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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 badly dented.

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 says.

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 arithmetic.

As they reflect on their lives, the distance between the kids melts and they are sitting close to each other.

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 of joy.

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 to 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 it.

"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 oatmeal."

Overwhelming Need

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 he needs.

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 her saying.

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 resources.

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 with."

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 it evokes.

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 Ghana.

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 dark.

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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