Refugees thankful for new life in mid-Missouri; say they can never complain
COLUMBIA - Wars, persecution, diseases, poverty, hunger and loss - these were the hallmarks of life before America for many refugees living in mid-Missouri.
KOMU 8 News extensively interviewed eight refugee families from six countries. They said, before coming to the U.S., they knew life here, while considerably improved, would not be “heaven on earth.”
They said their tough beginnings prepared them well for any challenges life throws at them – whether language barriers, culture shock, social isolation or a hectic schedule working multiple jobs day and night.
Pai San from Myanmar said the challenges of being a refugee in the United States pale in comparison to what came before.
“You don’t have to worry about killing. Right now, we just have to worry about a bill,” he said. (Read more.)
According to statistics from the State Department, more than 3 million refugees from all over the world have arrived in the country since 1975.
About 26,329 - less than 1 percent - reside in Missouri, a report from New American Economy found.
Nicole Reimer, from refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, said mid-Missouri has been welcoming an average of about 130 refugees per year for decades, and almost all of them are resettled in Columbia and Sedalia.
According to the organization, the refugees came from nine countries: Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine and Ethiopia.
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
The State Department defines a refugee as someone who has fled their home country and cannot return because of a “well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
Reimer said refugees usually make their first stop in a neighboring country that has refugee camps set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refuges, UNHCR.
The refugees KOMU 8 News talked to said the living conditions in refugee camps are “unsafe,” “inhumane” and “crowded.” Many said they prayed almost every day for a chance to get out of the “jail-like” camps before they came to the U.S.
However, Reimer said it’s very rare for refugees to be granted an opportunity to move to a third country like the U.S.
Reimer said, after someone is assigned by UNHCR to the U.S. and goes through a “very strict” years-long selection process, they would then be assigned to a local community like Columbia or Sedalia.
She said, while some refugees made specific requests to come to mid-Missouri, a lot of them arrived knowing nothing about the community.
Ali Said (Iraq): From high school physics teacher to hotel maintenance worker
Ali Said and his wife in Columbia six months after their family arrived
Ali Said’s family didn’t have much with them when they first arrived in Columbia in March 2010.
The family of three came with no friends, no money, and no luggage except for “shirts and trousers.” They spoke only a few words of English.
Said's family lost all of their old photographs during moving, but they were happy to let go of the memories of the past, he said. They were just looking for a “peace city” - somewhere that is small and quiet, he said.
Said graduated from a university in Baghdad in 1988, and went on to teach high school physics for 15 years. His wife was an elementary school principal. He said education was a key component in their family life.
He said life back then was good, and he misses those days in Iraq from time to time.
“If we talk about after that? No, I’m never going to miss it,” he said.
When the war broke out in 2003, he was pressured to stop his career.
“The new government there, they did not like who’s from the old staff,” he said.
After being forced out of his academic position, he eventually took on a construction job with the U.S. military.
He said his family did not think about leaving the country until after the civil war began in 2006, and they made the decision to flee within just hours.
“I'm picking my daughter up at the school, and they shoot our car. So, I know, okay, it’s done,” he said.
According to Statista, an online statistics portal, the number of documented civilian deaths in Iraq peaked in 2006 at more than 29,000 casualties.
The Said family got on a bus in the middle of the night and headed for Syria.
“We did not know who’s going to stop us, what’s going to happen. Maybe we were going to die,” Said explained.
He said they witnessed killings on the streets and the 500-mile highway journey seemed never-ending.
When the family finally settled down in Syria, they decided not to check into a refugee camp. Instead, they paid “very, very expensive” rent for a small apartment for the next four years just so their daughter could grow up in a decent environment.
Said noted he had to work illegally, and his small wages barely offset the high cost of living.
“They pay me, you can say, exactly in that time $1 per hour,” he said. “Some days, I worked 18 hours in a day to bring some money.”
However, the allure of the United States was always in the back of his mind.
“The American Dream – you need to work hard; you need to build your life,” he said.
Now in his 40s, Said said he is proud of himself for having brought his family to a new country and started a new career.
“Now in my age, I feel I did good,” he said.
Back in 2010, after a lengthy screening process and seven interviews, the Said family resettled in Columbia, a city he chose for its small-town size and international vibe.
“There is a big university, and this big university is bringing students from everywhere in the world. So I know this city accepting the stranger very easy,” he said.
In the family’s early days in the city, Said used to work two jobs for about 14 hours a day at a hotel in Jefferson City and at Hampton Inn and Suites in Columbia, where he still works today.
“I went morning there, do the job, returned back at 3, started nightshift, and I worked this like one year,” he said.
His wife also traveled between Jefferson City and Columbia working two jobs.
Today, Said has been promoted to engineering assistant at Hampton Inn and Suites, and his wife is now a housekeeping manager at Stoney Creek Hotel & Conference Center. Their daughter studies at MU and plans to attend medical school.
Said said he is, indeed, living the American Dream.
“The honest thing between you and yourself you need to think about: ‘Okay, this country is my country now.’”
He said he is thankful for the coworkers who have helped him in many ways.
“We are there like a family – from the general manager to the assistants, to the front desk, to housekeeping,” he said.
He said he never wanted to quit working at the hotel for other jobs with better pay.
