proximity to areas of civil strife further enabled easy access to weapons. “When they came for your money and you didn’t give it to them, they’d torture you and even kill you,” recalls Bisharo. She remembers one horrifying night when a neighbor whom she was staying over with was robbed, pulled out of her hutment and raped. “I curled up like a ball in the corner with her children, trying to keep them calm,” says Bisharo, who was no more than a child herself at the time. Rape continues to be a common crisis in refugee camps. Sometimes the police, too, take the liberty to harass refugees. “It was like a prison,” Bisharo observes.

Asked what the hardest thing for her was, Bisharo replies, “not having a father. He was running for his life because they were forcing boys and men into the army. He had also married again, which is very common in African culture. For 2 to 3 years there, I didn’t have a father and I’d see other fathers with their kids, hugging them, playing with them, buying them candy,” she says. “I was ten years old and used to wonder why I was alive? What purpose was I alive for? We needed him emotionally. Now he’s back with us and I don’t hold anything against him. He had to do what he had to do.”

Bisharo glances over at her niece again. “I feel happy for her,” she says. “She has what I didn’t have.”

Her elder sister, now 26, tried filling the void left by their father by working as domestic help in Kenya to help make ends meet.

“We owe her our life,” says Bisharo. “Most of her life she spent doing whatever she could to make us happy. When the food rations UNHCR gave us ran out, we had to work in other people’s homes without a break, without any rest. It was like being Cinderella. I wrote an essay about myself for school (in Wheaton) and I got 100 per cent. My teacher thought it was really good. I told her that wasn’t even half my story,” adds Bisharo, who is learning to play the piano.

To hear Bisharo speak in her English fluent and confident voice, her animated conversation punctuated with laughter, one can’t imagine she moved to the suburbs of Chicago only two years ago.

“My father was a teacher and he knew even girls should go to school,” she says, explaining why her English is so good. “In Africa, they say girls aren’t supposed to go to school. That’s pathetic! That’s lame! My friends’ parents used to say I’ve lost it because I used to go to school. My dad took me to school. Girls grow up early there and get married at 13 or 14.”

Does she plan to tie the knot soon, too? “I worked so hard for my education. I’m going to lose everything if I get married now because I’m going to have to be responsible for my husband. Then if you get pregnant, you’re responsible for the children too. I have to find where I am going first. I just have to go till I end up where I need to go,” she says, resolutely. “If I do get married, it’s not going to stop me because he married me when I was studying and I’m studying hard and you want me to stop? It’s not going to happen!” Is that her advice for her friends as well? Bisharo shakes her head. “They have to do what they want to do.”

A high-school student at Wheaton North High School, Bisharo started out as an ESL student. She topped that class and they bumped her up to the next level, where she came first again. “I didn’t even have to study for health. ‘This is going too far,’ they said, and the next semester I was in a regular class,” she laughs. “I get A’s and B’s but I barely passed history. I’m an average kid,” she says rolling her eyes, then swiftly adds, “but I’m a quick learner.”

Asked about her adjustment to life in America, Bisharo responds by describing her friends. “They are so fun! Americans don’t judge you before they know you. I am a mutt but I hate people calling me a half-breed. My mother speaks Kizigwa and my Dad speaks Mai Mai. I speak both those languages, Somali, Swahili and English! Africans ask me, ‘Who do you like better? Your mother or your father?’ or they ask me, ‘Why did you mother marry your father? Her culture is better.’ I tell them I don’t have to choose between my parents. And about why my parents married? Isn’t that a personal question? So be it, if you think I am a half-breed and don’t like me.”
What else does she like about her new homeland? “Boys and girls are treated equally. Here we can choose. In Africa, our choices are made for us depending on if we are a girl or a boy. It’s not fair! Also, in Africa you can’t be seen walking with a boy because people will gossip. Here, we can joke with boys.”

A tomboy, Bisharo loves that she can be one without it being a big deal like it would be in Africa. “My mother’s friends here tell her she is going to have such a problem with me. But my mum says as long as I am happy, that’s all that matters.”
Bisharo yearns for her aunts and grand-mother who are still in the refugee camps. She wants to become a doctor, loves Japanese Anime and dreams of learning to play the violin. “It would be an honor to learn music. I love Chinese music. It’s so harmonious and peaceful. People used to live in peace in Africa…a long time ago. It’s so much better here.”

Does she think allowing more refugees access to resettlement in other nations is the answer? Bisharo hesitates. “Some people there may threaten you into saying they are family and come with you.” In her answer, you can see ghosts of the past threatening her newfound sense of security. “The future is not written yet. You can only think about now,” she concludes.

