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Photo: Alight
The former American Refugee Committee, now called Alight, focuses on “doing the doable.” Alight maintains that when things seem impossible, there is always something good that can be done.

For many years, I’ve been a fan of the American Refugee Committee, now called Alight. Since the nonprofit took the new name and began to focus on “doing the doable,” I’ve enjoyed periodic news about its Changemakers.

Here is the story of a teacher who wanted to understand things firsthand. I will just point out that the term “refugee” is ordinarily applied to those who come here officially, having been screened by our State Department and accepted in advance. Now that the US is accepting so few, those of us who work with migrants are seeing more climate “refugees” and economic “refugees” — some documented, some not. This is the story of a guy who wanted to help them.

“Howdy! My name is Bill Boegeman, and I’m a high school social studies teacher in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Some of my students are from Central America – refugees now living in the U.S., many of whom made the journey to the States alone.

“Their stories are amazing – spending hours in cramped semitrailer trucks and trunks of cars, hiding from the Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert. It’s difficult for me – and my other students – to imagine what these young people have been through, what hardships they have already endured, and the complexities they’re faced with now.

“So I wanted to go see for myself … and to try to make a difference, one day at a time.

“I traveled with Alight to the Rio Grande Valley, a vast area encompassing the southern border of Texas and parts of Mexico. In some ways, it feels a little bit like two countries living in one, cultures blended and economies interconnected. And now, Mexican-American communities are coming together with some incredible changemakers – Catholic Sisters, who Alight has recently partnered with – to serve the new waves of families who are searching for a better life.

“We began our work at La Posada Providencia, a migrant shelter just outside of San Benito, Texas. It’s a landing spot for many migrants released from detention centers with nowhere to go.

“Five years ago, Ángel was one of those migrants.

“After immigrating from Honduras and five months in detention, Ángel spent three months at La Posada where he was provided with a bed, regular meals, and mentoring services. Following a brief stint in Indianapolis, he returned to the shelter as a volunteer. Fast forward a few months and Ángel was converted into a full-fledged employee — the house cocinero — a position he still holds today.

“In addition to his cooking duties, Ángel helps to organize the shelter’s mochilas – to-go bags provided to clients who are ready to move on to their next destination. These bags include non-perishable food items, personal care products, a change of clothes, and other items that will help them along this next stage of their journey. It was here that we saw an opportunity.

“Over a lunch that Ángel prepared, La Posada’s current residents were able to provide us with ideas of items that would be useful to migrants in their mochilas as they depart the shelter for their next destinations. We landed on two primary items that we could provide: Spanish-to-English dictionaries and chapstick. While seemingly unrelated, these two things would be helpful to them in their future journeys (in the case of the chapstick, particularly those headed north). They were also absent from the supply closet on the La Posada premises.

“I asked Ángel what made La Posada Providencia such a special place. ‘It’s more than a shelter,’ he said, ‘It’s a house, a home, a family.’ ”

More at Alight, here.

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Photo: Mevan Babakar
Years ago, a 5-year-old Kurdish refugee received a bike from a kind man in the Netherlands. Recently, Mevan Babakar, now an adult, tracked down the man known only as Egbert to express her lasting gratitude.

As we break our hearts over what is happening to today’s Kurdish refugees, it may be time for a story about the beauty that can occur when refugees are treated with respect and compassion. The story is also about the good side of social media.

Megan Specia reported at the New York Times in August, “Memories of a brand new bicycle — and the mystery man who gave it to her when she was a 5-year-old in a Dutch refugee center — have played out as vignettes in Mevan Babakar’s mind for most of her life.

“Ms. Babakar, now 29, said the generous gift from a man whose name she couldn’t remember had shaped her childhood. On Tuesday, she suddenly found herself reunited with the man whose face had flickered through her memories for more than two decades.

“And it all began on Twitter.