“I’m doing this, not to get the paycheck after two weeks, I’m doing this because this is, like, my hotel,” he said.
A teacher at heart, he misses being in the classroom. He said, sometimes, he has to remind himself to stop acting like a teacher to other coworkers.
“I’m not a teacher, and they are not students,” he said, laughing.
He said his way of figuring out life in a new country is to “not depend on anyone.”
“You know, everything can be very difficult, but you can make it easy,” he said.
Said said his family’s stable income and good credit history have earned them a house.
“From work, you know a lot of people. From work, you know what you need to plan for your future. From work, your kids are going to learn, ‘Okay, this is my dad; this is mom; I’m going to do the same thing,” he said. “If they find me sleeping on the sofa doing nothing, they’re going to learn the same thing.”
He said his family has run into some roadblocks over the years, but they always resort to the “no complain” strategy.
“You can go with the positive things. If you are going to compare with the negative things, you are going to feel hard to live this life; you are going to lose your identity,” he said.
Said said he does not mind people asking about his past, and "where are you from?" is a question he gets a lot. He said he always tells them he is a proud American.
“Your country is not the country you were born in,” he said. “What country give you the peace? What country give you the good life? What country have a good people? And that’s what you find here,” he said.
Pai San (Myanmar): After growing up in the jungle, he said, “I have never gone to school.”
Pai San with his wife and daughters
Pai San moved to Columbia with his wife and two teenage daughters in January 2012. He said he was already in his early forties, and had spent 19 years living in a refugee camp after escaping Myanmar’s military government.
He said, since he was three years old, his family had been on the move across the countryside and through forests, evading the government.
Pai San with his mother, siblings and niece near the Myanmar-Thai border
According to a medical report by EthnoMed, tension between the Karen minority and Burmese majority had been building up since the late 1800s, when the British colonized the area.
The report said the conflict intensified during World War II as the Karen decided to align with the British and the Burmese with Japan.
“With the Japanese invasion of Burma, many atrocities were committed against the Karen by the Burmese as well as by the Japanese,” the report said.
San said, after WWII, Karen villagers like his family continued to be target of ethnic violence and intimidation, and those suspected of aiding Karen guerrillas were sometimes killed.
“We never worked with the Karen army, but we stayed in the Karen army area,” he said.
Pai San with his friend near the Myanmar-Thai border
San said his family lived in hiding deep in the jungle and had to “move all the time.” When the family was occasionally able to settle down in a place, they would start a farm, growing lemons and raising chickens and cows.
“We could never be in a city. We just stayed in the jungle. We never saw electricity. We just took shower in the river and cooked with wood. We never saw the city,” he said.
San said, growing up, he worked on his family’s farm, drank from rivers, and education was never an option for him.
“I have never gone to school, because, you know, I had to move all the time,” he said.
San's family did not have citizenship and he said the lack of legal status meant there was little medical care available to Karen families, and the only hospitals they could go to were in Thailand.
According to Human Rights Watch, thousands of Karen have fled to Thailand because of human rights violations in Myanmar, such as “forced re-settlement and labor, incarceration, denial of political representation and citizenship status rights.”
San said he checked into a refugee camp along the Myanmar border in Thailand in 1993 when he was in his early twenties. He said he would never forget about his time in the camp, where he got married, raised two daughters and was confined to one area for almost two decades, fearing for security.
Pai San and his wife in a refugee camp in Thailand
Human Rights Watch said, “Camps at the border were becoming increasingly closed and offered minimal or no protection to the refugees, either from cross-border attacks" or from forcible returns to Myanmar. The report said "respect for the refugees’ most basic human rights often could not be guaranteed.”
San said he felt like a free man for the first time when his family arrived in Columbia.
After four flights and an entire day of traveling in the winter of 2012, the Sans joined about 15 other Karen refugee families in Columbia. San said the English language was as foreign to his family as the community.
San said he learned English at work. He has worked several different jobs since his arrival. He was a housekeeper at Hampton Inn & Suites for a year, then an overnight stocker at Walmart for almost four years. Last year, he started working at Veterans United Home Loans as an overnight cleaner.
Pai San now works at Veterans United Home Loans as an overnight cleaner
His work day starts at 6 p.m. and ends at 2 a.m.
“When I’m working late nights, I never complain. I just keep going with my work, my job,” he said.
San said his upbringing has taught him all too well the importance of hard work.
“I like working, because, you know, working at Walmart, I never called in [sick]. Almost four years, I never called in, because I need money,” he said.
San said his experience in Columbia may be distinct from those of other immigrants’.
“When we lived over there in the village, in the jungle, we had to pay nothing like a house bill, water bill, gas bill - we never had to pay that. We don’t have nothing to worry about there,” he said. “But when we are here, I have to pay house bill, water, gas, everything - like toilet paper.”
He said his family has had no problem adjusting to their new life.
“Sometimes, makes [me feel], ‘Oh, different, very different.’ But, we’ve got a job. We can do that. I think better than we stay over there, because we don’t have to be afraid of anything,” he said.
Mohammed Kali (Somalia): Child labor and abuse didn’t stop his lifetime longing for school.
Mohammed Kali flew into Columbia in the middle of a summer night in 2016 by himself. He said he’s no stranger to being alone, and has been taking care of himself since he was a teenager.
