Their New World Refugees Of Faraway Wars Are Being
Resettled Here. They Have Hope And Fear, And Feel Very Blessed.
December 26, 2004
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Some of the food is looking a little
past its prime at the Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services
food pantry on Market Street in Hartford. Some boxes of pasta are
ragged, many tomatoes and bananas are well past ripe, some cans
But Sister Dorothy Strelchun is handing
it out to the Somali and Liberian refugees like it's manna from
heaven. And the refugees accept it like the treasure it is. Sometimes,
she says, they even horde it - keeping pounds and pounds of pasta
or rice under their beds or in a closet.
Perspective is everything. Starving
children in Africa isn't a something mothers here lecture their
children about to get them to eat their peas. It's what kept these
mothers awake at night in Africa's warring nations as they worried
about finding the next meal for their children.
Viewpoint colors the immigrants' definition
of danger, too. Ibrahim Omar Abdi, a 16-year-old freshman at Hartford
Public High School, watched his mother die of stab wounds in the
Kenyan refugee camp where he lived from the time he was 4 years
old. His father died in Somalia.
He is all smiles in the Catholic Charities
food pantry. Listen to him talk a minute or two and you will hear
him describe his apartment on South Marshall Street, a dicey area
known for its drug trade, as a palace.
"My house is white. It's clean.
Everything is good," he's saying, grinning broadly.
The most special room is the bathroom,
he thinks, because it has running water and a shower. In the refugee
camp in Kenya - where he lived until his recent arrival in Hartford
- he used a bucket of water if he wanted to wash up.
"Everybody sees you," he
Figuring out how to use the toilet,
the shower, light switches, utensils, the stove - it's important
to learn not to start fires in the oven - are all part of the orientation
that caseworkers give on the refugees' first day here.
Acclimating to the weather is tricky,
too. Last weekend, neighbors of a Somali family on South Marshall
Street called the police after seeing children playing outside without
shoes or coats. "They see the sun and they think it's warm
outside," Sister Dorothy says. Police took the children to
the hospital and the state Department of Children and Families ultimately
brought them home. The event was terrifying for the refugees, Sister
Dorothy says. "It's a learning curve."
The U.S. Department of State is settling
12,000 Somali Bantus throughout the nation. It chose Hartford as
a destination for some of the refugees "based on the comprehensive
program we have here," Sister Dorothy says. "We have a
very good track record in terms of employment and we have youth
activities for the children and offer educational support. Many
volunteers assist in mentoring and tutoring."
At first blush, Hartford's newest immigrants
- about 30 families each from Liberia and Somalia - appear to have
little in common with each other.
The Liberians are Christian, speak
English and French and wear mostly Western dress. Liberia was formed
in the 1800s by freed American slaves, so some of America's ways
are prevalent there.
The Somalis, from the Bantu tribe,
are Muslim, speak Somali and a little Swahili; the women and girls
wear long drapes of fabric and cover their heads with flowing, colorful
scarves. The Bantus, originally brought to Somalia from other East
African countries as slaves two centuries ago, were caught between
warring clans when war broke out in Somalia 14 years ago.
Dress, language and culture aside,
the Liberians and Somalis blend as a single people as they sit together
in the waiting room at the food pantry, scarred by years of war
and facing years more of a new struggle to find their way in America.
Like A Jug Of Mazola Oil
Nasra Ali is cooking chicken with rice
in Maryan Mohamed Hassan's new apartment on Adelaide Street. Maryan,
29, is afraid of the electric stove and Nasra, who emigrated from
Somalia years ago and now works as a caseworker, is attempting to
make the stove seem less intimidating.
All her life, Maryan cooked on a fire
that she made with wood. But this stove contraption is just too
mysterious. "As soon as we turn it on, there is fire,"
she says through Ali to explain why she won't go near the thing.
Maryan won't use forks, either. "I
know this one with four fingers," she says of a fork. "But
I don't use this four fingers. I use only a spoon."
Her youngest children still sit on
the floor and eat with their hands as they did back home.
Maryan's husband, Aden Mohamed Dagane,
won't use the shower. It seems too strange to him.
With the family gathered around Nasra
in the kitchen, Aden is leaning on the wall, half sitting on the
kitchen table. He looks as forlorn as can be.
Aden is wearing the winter coat that
Catholic Charities gave him, and still he's cold. He wants to turn
the heat up to 80 or 90 degrees, but Nasra won't let him because
of the cost and because she doesn't think so much dry heat will
be good for the couple's four children.
A window is open. It doesn't occur
to Aden that this lets the heat out, because heat doesn't fly away
in places such as Somalia and Kenya.
But this issue of the heat is not what's
really bothering Aden. He is overwhelmed by Nasra's chatter with
a reporter in English. First of all, he can't understand what the
reporter does. He has never seen a newspaper. So the notebook and
pen are intimidating. But the English language is even more intimidating.