“ ‘I was a refugee for 5 yrs in the 90s and this man, who worked at a refugee camp near Zwolle in the Netherlands, out of the kindness of his own heart bought me a bike. My five year old heart exploded with joy,’ Ms. Babakar wrote in a post on Twitter, before pleading with the internet to help her track him down.

“The photo she shared — a fading snapshot of the man that her mother had kept — was among a handful of belongings they had from that time. When he gave her the bike, she said, it made a lasting impact.

‘I remember feeling so special. I remember thinking that this is such a big thing to receive, am I even worthy of this big thing?’ Ms. Babakar said. ‘This feeling kind of became the basis of my self-worth growing up.’

“She and her parents fled Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s brutal crackdown on the Kurdish population in the early 1990s, which included a gas attack on a village near their home. Their journey took them to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia — where her father stayed behind to work for the next four years — and eventually to the Netherlands. …

“Ms. Babakar took a sabbatical from her technology job in London this summer to retrace the journey, and visited Zwolle to spend a few days attempting to piece together her scattered impressions of her time there. … While there, she wrote a Twitter post that she described as a ‘last-ditch attempt’ to learn more about the man who had struck up a friendship with her and her mother, and gave her the bike.

“Within hours, Arjen van der Zee, who volunteers for a nonprofit news site in Zwolle, saw the photo and recognized the man.

“ ‘I looked at the picture and immediately knew this guy who I had worked with in my early twenties,’ said Mr. van der Zee. … Mr. van der Zee made contact with the man’s family on social media, and they put the two in touch.

“ ‘He started to tell me that he remembered Mevan and her mother,’ Mr. van der Zee said. ‘He said he always told his wife, if there were people he wanted to see again in his life it was Mevan and her mother.’

“They quickly scrambled to arrange a meeting with Ms. Babakar, who was due to travel back to London in the coming days. …

“ ‘He was, I guess, equally overwhelmed,’ Ms. Babakar said. ‘It was like seeing a family member that you hadn’t seen in a long time. It was really lovely.’ …

“Ms. Babakar was ‘incredibly humbled’ that her story had resonated with so many people around the world — both fellow refugees and those who just felt touched by the tale. … ‘I think it’s really easy for people to forget or to feel really powerless in the face of these big, abstract problems that we hear about all the time,’ she said. “It’s really a comfort to remember we are all very powerful in the way that we treat others. Especially in the small acts, we are powerful.’ ”

More here.

 

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Photo: Stitch Buffalo
Stitch Buffalo says it’s “advancing social justice for refugee women in Buffalo, NY, by creating opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and economic empowerment through the textile arts.”

Every individual and every community has its own way of responding to newcomers from other countries.

You would never know it from the headlines, but there are a lot of people who, being curious about foreign cultures or perhaps knowing what it was like for their forebears to be immigrants, feel friendly toward the latest arrivals. Maybe they just smile. Or maybe they work on some integrating initiative, like this charming one in Buffalo, New York.

Maura Christie reports at Spectrum News, “At first glance, it may not seem like much, ‘Embroidery floss, beads, scissors, fabrics, solid colored fabrics,’ said Dawne Hoeg, Stitch Buffalo’s executive director. But these common household items have quite literally bonded refugee women to [the city of Buffalo].

“Stitch Buffalo started as a project back in 2014 as a way to give those women a space of their own to learn and share ideas at different textile workshops.

“Now, five years and a storefront later, workshops are open to anyone in the community and many of the refugees have gone from being students to standing in front of workshops as teachers.

” ‘It’s an exciting opportunity for Buffalo people to come and have an authentic experience learning from a woman from Thailand or a woman from Burma, where she has learned this skill and is willing to share it with us,’ Hoeg said.

‘Some of their stitches are very different from the ones we do and it’s just a beautiful opportunity for a cross-cultural exchange.’