Born in Somalia, he said he knows nothing about the country because he only lived there until he was three.
When the civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, his father took him to Kenya, where he stayed for the next two decades.
“All of my life, I lived in Kenya,” he said.
Kali and his father built a new life there. His father did not want to move into a refugee camp and instead became a truck driver in the city.
Kali said, as a child, he rarely saw his dad, who was always out on the road. Kali lived mostly with his aunt, and was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to school through eighth grade.
He said, looking back now, he never questioned his dad about how hard it was to make money and to bring food back as a refugee parent without a legal work permit.
“I never asked him that. I never asked him that,” he said.
It didn’t take Kali too long to know the answer.
He said his life turned upside down when his dad was diagnosed with a cardiovascular condition that required him to work reduced hours. As his health deteriorated, the doctor warned him to stay home and eat “nutritious food that we couldn’t afford,” Kali said.
He said his father told the doctor, "Okay, okay, but I have a child. I can’t stop. Nobody can help my child.”
Kali said, after he overheard his dad call a friend to borrow money only to be met with rejection, he decided it was time.
He dropped out of school without telling his dad and started waiting tables at restaurants illegally. He was 13.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Kenya’s Employment Act sets the minimum age for employment at 16; however, by 2013, an estimate of 2,943,310 - 32.5 percent of - children between ages of 5 and 14 were working.
Kali said his dad thought he was leaving home for school every morning.
“I never tell him that I'm working, but I had to, because we don't have other choice,” he said.
Kali said his hard work didn’t pay off well; he only made about 150 Kenyan shillings - less than $2 - for at least 12 hours of work every day.
“In Africa, you work 6 to 6,” he said. “Sometimes, you work overnight.”
His salary was only enough to buy food, and the only medication he could afford for his dad was painkillers. He said, even with the little he had to bring back, his dad was worried he was stealing.
“He asked me ‘Where did you get this money?’ I just said that my friends gave me,” he said.
His father never knew he was abused at work.
“Even if you get tired and stop working, they can slap you and say, ‘Go back to work.’ I have to do it because I don't have other option,” he said.
Kali said many of his coworkers were underage, too, and their bosses never had patience for a child’s tantrum. He said anyone crying would end up getting fired.
He said sometimes he just wanted to yell back at the managers, “You don’t have to do that. I’m a human just like you."
"But, if you are children, you can’t do it. You can’t do it,” he said.
Kali said his dad eventually found out he had quit school.
“I said ‘What else am I gonna do? We don’t have nobody help us,’” he said. “And then, he just, he just cried.”
Kali said he didn’t realize how life could get even worse, and he was about to lose the little he had: his dad and their home.
His dad died of a heart attack in 2005. After savings ran out, Kali knocked on the doors or his dad's friends asking for help, but they turned him away one by one. He said they suggested he take a bus and move into a refugee camp.
“They just gave me a small amount of money, and they gave me a ticket. They gave me the address of that camp,” he said.
Kali said he hopped on a bus to spend the next 11 years living on food rations in a camp “that’s like a jail.”
Mohammed Kali in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya
He said the camp only provided refugees with a small amount of food every day along with essential medicines, and he had to find ways to make money to buy clothing and other supplies.
He said the only good thing about the camp was that he was able to enroll in a refugee school to quench his years-long thirst for knowledge.
However, he said, unlike other refugee children living with families, he had to soon drop out again after realizing he didn’t have enough money to pay for life essentials.
He then spent the rest of his time at the camp working at an electric company seven days a week, at a salary of 100 Kenyan shillings - less than $1 - a day.
After years of living “a difficult life” with dim hopes, Kali said, he had “the happiest day of his life” when the UNHCR office told him he was selected as a candidate for resettlement in the U.S.
Mohammed Kali with his friend in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya
Kali said the office told him, “‘We know that the USA is a better place for you. We work with the USA, and USA will take care of you.'”
He said it was the first time in the many years since his dad passed away that he heard someone “will take care of” him.
He said he was speechless for a moment and ran out of the office and began crying.
“I came back and I said, ‘You guys are my father and my mother,’” he said.
Kali didn’t know anyone in the U.S. at that time. When he found out he was assigned to a city named Columbia, all he could picture were the skyscrapers he saw in the movies.
He said he’s glad he was wrong.
“Columbia is a nice place,” he said. “Quiet streets with nobody walking. It’s not like Africa. Africa is like busy morning. Everybody is moving.”
He said his life in Columbia has been “more than perfect.” He now works as an overnight cleaner at University Hospital from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. every weekday.
He said he loves working overnight.
“Because I plan to continue to learn, to go to school. So nighttime working is good for me,” he said.
Still, at times, he questions if going back to school is realistic.
“I can’t go to school, because even now, I have to pay house, food, things like that. I don’t know. I can’t.” he said.
At other times, he laments quitting school early.
“First grade to eighth grade, then after that, I never have the chance to go to high school,” he said.
He hopes to apply to Columbia College one day for a bachelor’s degree, and then to MU for his master’s.
“I’d like to go to Columbia College. I can’t stop dreaming. I always dream higher. My dream is high. Columbia College, and then University of Missouri,” he said.