Aden, 32, can't understand a word of it.
He wants to explain how he feels. He
holds up a jug of Mazola cooking oil and says that he feels like
he is the same as the jug. "I go outside," he says. "There
is nowhere I know. I cannot ask any questions. I am just like this
container. I love to work for my family. I don't want to just get
up and wait and go to sleep."
"You will learn," Nasra tells
him in Somali. "Look at me. I came from Somalia and I learned."
Aden is not comforted. "It will
take a long time. I never went to school. I was a farmer. I never
went to a city."
No one in the family has ever been
to school. Maryan says that years ago, she tried to send her son,
Mohamed Ahmed, to school in Kenya. He is 11 now, the child of her
first husband, who died in the Kenyan refugee camp from wounds he
suffered in Somalia. But Mohamed was having nightmares and screamed
through the nights so he was too tired to go to school. Maryan withdrew
him. But as soon as he gets his immunizations here, she will enroll
him in school in Hartford.
As Nasra leaves, she promises to return
soon. There is a heavy silence in the apartment. There is no radio.
No television. No toys in sight. No decorations on the walls other
than curtains. No rug on the wood floor.
Nothing to read; no one can read anyway.
"We will be here like a stone,"
Aden says, "waiting for you."
Laughter And Remembering
The Somali teenagers are spread out
in a makeshift classroom in the state's former Democratic headquarters
on Franklin Avenue. It takes about a month or so for the students
to get all the immunizations they need for school and since most
of them have never attended school, Catholic Charities set up these
classrooms to get them acclimated to Western education.
Some of the students, along with their
parents, arrive without ever having held a pencil. The Liberian
students enroll immediately in neighborhood schools and so do some
of the Somalis who know a little English. The rest of the Somalis
attend a new arrival center set up for them at Martin Luther King
Elementary School so they can study in Somali and learn English
together. Principals say the elementary-age students adjust well
and may catch up with their peers, but the high school students
struggle, particularly in math because they never learned basic
As they reflect on their lives, the
distance between the kids melts and they are sitting close to each
Their dress betrays the wonder they
apparently feel each morning. The girls are wearing graceful drapes
of cloth to their ankles of summer-weight cotton. Clearly, though,
someone gave them the American standard bluejeans and sneakers when
they arrived. Rather than choose, the girls put them on, too. The
style is African and American all at once.
But it isn't the unique dress that
stands out here. It isn't even the details of the horror that each
has witnessed. It's the laughter that's so startling - at least
the timing of it, coming as it does after the horrible tales are
recounted. These giggles seem more like tears than little expressions
Mohamed Omer tells his story first.
He's a strapping 14-year-old with a long, rough scar on his neck.
His mother was killed in Somalia before he fled, he says, and he
doesn't know whether his father is alive or dead. An uncle brought
him to Kenya.
It's the explanation of his scar that
sets the other children off laughing.
As he tells it, he was in the refugee
camp riding his bike to his job cleaning a hospital when a gang
grabbed him, slit his throat and took his bike.
Why the laughter? The kids don't say.
A caseworker later suggests that Mohamed might have told a fib about
how he got that scar. Apparently his explanation varies from time
But it seems more likely that the giggles
are nervous laughter. It doesn't seem to faze Mohamed. And he's
come up with a way to deal with his past - he doesn't think about
"If I think, I cry."
Bali Ahmed induces nervous laughter,
too. "They killed my father and my grandfather in front of
me," the 17-year-old says through an interpreter, recounting
the day in Somalia when a band of rogue killers came to his house.
"They said, `You have money and
a gun,'" Bali says, giggles spreading through the group. His
father denied having either. "They beat him up to see if he
was telling the truth. Then they shot him."
Bali says he was too young at the time
to remember the event, but his uncle keeps the story alive for him.
"The last day of happiness with
my father, he gave me 100 shillings for allowance and two cups of
Robert E. Long is sitting at a Farmington
Avenue coffee shop sipping a cup of tea. He's the chairman now of
the city's school board and he's worrying about how to make the
state legislature understand the demands on his teachers, the money
Principals adore the new students arriving
from Somalia and Liberia.
They're respectful and eager to learn.
But they're years behind their peers and everybody's watching those
almighty standardized test scores to see if the school district
is worthy of extra infusions of cash, to say nothing of keeping
the funding it already receives.
There's a tide of resentment running
through the state's suburban legislators this year; a feeling that
Hartford has gotten its share of state funding and now it's the
suburbs' turn for some help.
Long talked about the refugees at a
recent meeting he attended at the Capitol Region Education Council.
A colleague from a wealthy suburb felt sympathy for the city and
for the refugees. "We can take a family," Long recalls
Long was incredulous.
