Tag Archives: refugees

The True Story of Refugees in an American High School

Helen Thorpe | The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom | November 2017 | 14 minutes (3,444 words)

On the first day of school—it was going to be a ninety-degree scorcher—Eddie Williams jogged up the four stone steps at the main entrance to South High School in Denver, Colorado, half an hour before the first bell rang, eager to meet his new students. The teacher was a tall man, six foot four inches in his socks. He was thirty-eight years old, but could have passed for twenty-eight, and he was wearing a short-sleeved purple South High polo shirt. All the teachers had put on purple shirts, that being the school color, so that the students could easily see whom they should turn to if they had a question about how to find a particular classroom, or how to read the confusing schedules they carried. Mr. Williams usually avoided short-sleeved shirts, because they revealed the dark blue tattoo that circled one of his biceps, and he feared his students might misinterpret the inked designs as macabre, given their backgrounds. He worked diligently to communicate in all sorts of ways that he was a person they could trust.

Mr. Williams had inherited his Anglo father’s rangy height and propensity to freckle, along with his Latina mother’s dark eyes and hair. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he was the sort of teacher who devoted an enormous portion of his kindness, vitality, and intellect to his students. Most of the classrooms in the school were crowded with noisy, chattering teenagers. That morning, however, as he looked around his room, Mr. Williams saw many empty chairs and only seven students. The teenagers assigned to him wore shut-door expressions on their faces. Nobody in the room was talking, not even to one another. The teacher had expected. His room always got off to a quiet start.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” he said, in a deliberately warm tone of voice. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name? Where are you from?” Read more…

The Panic in Twin Falls, Idaho

(Otto Kitsinger/AP Photo)

Twin Falls, Idaho is perhaps one of the best well known small towns in America when it comes to the resettlement of refugees. The billionaire owner of Chobani, Hamid Ulukaya, made it a personal mission to use the low-skill jobs available at his yogurt factory in Twin Falls as a jobs program for refugees, and he currently employees 400 of the recently resettled. Idaho has been a destination for refugee resettlement since 1975, when California governor Jerry Brown refused a planeload of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. Idaho stepped in and established the Idaho Office for Refugees, and today resettles people primarily from Iraq, Congo, Burma, Bhutan, and Somalia.

The panic in Twin Falls began when the local newspaper reported that Syrian refugees would be resettled in the town. As Caitlin Dickerson reports for The New York Times Magazine, when a report surfaced of a sexual assault involving two boys, a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old (the boys were refugees from Iraq and Sudan) and a 5-year-old girl, a thread of misinformation began to tear the town apart. Since those involved in the assault were juveniles, the police couldn’t release the details, and the lack of information created a void into which people poured their rage about Muslims and refugees. Then Lee Stranahan, a reporter for Breitbart, came to town.

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The Rainbow Railroad to Canada for Gay Chechen Men

File photo of Anzor, a gay man who spoke to the Associated Press on condition that he not be further identified out of fear for his safety and that of his family from Chechnya, the predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia. Rights activists from Human Rights Watch have said that high-level officials in Russia's Chechnya have visited detention facilities where gay people allegedly were illegally held and tortured.(AP Photo/Nataliya Vasilyeva, File)

As John Ibbitson reports at The Globe and Mail, there’s a new underground railroad to Canada. Through a safe house network, the Canadian government has been spiriting away gay Chechen men who face not only government persecution, but honor killings at the hands of their family. In this conservative Russian republic, the government not only looks away from these heinous crimes, it encourages them.

For three months, the federal government has been secretly spiriting gay Chechen men from Russia to Canada, under a clandestine program unique in the world.

The evacuations, spearheaded by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, fall outside the conventions of international law and could further impair already tense relations between Russia and Canada. But the Liberal government decided to act regardless.

Hamzat, a man in his mid-twenties, is a recent arrival to Canada. (Hamzat is not his real name. The Globe and Mail is protecting his identity because he fears repercussions for friends and family in Chechnya, and because he is concerned that some Chechen-Canadians might wish him ill.) In an interview with The Globe, he was cautious but calm, offering a brief smile from time to time. He described how his ordeals began: One day in March, men wearing green khaki uniforms appeared in his place of work in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. He was handcuffed, placed in the trunk of a car, and taken to a local police headquarters. “I don’t know how to express this. I was in shock,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Hamzat was taken into a room and, still handcuffed, placed on a chair. He was surrounded by men who kicked him with their heavy boots and beat him with the brass nozzles of hoses. In later sessions, he was subjected to electric-shock torture.