Measho Gebrezgabhier (Eritrea): Fled indefinite forced conscription "to save my life"
Measho Gebrezgabhier with his uncle, mother and a neighbor's child
Measho Gebrezgabhier came to Columbia alone in March 2016.
He said he does not have many living relatives. His father passed away when he was little; his mother still lives in his home country of Eritrea; and his brother is in a refugee camp in Sudan.
He lived in Eritrea until after he graduated college in 2007. He said for about 18 months before graduation, he was mandated by law to join the “national service.”
According to a report from Human Rights Watch, Eritrean citizens face “an indeterminate period of national service” after turning 18, and the length of service could be as long as “well over a decade,” despite the legal limit of 18 months.
The report said some Eritreans in national service are assigned to “civil service positions” to work as teachers, medical professionals, etc., while others are “placed in military units” as “forced laborers on private and public works projects.”
“Conscripts are subjected to 72-hour work weeks, severe arbitrary punishment, rape by commanders if female, and grossly inadequate food rations,” the report said.
Gebrezgabhier said he was assigned to teach chemistry at a high school. He said like any other high schools in the country, his students were required to complete both “pre-college courses” and mandatory military training.
Measho Gebrezgabhier used to be a chemistry teacher
He said the school operated in a “problematic” and “militaristic” way. He said all students and teachers had to live in dorms with a strict curfew and were only allowed to take bathroom breaks at certain times during the day.
“The same time for all the teachers. We had to go [to the bathrooms] at the same time, and we had to come back at the same time,” he said.
He said, even on the weekend when school closed, the teachers couldn’t leave the campus without “permission papers.”
“For our right of movement, we don’t have a right to move to some places in the weekends when the work was off,” he said.
He said many faculty members expressed their dissatisfaction, but only five or six of them – including himself - took the lead in voicing opposition openly. As a result, the ones who protested were arrested.
He said he eventually found a way to escape to Sudan in October 2007.
“I decided to escape from their control to save my life,” he said.
The Human Rights Watch report said “the threat of indefinite military conscription” has caused thousands of young Eritreans to escape every month" At one point, about 12 percent of Eritrea’s population had fled the country.
After Gebrezgabhier’s arrival in Sudan, he spent about two months waiting for the approval of his refugee status, and then he headed straight to the capital city Khartoum without even considering staying at the refugee camp.
“The refugee camp was not safe,” he said. “There is not any proper supply of food. I need to work. To get the food, I had to work. There was no work in that area.”
He said there were also cases where the Eritrean government had abducted refugees from the camps because there was no security services protecting them and anyone could “cross the border easily.”
He said this decision paved a good path for his life in the following eight years. He was able to find a job teaching chemistry at a refugee school in Khartoum.
Measho Gebrezgabhier's class in the Khartoum refugee school
When Gebrezgabhier found out he had been chosen to resettle in the U.S., he was ecstatic. By that time, he had been using his language skills to help other refugees with their applications to resettle in countries like Canada and Australia.
Measho Gebrezgabhier with his friends in Sudan
Like most children in his home country, Gebrezgabhier grew up learning English. He started in first grade. Although he had been teaching in English for years, he said it wasn’t easy for him to blend in when he arrived in Columbia.
“My English is not the same. The English that I know, the accent of English that I know is not the same,” he said.
He now works overnight and weekends delivering pizza for Domino’s. He said it took him a while to get used to how things work here.
“It is too different from my culture. They have big difference,” he said. “Everything is by computer - online orders, work, applications. The computer can be a good friend here, but back home, it’s not like that.”
He said, although he “still acts like an Eritrean” from time to time, he is finding his way around the Columbia community.
He said he doesn’t appreciate it when people referred to him as a refugee.
“I don’t feel good when they call me ‘refugee’ actually. I don’t feel good,” he said.
The epicenter of “one of the world’s biggest displacement crises”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen little respite from strife in more than two decades. Several ongoing conflicts involve multiple armed groups of different nationalities, ethnicities and ideologies, according to Eastern Congo Initiative.
KOMU 8 News spoke to three families from Congo to hear the challenges they faced in coming to the U.S.
Nelson Kahebwa (Congo): His family fled after experiencing their "worst moment"
Nelson Kahebwa now works at Kraft Foods in Columbia. About 10 years ago when he was in his early twenties, he was an electrician and taxi driver in South Kivu, a province in eastern Congo.
Nelson Kahebwa at Kraft Foods in Columbia
He said he and his family couldn't bring themselves to leave everything behind until they experienced their “worst moment.”
“It’s the time that they took my father and he didn’t come back. I think he was killed, because we didn’t see him again, from that time,” he said.
Kahebwa's mother and his father’s two other wives were also at home that day, but the rebels only took his father away. He said, even to this day, his family does not know what happened.
“I don’t know they took him for which reason. And he didn’t come back. But we knew that he was killed,” he said.
Nelson Kahebwa's father
According to East African Monitor, “inter-ethnic violence between security forces and armed militias” have displaced more than a million people in Congo.
A report from UNHCR said refugees from South Kivu were fleeing “forced recruitment, direct violence and other abuses by armed groups.”
Kahebwa said, “When the gun is hitting, everyone is afraid, and you have to leave everything and go.”
He said he wants people to know that Western countries also played a part in South Kivu’s regional conflict.