How to make the suburban neighbors
who help control the purse strings understand that Hartford has
hundreds of new refugees, with more to come after New Year's Day?
How to make the neighbors understand that the refugees need to be
together and they need to be in a place that offers public transportation?
And that the city and the school district need lots of money to
help them - on top of trying to educate the many families who already
live here in poverty? These are the questions troubling Long now.
He has company around the country.
The mayor of Lewiston, Maine, famously pleaded publicly for Somali
families to stop moving to his town after more than 1,200 Somalis
settled into the city of 37,000 and seriously strained the town's
If only the suburbs could understand
Hartford's challenge, the city might get the help it needs, Long
says. "They don't understand the scope of what we're dealing
On Darkness And Taxes
Alice Danso sighs as she opens her
apartment door on the third floor. Her despairing breath is audible
in the first-floor entry, her pain palpable and worthy of the dread
Retreating into her small living room
on Franklin Avenue, the 38-year-old Liberian sinks low on the sofa
left behind by a former tenant.
Alice's thoughts are thousands of miles
and years away, dwelling on the last time she saw her husband, Foster,
before he disappeared in the Ivory Coast.
Her story is a dark one. She tells
it with her voice low, more matter-of-fact than passionate.
In Liberia, she was a happy bride.
The framed picture from her wedding is testament to that. So are
the four children she bore there. Her fifth, Junior, came later.
But Alice's father worked for the government
and when war broke out, he was among the first killed. Insurgents
then set his house on fire and her younger brother and sister died
in the blaze.
She and Foster gathered their children
and her mother and younger sister and fled on foot in 1990. They
made their way to a refugee camp in Guinea.
They were sheltered there for six years,
but then war broke out in Guinea, and the Liberians were blamed.
"They were hunting Liberians to
kill them," she says.
They took off again, this time for
the treacherous journey to the Ivory Coast. The family stayed off
the roads, traveling only at night, stealing food from farms along
the way and living in fear.
"We had no pots. We just made
a fire," says Alice's 16-year-old daughter, Mardea, a sophomore
at Bulkeley High School. "Sometimes we had no food. We had
to eat sweet potato leaves that we found on the farms just to survive."
In the Ivory Coast, the family found
shelter in a United Nations refugee camp. They lived in a large,
single-room building with about 100 other people. Residents couldn't
leave their clothes or bed mats unattended or they would be stolen.
The room was loud and privacy nonexistent.
The only food distributed to the refugees
was cornmeal and buckwheat. "You cannot live on cornmeal and
buckwheat," Alice says, a trace of outrage lacing her voice.
When war broke out in the Ivory Coast,
residents were warned to stock up on enough food to get them through
at least a month without going outside.
With little food or water, the Dansos
were bracing to die.
"My father said, `I cannot watch
my family die,'" Mardea says.. "He went out to find food
and it was the last time we saw him."
That was Oct. 16, 2002.
When the Dansos got permission to come
to America, Alice registered Foster as missing, then left with a
heavy heart. The family arrived in Hartford in February. Alice made
regular calls to her church in Liberia, asking if anyone had seen
her husband. Always "no."
Until November, that is. That was when
word came that he was alive, in Ghana. It took some weeks more to
get a phone number for him. Then, on Dec. 4, Alice and her children
heard a voice they long thought was gone.
How did Alice feel? She shakes her
hand, puts her hand on her stomach.
Foster told the family that a group
of men abducted him and drove him a long distance to fight in the
war. "He had a little money in his pocket," Alice says,
and bribed them for his freedom. But he was too scared to travel
back through the country to the refugee camp and went instead to
Alice is desperate to bring her husband
to Hartford, but she can't think of how to do that. After a few
obvious suggestions, Alice explains why her thinking is so addled.
"I'm depressed. I'm confused. ... I'm thinking about my husband.
I'm thinking about what we're going to eat."
Despite her depression, Alice gets
up every day to go through a training program she found to be a
home health aide. She looks forward to working. But for now she
frets about how to repay the $4,000 loan she took out to pay for
her family's airfare to America and worries that no one will lend
her husband money if she doesn't begin making her payments.
While she worries about money, Alice
can't help enumerating little miracles in her life. There are the
food stamps and $800 a month in government aid. And Hartford's free
public schools - a godsend. She even looks forward to paying her
taxes once she begins working as a home health aide. "That
is the main way to contribute to the welfare of this country, through
taxes," she says. "I want to contribute to the welfare
of this country. They did so much for my family."
Though the family's getting accustomed
to their new home, it's hard for Alice to let go of her fears. From
her perch on the couch, Alice points to the place she sleeps outside
her children's bedroom so she can protect them from danger in the
"They are my only riches I have
in the world."
Anyone who wishes to volunteer their
time or donate items can call 860-548-0059. Ask for Sister Dorothy.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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