1 UNHCR Publications;

Shataa Faisal: An Iraqi Mom On War, Struggle, Hope, Faith

1) What brings you to America?

Shatha Faisal: There was no way to “live” in Iraq and we exhausted all options to even be able to survive there. Early of 2005 when we used to live in Baghdad, we kept receiving written notes from unknown party that we should leave our neighborhood because we were “terrorists”. We ignored these threats and put our fate in Allah’s hands. May 23, 2005 at 11:30 PM Talal (the father) came from work and we were getting ready to eat dinner outside in the backyard since there was no electricity. So Talal turn on a gas operated generator and we settled to start eating. Suddenly, something exploded near us and apiece of metal hit the generator and set it on fire. Talal and Faisal, who was 4.5 years old at that time, got burned from the gasoline that spilled out of the generator. Talal got sever burns on his legs and Faisal had 90% of his body severely burned. We rushed him to a hospital, hoping to find a clean room or bed so his burns don’t get infected, we were turned a way since there was no clean room or bed suitable for his situation. We went from one hospital to another while Talal and Faisal were suffering and crying from pain. We went to the 16 hospitals in Baghdad, but no single hospital was able to care for them. One doctor said to us, Faisal is going to die so stop trying. Two days latter, the we went to Jordan seeking medical treatment. Three days latter, Faisal died. 17 days latter, Talal was released form the hospital and we went back to Iraq. Two months after we returned to Iraq, someone bombed our $300,000 supermarket and our only source for living. We were trapped in our home fro two months with no work, no hope, shocked, and afraid to be killed. Then, we gave up on life in Iraq and went to Jordan and applied to seek refuge in a foreign country. Our life in Jordan was as hard as in Iraq since we were not “legally” allowed to work or own in Jordan.

2) What are the challenges of re-settling here?

Shatha Faisal: Our main challenge is to hold on our own values, believes, and way of living while fitting in the American society. We worry about our kids and worry if they practice their values, which comes from their religious believes, they will not be accepted. On the other had, we worry they will take too much from the American culture. We believe us coming to this country is a true test from God to our strengths and to our attachment to our values and believes. Also, the financial requirements in the US to live in a comfortable home, fulfill our basic needs, and take care of our kids future is a true challenge considering we have never used government help or relied on others.

3) Would you want to return to the Middle East at all?

Shatha Faisal: Yes, we would love to. We have a hope our country’s political dilemma will get better and if not, we would love to live in an Arab county since we feel we belong there. We belong to a society that understand our needs and share our pain. Here we feel we have to keep everything inside and put on a face to fit in. with all respect the American way of living, it is not our style.

4) What are your impressions of the people in America?

Shatha Faisal: We met many nice and kind Americans. We believe smiling in public is a social norm more than reality. It seems Americans focus more on the subject matter, law, right or wrong, objects, etc, more than they do on people. People tend to talk directly about subjects, rather than feelings, which is hard for us to accept or to be part of.

5) You have seen so much. How has that changed the person you are?

Shatha Faisal: Our country has been in ware since we were children. Death and human suffering became part of our life. Shetha: seeing dead bodies, blood, and on going pain and suffering around me made me closer to God and made me believe life is very fragile an it could end any second. I convinced myself not to be worried about tomorrow and never be angry or upset with someone. That someone or myself might die any second, it is not that hard. So, I want always to be ready to meet my Lord and force myself not to do wrong, which eventually makes me view life as a temporary stay that is not worth worrying. I am calm all the time and try to find a positive side to everything around me.

6) Do you have hope for a better tomorrow?

Shatha Faisal: Yes, if we don’t have hope for tomorrow we would be dead by now. We hope and in fact we believe things will get better in home country, Home keeps us going in this life.

7) What gives you the strength to go on?

Shatha Faisal: Our kids and our hope their future will be better than ours. We were not given the choice to come to this life, but it is up to us what to do with it and how to manage it. We chose to make ours simple. There is no need to worry more than what we have to. Also, our hope in better tomorrow keeps us going. As long as we are still alive, there is a hope for change in the future. We try to stay always positive and be happy of what God offers us that day.

8) How do you explain such difficult things to the children?

Shatha Faisal: We always believe in telling the truth and always have informed our kids of anything happen to us, good or bad. The only thing different is the approach. We try to break the bad news down to their level so they can understand it and mainly accept it. We tell them why do things happen and why, and we try to find something positive to attach to it. We want them to know, but we don’t want to devastate them either, which seems to work. When Faisal died, we told Haowa, who was 5 year old at that time, “that God loves us and we love him, and when we love someone, we love to meet them, Faisal loved God and he loved meeting him, God accepted his wish and took him to stay with him”.