He said his home province is famous for its mines of gold, diamonds and coltan, a key mineral used in cell phones and other electronic devices. Rebel armies fight over the control of natural resources, especially coltan. They are mainly sold to foreign countries like the U.S.
According to WilderUtopia, the international trade of coltan has helped fund “domestic militia and foreign armies, prolonging the war crimes and human rights abuses committed there over many years.”
Kahebwa said, “The country up to now, there’s no peace. Up to now, they are still fighting - over 20 years.”
The Dhenyi family (Congo): "Very thankful" for their life in the U.S.
Another family KOMU 8 News spoke to comes from a province in northeastern Congo named Ituri.
Tsedha Dhenyi now resides in Columbia with his wife, five children and his brother’s family. Due to Tsedha’s limited English, the interview with him was translated by his nephew, Bahati Dhenyi.
Tsedha Dhenyi with his wife and children in Columbia
Bahati Dhenyi said the situation in Ituri is different from the conflict in South Kivu.
“[Ituri] had a tribal war, a tribal war,” he said.
Cattle herders and farmers were in a constant battle for control of the land.
Bahati Dhenyisaid his uncle Tsedha used to be own a small business. Bahati Dhenyisaid was also a “hygiene promoter” at a local nonprofit, teaching townspeople about keeping clean.
Tsedha Dhenyi said, “I feared that I could lose my life, so I had to run away, because the war was too much.”
Bahati Dhenyi said, although he was only 5 years old when his family left Ituri, he still remembers “many people running away” and “people being killed.”
On June 20, 2003, around 8 p.m. - a time and date the Dhenyi family said they will never forget - they started their journey in a fishing boat across Lake Albert to Uganda.
The Gisonga family (Congo): "We fled because our entire village was burned down"
The third family KOMU 8 News interviewed is also from the resource-rich province of South Kivu: the Gisongas.
Beatrice Ayinkamiye Gisonga with her mother and nephew
Beatrice Ayinkamiye Gisonga, 20, said she spent almost her entire childhood at war and was only 11 years old when her family escaped from South Kivu in 2009.
Data suggest many Congolese women fall victim to both domestic and “conflict-associated” violence.
A report from Amnesty International said, “Armed militias and members of state forces are notorious for brutal gang rapes as well as sexual and human trafficking.”
Beatrice Gisonga and her sister, Malikia Mwamikazi Gisonga, both said they are “very thankful” they never had to face the brutality of war and gender discrimination on their own, because their family was by their side.
They said the worst experience they had in Congo was to watch their house and entire village burn down to the ground.
The loss of their home prompted a move to Uganda, where difficult living conditions awaited.
Three families displaced: The move to refugee camps
UNHCR said Congo is among "the world’s biggest displacement crises.” Joining about 5 million displaced Congolese, the three families started new life in refugee camps.
The Kahebwa family moved to Malawi, while both the Gisongas and the Dhenyis moved to Uganda.
Kahebwa said the eight years he spent in the Malawi camp were “very, very hard.”
“It’s not easy because there’s no job. You have to find out how you can survive,” he said.
Kahebwa said he had to build a house by himself and received only limited food and supplies from UNHCR.
“Some months, if they want, they can give you one soap,” he said. “Cooking oil, so one cup [for] the whole family for a month. Not even a week; a month.”
After getting married in the camp, Kahebwa said he had to maintain a source of income instead of solely relying on UNHCR.
Nelson Kahebwa and his wife got married in the Malawi camp
“I was trying to do some business, like small business,” he said.
He went on many 1,300-mile cross-continent trips from Malawi to Uganda and brought back clothing and jewelry to sell.
Nelson Kahebwa in Uganda
He said he was risking his life sneaking out of the refugee camp every time.
“If they catch you outside, they can kill you; they can hit you; they can put you in jail, because you went against the law,” he said.
According to There is Hope Malawi, policies that regulate the refugees’ movement and right to employment make it hard to earn a living outside the camp.
“Therefore, the majority of refugees are completely reliant on food aid and other external assistance for survival,” it said.
The Gisonga family said similar things about living as refugees in Uganda.
Beatrice Gisonga said, during the nine years there, her family didn’t live in a camp. She said, since they arrived in Uganda in 2009, they rented their own housing, and UNHCR didn’t provide help.
“They don’t help you,” she said. “It’s not easy to get food there. To make money there, it’s hard.”
She said she finished high school at age 16 and started working at a dairy store selling milk. She said, although she worked 10 to 13 hours each day, she only made about $50 a month, while her family’s monthly rent could get as high as $100.
By contrast, the Dhenyi family had a positive experience during their 13 years in a Ugandan camp.
Bahati Dhenyi said life wasn’t very difficult for the family because his uncle managed to become “more successful” financially than many other refugees.
He said, when they first arrived in 2003, they were assigned a plot of land in the camp to farm.
“Then from farming, they got some money and make other business,” he said.
According to Bahati Dhenyi, his uncle Tsedha Dhenyi later opened a small store selling groceries and jewelry. He said the family business was doing so well they didn’t consider applying to move to a third country for the first 10 years.
After that, however, the refugee camp began to swell, and issues of overcrowding and limited funding continued to haunt the camp for years to come, he said.
Resettlement in America
All three families said they appreciate the opportunity to get out of the refugee camps and start a new chapter of their lives in Columbia.
