Lina Khoshaba Yako, who came to the U.S. from Iraq four months ago, has vivid memories of the ethnic and religious tensions in her homeland in 2003.
Relations among Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, she says, had become increasingly dangerous. And her husband received a letter threatening him with death if he did not leave the country within one month. His religion— Christianity—made him a target, she says, in a country where Christians have had longstanding conflicts with militant Muslims.
“When these kinds of people say something like that, they mean it,” Yako recounted in a recent visit to Lehigh as she lightly tapped her fingers on her swelled, pregnant belly. “These people will come to your house with 10 armed men and kill you and your entire family. No one can protect you from that.”
Yako and three other refugees now living in the Lehigh Valley shared their stories Oct. 5 in the Global Union in Coxe Hall. She and her husband escaped to Turkey in a 23-hour trip by car. After two years in Turkey, they received approval to immigrate to the U.S. and they moved to the Lehigh Valley.
The event, titled “Global Refugees Find Homes in the Lehigh Valley,” was sponsored by the Global Union, Catholic Charities, the Lehigh Valley Peace Coalition and the department of English.
Bringing global issues to the local level
One goal of the event, said Global Union director William Hunter, was to localize international issues.
“Tonight, it hits home,” said Hunter.
Henok Ali, another refugee to visit campus, was a painter and cartoonist in his home country of Eritrea. His drew political cartoons that criticized the government and were published in his local newspaper. The authorities were angered by the cartoons and sent Ali a letter demanding that he stop drawing and submitting the cartoons. He refused.
Faced with prison time, Ali escaped Eritrea with four friends in 2004. They walked without food or water for three days until arriving in Ethiopia. Six years later, Ali came to the U.S. He chose America, he said, because he was comforted by its “mix of cultures and languages.”
The refugees have faced significant language and cultural barriers in attempting to acclimate to American life.
“It’s really hard when you leave your country and start another life,” Yako said. “We have culture shock.”
Looking for a job, said Jean Serge Kabeya Kabengele, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is particularly difficult.
“Usually the interview is in English,” said Kabeya Kabengele, who speaks French and a language indigenous to the Congo.
“Sometimes they will ask you to do one thing and you’ll do the opposite.”
A resident sees her hometown anew
Kabeya Kabengele’s father was a Congolese politician, but when power changed hands, he and his parents were forced to flee. He has been in the U.S. since 2003.
The refugees are not victims, but survivors. Kabeya Kabengele graduated recently from DeSales University with a degree in criminal justice. Yako and her husband will soon become parents. Ali works in the housekeeping department of Lehigh Valley Hospital. A fourth refugee, Prosper Nshimirimana of Burundi, has had difficulty finding work, but his wife has a job and his four daughters are adapting well to American life.
“These people are unlucky that they have been forced to flee,” said Will Miller, refugee settlement director at Catholic Charities in the Lehigh Valley. “But on the other side of the coin, they’re lucky to be here.”
According to the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees, there are approximately 15.2 million refugees worldwide. Nearly 80,000 were admitted into the U.S. in 2009.
Ellie McGuire ’11, a Bethlehem native who attended the event, said it opened her eyes.
“I would have had no idea that these people are my neighbors,” she said.