The men wanted him to reveal the names of gay men he knew, just as another man under torture had given up his name. “I didn’t give them any information,” he said. “I lied to them.”

Between interrogations, he said, he and other gay men were kept in a cell with drug dealers and users, and confined to a small area because they were considered unclean. The interrogations lasted two or three weeks.

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Welcome Nowhere: The Plight of the Rohingya Refugees

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Denied citizenship in their home country of Myanmar, denied land, medical care, education and jobs, even denied the ability to walk town to town, the one million Rohingya people who live in this largely Buddhist nation have taken flight to find new homes all over the world. Thousands pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia by boat to find a new home, and the journey is dangerous.

At Granta, United Nations employee Keane Shum shares the Rohingya’s tragic story. Shum is charged with monitoring refugees in Southeast Asia, and she has worked with the Rohingya for three years. As if their suffering back home weren’t horrific enough, the smugglers abuse the Rohingya, underfeeding them, beating, and raping them, then keeping them at sea while they extract more money through ransoms. And when refugees are intercepted, they’re often sent back to a home where they aren’t considered citizens.

Around the same time, the captain of a larger smuggling vessel nearby, carrying as many as 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, also abandoned ship. He also fled on a trailing speedboat, after telling his passengers to sail at 220 degrees in order to reach Malaysia the next morning. But there is nowhere in the Andaman Sea where a heading of 220 degrees will point a ship to Malaysia. The captain was almost certainly directing them towards Indonesia.

Wherever this ship was headed, it ran out of fuel the next day. Passing fishing boats gave some fuel and directed the Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Indonesia. The following morning, 11 May 2015, two Indonesian navy vessels arrived with water, dry instant noodles and biscuits, and returned later in the day to tow the ship towards Malaysia. “We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed,” an Indonesian navy spokesperson told Agence France-Presse. “We are not forcing them to go to Malaysia nor Australia. That is not our business. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.”

The ship drifted for nearly two days until being approached near Penang on the afternoon of 13 May by two Malaysian navy vessels, which also provided food and water. Overnight, the Malaysians towed the ship back into Indonesian territory. When the Malaysians untied from the ship, multiple passengers remember the Malaysians giving instructions to stay put while they went to retrieve other boats in the area. Then we’ll bring you all to Malaysia, the passengers said they were told.

The next day, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi, acknowledged to the Associated Press that Malaysia had turned back both this ship and Hasina’s. “We have to send the right message,” he said. “They are not welcome here.”

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Can You Return To a Place That Was Never Your Home?

Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)
Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)

Through marriage, I hold Austrian permanent residency. I’m in the coveted position of having a place to go should I decide my home country has become too apocalyptic. I can land in that Alpine nation with a clunky yet functional grasp of Austrian German, a string of in-laws to help me navigate, and full work credentials. Getting my residency status was, from a bureaucratic perspective, painless. I had been married for several years, my husband had a government job, and we went through our hearings — including updating an expired “green card” — in a small-town office with no lines.

Others don’t have it so easy. One winter I attended German classes with Bosnian war refugees and a few mail-order brides — one from Brazil, one from the Philippines, one from Cambodia. “My sister came first,” one of my classmates told me, “and her life was so much better here with her mailbox husband than it was doing laundry back in the Philippines, so I did the same.” (Not her exact words, we stumbled through with a mix of our classroom German and English.)

My refugee classmates were former engineers and social workers relegated to factory jobs because Austria didn’t recognize their education. I was a textbook picture of American exceptionalism. My education — an art degree — was irrelevant to employers because I was an American who’d worked for Microsoft. I got a job on a software team at Sony in Salzburg while my more qualified classmates stuck labels on yogurt containers at the dairy factory across the river. My classmates thought I was nuts. “Why are you even here,” they’d ask, incredulous, “when you can be in America?”

I did not like living in small-town Austria; I was ill-suited for its xenophobic (yet also very intrusive) society, and I pined for Vietnamese food and my weird friends. I wanted to want to live in Vienna, but the more visits I made to that city the more I could see how it would have worn me down — even while I knew I’d have lasted there longer than out in the little snow-globe where we lived. I went home. My travel credentials include “failed expat.”