Kahebwa said there was no room for life improvement at the camp, and living in the U.S. has been “amazing” and much easier.
“I came from a small house. There was no electricity for so many years. About five years, I could not see electricity. I was cooking on the wood,” he said. “In Africa, you could work so hard, but you could not get anything.”
He said now, for the first time in a long time, he can make plans and set a long term goal.
“Five years, I want to work hard in order to buy a house. You have vision to buy a house, because you are working, you can reach to that point,” he said.
Tsedha Dhenyi said, “I’m now earning good money - better than the wages, the job, the business I had in Uganda. So my life and living condition are better.”
Bahati Dhenyi said, “In Congo, they were in a bad condition, the war happens, people getting killed. But right now, where they live now in America, they live now good.”
Many members of the families now work either overnight or late night shifts.
Beatrice Gisonga works from 3:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. at an electric factory on the assembly line. Kahebwa works from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. at Kraft Foods, packaging hot dogs. Bahati Dhenyi is an overnight assembly line worker and translator at Continental Commercial Products in Jefferson City.
Tsedha Dhenyi has been working two jobs for several months. By day, he cleans buses for the city of Columbia from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. By night, he works from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. cleaning a local store.
Bahati Dhenyi said his uncle barely gets any sleep during the week.
“He’s got two jobs because the wife does not work. Because when the wife was pregnant, she could not work,” he said.
He said his uncle used to be a successful businessman in Africa and only had to work three to four hours a day. He said, although his family members now have to work longer shifts, they find life more stable and secure.
“There’s no kind of problem. There’s no kind of war. They find life is a little bit easier,” he said.
Kahebwa said, “So you have to keep working, maybe until the end of your life.”
He said living as a refugee in the U.S. is so different than living in an African refugee camp that he no longer feels judged by his refugee identity.
“Refugee, the one who cannot even work, cannot do anything. Everything, he expects to get from someone,” he said. “In America, if you don’t have problem, you’ll stay free and peacefully - if you don’t have problems with others. It’s not difficult for those who work. It’s easy.”
Still, members of the Dhenyi and Gigonsa families said they can’t help but frequently flash back to the traumatic moments they suffered over the years.
Bahati Dhenyi said, “The one thing that they think most about is just the war in Congo and them losing the family that they had in Congo. So they lose lots of families.”
Patrick Kiruhura Gisonga, Beatrice Gisonga’s brother, said, “Being refugees is hard. It’s very hard. You live in a different country - Congo, Uganda, here. The most difficult thing to me is losing some relatives in the war.”
Patrick Gisonga and his mother Malikia Mwamikazi Gisonga both said, although they look forward to spending the rest of their lives in the U.S., they never once have stopped thinking about their home country.
Patrick Gisonga said, “I’m Congolese American. Because I still think about my country, and I hope I will be back anytime I can be back.”
Malikia Gisonga said, “I like my country, even though there is war. I was born there. Even though I am in America, I’m Congolese. I like America, because when we are coming, our family, they help our family each and every thing. But if possible, I’ll go to visit my home country.”
Bahati Dhenyi said he hopes the mainstream society would recognize many refugees’ struggles with past traumas and help them cope with feelings of isolation. He said, after all, Missouri is their new home, and they would like to feel welcomed and included.
“You know when you arrive, you are new to a new state. So it takes a while for you to get used to them, becoming friends with them,” he said.
The Kamarov family (Ukraine): "We are not the so-called ‘rich people’ who came here with money"
The Kamarov family in Ukraine
Ukrainian refugees have “a special place” in the heart of refugee services coordinator Nicole Reimer, and she said she loves working with them.
For years, Reimer’s organization has resettled Ukrainian refugees only in Sedalia. She said although her organization is located in Columbia, Sedalia’s “really strong” Ukrainian community has made it an ideal fit.
“So we are able to resettle them there despite it being an hour and a half away from Columbia because we know that they will take care of each other,” she said.
The Kamarov family is native of Kharkiv, a city in east Ukraine. Since their arrival in Sedalia this February, they sometimes find themselves feeling a little nostalgic about their old home.
As Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv is a beautiful city with lots of trees, parks, and it’s home to numerous universities, the family said.
The father of the family, Fedir Kamarov, 59, was an accountant and maintenance worker for a private school. The mother, Nadiia Kamarov, 59, was a busy homemaker who sewed clothes for her family and cooked great meals. Their six children all went to college and led successful careers back in Ukraine.
Nadiia Kamarov said only three of her children moved to Sedalia with her, while a daughter now lives in California and two sons are still stuck in Ukraine with their wives and children.
Fedir Kamarov with his sons who are still in Ukraine and youngest daughter Alina who's in Sedalia
The family did not arrive in the U.S. under the UNHCR program like all of the other families KOMU 8 spoke to. Instead, they entered the country as Lautenberg Parolees.
A New York Times report said the program, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, was created almost 30 years ago to benefit the Jewish and Christian minorities who suffered from religious persecution in the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia.
“That is a more lenient standard than for other refugee applicants, who must prove they face a well-founded fear of persecution,” the report found.
According to a 2016 report by Congressional Research Service, under the program, “less evidence is needed” for former Soviet and Indochinese nationals to prove refugee status and apply for green cards.
