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The Refugee and Me

by Barbara Taft


July 18, 2016

The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this series from BPFNA!

For most of my life, I have been involved with people from other nations. Maybe it’s because my mother came to the U.S. from Mytilene (Lesbos), Greece, when she was three years old, and my father was the first of his family to be born in the U.S., instead of the Ukraine. I heard a lot of languages as a child, too, growing up in a neighborhood with people from Czechoslovakia (today’s Czech Republic), Germany, France, Mexico, and Italy, among others. Or maybe it was because my parents gave me the name Barbara, which is defined as “strange or foreign.”

In high school, I knew all eight exchange students we had, and later I visited with a couple of them in their home countries. I’ve managed to travel to 60 countries, and to learn (at various levels of competence) eight languages, with assorted words and phrases in a half dozen others. These have come in handy when traveling. 

I volunteered with international students at my university, and later with the Community Committee for International Students. Then there was tutoring and, finally, teaching ESL and specialized courses for foreign-born professionals through various adult education districts, a few private schools, and at a couple of colleges and universities. 

Now that my opportunities for travel are dwindling as I age, I have wanted to stay involved. A couple of years ago, our local Amnesty International (AI) group opened up a new means of crossing borders for me. Instead of traveling to many nations, I am now bringing information from and people who have crossed borders to be in the U.S. Our AI group decided to let a few of us plan and carry out meetings based on our areas of interest. I chose to do programs on the many refugee and immigrant communities present in the Greater Phoenix area. These are some of the programs I’ve helped to present to our AI group:

In June 2014, our first program was about the Lost Boys of Sudan. We have a large Lost Boys Center here. Today, they are no longer boys, but men. They have been through a lot, traveling thousands of miles, beginning when they were very young. Our speaker and others on the journey saw some of their young friends consumed by crocodiles when attempting to cross rivers, while others died of hunger, illness, or injury. But many made it to safety in the U.S. and elsewhere. Our speaker, Jeny Deng, told how he and his brother managed to relocate to Phoenix, only to encounter a new type of problem: racial prejudice. His brother was stopped several times by the police, while doing nothing wrong. Eventually, the strain of the contrast between the belief he would be safe and the reality of American race relations was too much for him. He committed suicide. Still, Jeny, like many other Sudanese, hoped against hope for peace to come to his region of South Sudan. When that area became a nation, he journeyed home, as did others, and found that his mother was still alive. Each had thought the other had perished. In regard to Sudan, our Amnesty group wrote letters to appropriate authorities as suggested by our speaker and by ongoing AI casework.

Our next speakers were Enock N. (last name omitted until his adopted children arrive safely in the U.S., which should be soon) and Rose Mapendo. Both are Rwandan Tutsis born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you saw the movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” you know what happened in their homeland. The fighting extended into the DRC, because residents of African lands are always identified by their tribal affiliations. Rose and her children had to watch as her husband was executed while they were all in jail. Then she learned she was pregnant. She gave birth to twins and was only able to save them by naming them after two of their guards. This is only a small part of her story.

Enock and his wife adopted five children whose entire families had been killed in the fighting. They also have six natural children. The entire family has been shuffled from refugee camp to refugee camp, and across borders for several years. At one point, Enock was elected President of their refugee camp. He witnessed a massacre and, as camp President, he talked to the press, the police, and the UN authorities. The killers attempted several times to kill him, and he finally escaped to the U.S., gaining political asylum, but leaving his family behind. Before he could get them here, his eldest daughter was kidnapped twice and abused in an attempt to lure him back. Now, his wife and six natural children are here, and the five adopted children are in Kenya awaiting the final step in obtaining visas to join the family. We wrote letters regarding the current situation in the DRC, Burundi, and other places where Rwandan Tutsis are trying to survive, specifically about a group who were taken from a church on a Sunday morning and placed in a refugee camp where they were surrounded by Hutu tribesmen who had sworn to kill Tutsis. (They got out within days of our writing the letters.)

Another speaker I was able to get for our group is Rana Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, whose brother, Balbir, was killed as a result of the backlash from 9/11. Balbir was tending the garden in front of their Mesa, Arizona, gas station when a man drove by. Mistaking Balbir’s turban for Muslim headgear, the man open fired, killing Balbir. Since this took place, Rana and his family have worked to improve race relations in the Greater Phoenix area, where he frequently speaks to groups, and he advises several law enforcement departments.  He has also been honored at the White House on several occasions. He talked about the many ways that people from India experience discrimination in the U.S., and about problems specific to Sikhs here in the U.S. and also at home in India. Conflict between Hindus and Sikhs is commonplace, and the government has not always been helpful. We knew Rana for some time before I brought him to speak, as his family owns an Indian restaurant where we frequently eat.

Another meeting I was able to bring about featured Dr. Patrick B. Naabien, national president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Amnesty International has taken an interest in the plight of the Ogoni, a tribal group living in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, for many years. Their fertile farmland and rich fishing area has been despoiled by Shell Oil, and has turned these formerly self-sufficient people to dependents, unable to farm or fish.  In 1995, nine of their leaders, led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, were executed by the Nigerian government. Ken’s case had been taken up by Amnesty, but it was too late. Since then, although some reparations have been paid, there has been no restoration of their lands. A couple of years ago, a group of Ogoni men walked into one of our Amnesty meetings. I may have been the only one present who recalled Ken Saro-Wiwa’s case, but they were glad to know they had not been entirely forgotten. A few months later, they invited me to serve on the local MOSOP board of directors. They wanted to inform the AI group about current events, so we invited Dr. Naabien, who explained the history and current situation. We wrote letters and, again, we learned quite soon after writing that the Nigerian government had re-opened its investigation into why the clean-up hadn’t taken place. Politely written letters are powerful.

At this moment, I’m planning to bring a couple of speakers and a film clip about Eritrean prisoners in November, because our Amnesty group is taking on a new prisoner from that land. We had an Eritrean case a few years ago, but the prisoners are still incarcerated. Our group is also involved in the situation of the Syrian refugees. One of our local activists went to Lesbos and will be returning in the fall to help again. I used my Middle Eastern connections to link some Arizona State University students who wanted to volunteer with an Islamic charity that will be sending clothing and shoes to an organization working there. Outside of Amnesty, I have been able to bring an Israeli peace activist to speak at the Tempe Mosque.

So, even though the Canadian border is the only one I’ve crossed in the last few years, I have been able to reach across borders by linking people who are here from other nations to others who want to help, and in some instances, we’ve been able to get results. That makes me very happy.

Barbara Taft formerly served on the BPFNA board and is involved with many groups working for peace in a variety of ways including Amnesty International and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She lives in Mesa, Arizona.

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