All this is a long setup to say I have feelings about this piece at Catapult in which Grace Linden navigates the process of reclaiming her Austrian citizenship — something she has the right to do as the member of a family that was destroyed by the Nazis.

I don’t know if Leo ever found out what happened to his family; it took me weeks of online research. In the Yad Vashem database, I entered the information for Chaim (Karl) Izak Linadauer Zigellaub, my great-grandfather. He was deported on February 15, 1941 to Lublin, Poland, presumably to the Lublin Ghetto. If he didn’t die in the Ghetto, he would have most likely been transported to the Bełżec Concentration Camp where almost 500,000 Jews were murdered. There was just a single mention of his name on a deportation list; the space between the specifics and the unknowns is enormous. Brieche, his wife, and Ruth’s fates are unknown but almost certainly they were taken to Auschwitz. Improbably, Joseph made it to China where he died in the Shanghai Ghetto. It’s no wonder my grandfather forced time to carry him towards the future.

The compensation Linden seeks — the right to live in Austria — was one I did not work for and did not want. But part of me understand the desire for refuge, for options. And the irony of today’s Jewish Americans casting their eyes back on a nation that attempted to eliminate them — us — is not wasted on me.

Vienna is desperately longing for something it once was. As Alice Gregory wrote recently in T Magazine, “The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell a century ago next year, but the physical remains of its influence are perfectly preserved.” The pull of its history is inescapable. In my own family, I keep looking back for what was lost, only there is nothing left to grab a hold of.

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‘We Love Europa But Europa No Love Us.’

Refugee camp graffiti
Refugee camp graffiti, photo by David Farley (with permission).

Travel writer David Farley spent a month volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece. He wrote about it for Afar. It was not exactly an introduction to the world of good will towards refugees.

Souda briefly gained prominence in November 2016, when it was reported that a right-wing mob stood atop the old city walls and launched large stones and Molotov cocktails down into the camp, setting tents ablaze. Tensions were such that one of the rules of the NGO I was volunteering for stated that once I left the camp, I had to remove my fluorescent green vest and volunteer badge for fear locals would attack me for helping the refugees.

Farley’s piece includes the voices of people we perceive as a generic mass with unified motives.

One day while serving lunch—a tomato and chickpea stew made by a Basque NGO—I met a Syrian named Dallal. He was a new arrival and was aware he might be at Souda for a while. “I don’t understand why we have to wait so long. Some people have been here for nearly a year,” he said. “Our collective goal is that we want a new future, a good future, a safe life. I have a degree in mechanical engineering. My friend here,” he pulled over a 25-year-old from Iraq, “he’s a veterinarian. We’re not poor. We just want a normal life. We are here for survival.”

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Death in the Desert

Memorial coffins on the US-Mexico barrier for those killed crossing the border fence in Tijuana, México
Memorial coffins on the US-Mexico barrier for those killed crossing the border fence in Tijuana, México via Wikimedia.

Making it across the geo-political border doesn’t mean you’ve made it. In Documenting the Undocumented on Places, Taylor James and Adelheid Fischer find the end of the line for a number of “un-authorized border crossers.”

The public record of the Death Maps provides no detail about the private lives of its entrants. What hopes carried Claudia Patricia Oqunendo-Bedoya, Case Report 02-01321, into the desert inferno in August 2002 when she succumbed to “probable hyperthermia”? Just two days before Oqunendo-Bedoya’s remains were recovered, another crosser, Jaime Arteaga Alba, Case Report 02-01310, was riding in a vehicle that may have been taking him to his final destination: a job site in the U.S. Was he jubilant that he survived the grueling desert trek? Was he planning his new future when he was killed on August 8 in a highway accident?

Humane Borders gathers data each time a body is found, while the work of James (and Fischer, through this essay) attempts to humanize each loss.

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‘Wir Schaffen Das’: Angela Merkel, the Refugee Crisis, and the Complexity Behind a Simple Statement Like ‘We Will Do It’

pro-refugee street art in berlin, germany
A mural in support of refugees on a building in Berlin, Germany (photo by Sven-Kåre Evenseth (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

For the Winter 2017 “Home” edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, Renata Adler — whose parents fled Germany in the early 1930s — returns to her familial homeland to explore Germany’s present-day reaction to the refugee crisis, and the millions of people now trying to get in rather than out.