A 2017 State Department report said, “Around 70 percent of the Lautenberg caseload is from Ukraine.”
The Kamarov family is Baptist. Nadiia Kamarov said around four years ago, her sister, who now resides in the Sedalia area, offered to sponsor her family under the program that had benefited her sister’s family many years ago.
Although the family came to the U.S. as religious minority, the main reason for them to flee was the war.
The Kamarovs spoke with KOMU 8 in Ukrainian through interpreter Yelena Nadtochiy, daughter-in-law of Nadiia’s sister.
Fedir Kamarov said, “If war not gonna be there, we not gonna move here.”
A 2017 State Department report said the conflict between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists have “resulted in over 2 million people displaced from their homes.”
Nadiia Kamarov said, “We were very worried about our children and grandchildren.”
Alina Kamarov with her friends in Ukraine
She said when she and her husband had the chance to bring some of their children and grandchildren to the U.S., they couldn’t say no.
The family didn’t want to go into detail about what happened during the war and said, “It’s better to not remember bad things.”
“We were born in Ukraine. I met my husband there. We started a new family. Those are good things, and we talk about good things,” Nadiia Kamarov said. “We had a church there, and we had a lot of friends there. We had a good time there, too.”
Alina Kamarov with her friends in Ukraine
This February, Nadiia and Fedir Kamarov bid farewell to their two sons and embarked on a long-awaited journey to Sedalia.
Nadiia Kamarov had been teaching herself English for months by watching YouTube videos, and Fedir Kamarov was more excited than scared about the upcoming trip.
“Scared? Scared of what?” he said.
The family described Sedalia as a quiet city they liked at first sight, and said everyone here acts and drives respectfully.
“Here, people are more friendly,” the youngest daughter Alina Kamarov said of Sedalia. “In Ukraine, people are more sad, because it’s so hard to live there.”
Alina Kamarov with a friend who's in Ukraine and her sister who now lives in California
Almost hitting their 60s, Nadiia and Fedir Kamarov have decided to retire and start enjoying their post-war life here in Sedalia, while their three children and a daughter-in-law are actively seeking employment.
All college educated, the second generation used to work in fields ranging from education to beekeeping, from shoemaking to hairdressing. While some of them aspire to go back to their old professions one day, some would like to try something new.
Nadiia Kamarov said at this point, her kids would basically “take any job” that is available to them, because they need money.
“They are ready to work any jobs first,” she said.
She said her kids’ biggest barrier to finding jobs is their fairly meager English vocabulary. The four of them have been traveling 40 minutes to Marshall twice a week to take English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes.
“In Sedalia now, they don’t have any teacher for ESL class. That’s why they are going to Marshall to learn English. We would like to go in Sedalia to learn English,” she said.
Reimer said although her organization provides the same types of services to the Ukrainians in Sedalia, due to the long distance the case managers must travel, the services can sometimes be “a little limited.”
For example, the in-home language tutoring lessons that serve adult refugees in Columbia are not offered in Sedalia.
Reimer said after staff and budget cuts, her organization even had to cancel an English class that used to take place in her office building in Columbia.
Nadiia said if any Sedalia residents would be interested in teaching refugees English, her family would really appreciate the help. She said it doesn’t matter if the volunteers speak Ukrainian and Russian, because her kids’ teachers in Marshall do not know the languages either.
“People come to the U.S., the first thing that they need, they need English,” she said.
Both Reimer and the Karamov family said Ukrainian refugees are known for their commitment to helping family members in need.
Nadtochiy said her mother-in-law sponsored the Karamovs’ applications to come to the U.S., and when they arrived, a relative gifted them with a free car.
Nadtochiy said contrary to what many local people think, the Ukrainians are not “wealthy refugees” who came with resources. She said most of them fleeing violence arrived empty handed, and later went on to live good lives thanks to both family support and a frugal lifestyle.
“In Sedalia, some people think the government, they give us a lot of money and we are not doing anything here,” she said.
Fedir Karamov said, “I don’t agree with that. Because we are not rich people who came here with money and investments.”
He said each member of his family “came here with nothing” but two bags of clothes and some carry-ons.
Nadtochiy said, “We cook at home. We don’t buy things that we don’t need to. And we collect some money to have better cars, a good house. We are just working hard to have something.”
She said Ukrainian families cook all the time not for fun but for saving money, and it’s not uncommon for them to eat out only once every six months, while some of them keep a habit of canning food in winter to avoid buying pricey fresh food.
She said many Ukrainian refugees work humble, low-paying jobs at places like Tyson Foods, but they save almost every penny they make and “work very hard here to have that we have.”
“A lot of people are working at Tyson. You know, at Tyson, you can’t have a lot of money. But that people who working at Tyson, they have better cars than American people have. Why? Because they cook at home; they can [food] for the winter,” she said.
“In Sedalia, I heard a lot of American people, ‘Oh, you guys have money from Ukraine.’ I’m like, ‘No,’” she said. “Our people that I know, everyone came with zero from Ukraine.”
Nadiia Karamov said a hard work ethic is an integral part of her family values.
“I educated my kids that they need to work. When they were little, they needed to help me. When they grew up, we said, ‘You guys need to work, because you will have your own families,’” she said.
Nadtochiy said all her Ukrainian friends and family are clean and organized people.