The “land” in question was of course Germany, which had—in living, though dwindling, memory—launched by far the worst, most immense, cruel, specific persecution in the history of mankind. One from which there were relatively few refugees fortunate enough to escape. The millions now seeking asylum were not in the old sense “refugees.” Most had fled (in German, they are called Flüchtlinge, people fleeing) from civil wars or in search of a better life. (The Yazidis, in Iraq, and the Tutsi, in Rwanda, would be refugees in the old sense. Their persecutors, eager to exterminate them, would not permit them to escape.) Historically, there has existed no genuine “right” to asylum from war, poverty, oppression, intolerable living conditions in the land from which you came. Even asylum from specific persecutions, extermination, genocide had been denied throughout the world to people trying to escape the Holocaust. Merkel’s invitation was, in part, an attempt—by welcoming all who could assert a claim for asylum—to expiate, atone for, above all to avoid repetition of this vast, unprecedented crime. Throughout human history, there had been migrations, voluntary and involuntary, of all kinds. But the current problem, whatever its moral claims, was vastly different from the Holocaust. It was different as well from every earlier migration. There seemed to exist no way for the more fortunate peoples of the earth to absorb all those less fortunate, even if their cultures were highly compatible. Which, in this case, they were not.

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Phones Over Food: Why Mobile Phones Are More Important to Refugees

Photo by MONUSCO Photos (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Economist reports on how refugees prize mobile phone connection — even over food. Phones are their primary way to stay connected with family at home as they enter “informational no-man’s land,” not knowing who to trust or where to go. Phones help them stay motivated with photos of family and successful migrants, and offer a means to contact smugglers to help them with their journey.

Sometimes Hekmatullah, a 32-year-old Afghan, has to choose between food and connectivity. “I need to stay in touch with my wife back home,” he says, sitting in a grubby tent in the Oinofyta migrant camp, near Athens. Because Wi-Fi rarely works there, he has to buy mobile-phone credit. And that means he and his fellow travellers—his sister, her friend and five children—sometimes go hungry.

Such stories are common in migrant camps: according to UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, refugees can easily spend a third of their disposable income on staying connected. In a camp near the French city of Dunkirk, where mostly Iraqi refugees live until they manage to get on a truck to Britain, many walk for miles to find free Wi-Fi: according to NGOs working there, the French authorities, reluctant to make the camp seem permanent, have stopped them providing internet connections.

Phones become a lifeline. Their importance goes well beyond staying in touch with people back home. They bring news and pictures of friends and family who have reached their destination, thereby motivating more migrants to set out. They are used for researching journeys and contacting people-smugglers. Any rumour of a new, or easier, route spreads like wildfire. “It’s like the underground railroad, only that it’s digital,” says Maurice Stierl of Watch The Med, an NGO that tracks the deaths and hardships of migrants who cross the Mediterranean, referring to the secret routes and safe houses used to free American slaves in the 19th century.

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Refugees Welcome Here: Bringing ‘Family No. 417’ to Canada

Photo by walterw.a (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Maclean’s, Michael Friscolanti reports on the 14 everyday Canadians who — galvanized by the sickening image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi face-down on the beach — banded together to sponsor a family of Syrian refugees whose names they did not know, in a bid to “do what’s right. To do something.” In a story reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, Friscolanti travelled to war-torn Beirut to find and interview Amal Alkhalaf, the single-mother and her three children, dubbed “family no. 417.”

“I have not been outside since the explosion,” the woman says, speaking Arabic. “If you didn’t call me to meet you, I wouldn’t have come outside. It is too scary.”

Her name is Amal Alkhalaf, and although she doesn’t realize it yet, that name alone means so much to so many. On the other side of the world—in Peterborough, Ont., a city that could not be further away from the armed checkpoints that surround Bourj el-Barajneh—a group of strangers has made it their mission to sponsor her family and bring them to Canada, despite never seeing her face or hearing her voice. All they know is her name, and that she and her three kids, living somewhere in Lebanon, are among the many millions of Syrian refugees who fled for their lives.

A single, sickening image—a three-year-old boy dead on a beach, when British Columbia could have been home—became a nationwide rallying cry. Hundreds of private sponsorship groups mobilized in a matter of days, each one determined to rescue the next Alan Kurdi.

Near the end of the call, Amal asks a question: “Who is doing this for me?”

A collection of families, Serout replies, explaining how the sponsorship group will cover her family’s first year of expenses in Canada. “They don’t care if you are a Muslim or not a Muslim,” he says.

“At last, we are humanity,” Amal answers. “There is no black or white.”

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