“They are positive, all the Ukrainians. If they have a house, it should be always clean. It can’t be messy and dishes not washed,” she said. “I guess it is culture, but our Ukrainian people, they are always clean. You have to always have your clothes washed and ironed.”
Nadiia Karamov said her family wouldn’t have been able to maintain this kind of quality life without the individuals who have helped them however they could.
“We are very thankful to relatives and the refugee center that helped us a lot,” she said.
A LOOK INTO FUTURE BEATS A LOOK INTO PAST
Mid-Missouri refugees come from nine countries
Reimer’s organization, as the only official, federally funded refugee resettlement agency in central and north Missouri, has seen “a significant decline” in the number of refugees admitted.
According to State Department documents, the Trump administration set the refugee admissions cap at no more than 45,000 refugees from around the world for fiscal year 2018, while the admissions ceilings in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 were 85,000 and 110,000 refugees respectively.
Reimer said her local office was given an “arrival estimate” of 120 refugees for the current year, which is “the lowest number” in more than a decade.
Several refugees told KOMU 8 News they are worried about their loved ones who have been hoping for a chance to come to the U.S. from refugee camps and dangerous home situations.
Gebrezgaluier said he stays in touch with his brother and many friends in Sudanese camps.
“I know one family who are waiting to come, who are already assigned by UNHCR to go to America, but, after this new policy change, their process has now been stopped,” he said. “They haven’t told them a specific time. Just they told them to wait only.”
Measho Gebrezgaluier with his friends in Sudan
Kali said he wasted much of his youth in a “jail-like” Kenyan camp and hopes other young children could get out sooner than later. He said he feels bad leaving some of his friends behind.
“They have a hope to come here to America. We always talked about,” he said.
Mohammed Kali with his friends in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya
San said his family has been divided since he left the camp in Thailand, and he cannot go back to visit because of safety concerns.
“My mother-in-law, brother, they already are waiting to come here,” he said. “For everybody, I think when they come to a third country, it would be better than staying over there, where they have to be afraid of everything.”
Pai San with his brother, sister, niece and mother in a refugee camp in Thailand
Said doesn't agree with people who associate refugees with uneducated, low-skill government dependents.
“Like when you bring a teacher, when you bring a doctor, when you bring a farmer - all those people have the experience. Even if it’s small, even if it’s not new, maybe you know better than them, but still, they are going to do something to the country. So give them a chance,” he said.
He said although a lot of them may never have the chance to pick up their old careers, they work hard at whatever new undertakings they have.
“When we give them a job, they’re going to help for real and do the job,” he said.
He said people should stop thinking of refugees as lazy people or terrorists.
“I can be honest with you in this. If they see something wrong with the refugees, they are going to feel all the refugees are bad,” he said.
He said America needs refugees.
“I know maybe someone do not like what I say now, but this is our real story. This life, we cannot build it with one hand. We need two hands to do something. One of these hands is the refugees who really feel, appreciate to live in the peace and in a good place, so they help,” he said.
Meanwhile, Reimer’s local office continues to assist new families in their adjustment to America through facilitating housing, employment, children’s enrollment in schools and other social services.
Reimer said each refugee can receive public assistance for up to five years, yet most are employed and off of assistance within a few months of arriving.
“Our goal in everything is for them to be self-sufficient. We don’t want them to depend on social services. We want them to utilize them at the beginning, and then to be able to come off of those,” she said.
She said among other obstacles, the lack of transportation and language skills are the biggest barriers for recently arrived refugees.
“A lot of our clients work at factories here in Columbia. And there’s no bus system that runs to several of these factories,” she said.
She said most newcomers cannot afford car payments and many do not know how to drive.
“That can be a huge barrier as there might be a job available, but we can’t apply for them because they have no way to get there,” she said.
She said because her office only has a small team of staff, there is “very limited” driving training available, and volunteers play an imperative role in helping give rides.
Kahebwa said he used to walk to work in his first five months.
“I spent like two hours walking - two hours and a half,” he said. “It’s not easy to pay rides every day. It’s not easy.”
Patrick Gisonga said there are nine adults in his family, and they all had to start learning driving from zero.
“Because in Africa, we used to take a bus or motorcycles. But here, it’s not easy to find a bus. Everyone has a car,” he said.
Gebrezgaluier said the difficulty of getting driver’s licenses always goes hand in hand with language barriers.
“They get high problem how to pass, how to read the book of the driver’s license [exam]. In this city - a very small city - the public transportation is very weak,” he said.
He said most refugees did not grow up speaking American English, and language barrier is the main reason why they feel isolated.
“It is the big barrier, big barrier, big problem for them to interact, to get work, to get drivers’ license, to communicate with people,” he said.
Gebrezgaluier said he has been volunteering his time with Reimer’s organization to help other refugees with translation and other needs.
“I want to forward my opinion to this community to help them for the refugees, highly, until they get to be able to speak English. That’s what I want to say,” he said.
Remier said some refugees just need a little time to adjust to the language environment.
“Just because they lack the language doesn’t mean they lack the knowledge to do a job,” she said. “But they do have a large variety of skills. Because these are normal people who just have war erupt in their country.”
President Trump is currently deciding on a new cap for next year’s refugee admissions, and his decision is due by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.