“Women also sell their one-of-a-kind, handmade items in the retail space, anything from pins to bracelets and ornaments. But every two months, that space gets transformed for Second Stitch. The nonprofit uses mainly donated materials, and anything they’re not able to use is sold to the community.

” ‘What we decided to do is to take those materials, sort them, measure them, organize them and turn them back over to the community at a reduced rate,’ Hoeg said. …

“No matter what project the women make next, or how much they sell it for, the love and support they receive from their adopted hometown is priceless.

” ‘It’s the making, but it’s also the selling,’ Hoeg said. ‘When you create something and you see that somebody else finds value in it enough to purchase it, that empowers you, that builds a confidence. That’s what I see happening with the women here is that they are empowered through the skill and the support they receive from the community.’ ”

Find some wonderful pictures at the Stitch Buffalo website, here, and at Spectrum, here.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day. Beautiful Day is a Providence-based welcoming initiative that teaches refugees and other immigrants basic job skills in the process of making a range of fantastic granola products. If you follow them, you will be alerted to new varieties you can buy, and you can read stories from around the country like the Stitch Buffalo story. I like to send their beautiful gift baskets to family members at holidays.

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Photo: The Providence Journal / David DelPoio
Refugee campers line up for lunch beneath a portrait of George Washington at Camp RYSE in Providence. The camp is specifically targeted to cater to refugee children.

I work with refugees and other immigrants as a volunteer in Providence, and I thought I knew about most of the refugee initiatives there. Then along came a Providence Journal article about a summer camp for refugee kids that reminded me I am still learning.

Kevin G Andrade reports, “If you sit down with Jetu Neema in the Highland Charter School cafeteria this summer, you are likely to get a quick and enthusiastic Swahili lesson.

” ‘Jena laka nani? [What is your name?]’ she asked the Journal reporter at Camp RYSE Tuesday afternoon, before teaching him how to respond. ‘Jena langu nina etwa … [My name is…]’

“Though energetic and friendly, as children tend to be, those at RYSE — an acronym for Refugee Youth Solidarity through Education — all have one thing in common. They are refugees from war, disaster or dictatorship all over the world. …

“Tanzania — which has had a relatively stable government compared with those of its neighbors such as Mozambique, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — has hosted many refugees over the years according to Bienfait Jaigado, a 14-year-old junior camp counselor whose family came to the U.S. after escaping unrest in Burundi about 5 years ago.

” ‘I was little, I did not know why we were coming,’ Jaigado said, a common story among campers who knew only that they and their parents had to leave their homes. … ‘I was getting bullied a lot in school [when I immigrated] because of my skin color and … basically because I was new and did not know the language.’ …

“Jaigado said that when he came to the camp as a camper, it was a cathartic experience that made him want to give other refugee children the same opportunity.

‘All I know from my first days in camp is that I felt welcome,’ he said. ‘In camp, people were respectful of my race and my traditions.’ …

“Beginning in 2011 as the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring Initiative, the RYSE program’s mission is two-fold, to provide a safe space for refugee children and to catch them up on education they may have missed out on due to the chaos of life. …

“The camp includes classes in the mornings that focus on improving literacy and mathematics skills to prepare the students for entering the next grade level. Yet the courses also make sure to incorporate folklore and history from the dozens of languages, cultures, and nations represented there. …

“RYSE also concentrated on hiring support staff from the communities where the children live to offer additional support to the campers and their families.

” ‘We work with translators from the community,’ said Donia Torabian, the camp’s director of family and community outreach. ‘We try to hire drivers from the community … It is exhausting, but it is work that fills your soul.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Good Chance Theatre
A group that was founded to dramatize the plight of refugees in Calais, France, is now performing internationally.

Theater can often bring out the empathetic and compassionate side of audience members and lead to positive change in the world. As Amelia Parenteau writes at American Theatre, a play called The Jungle that grew around a refugee camp in Calais, France, may be helping viewers to see asylum seekers as people like themselves — and motivating them to take action.

“Good Chance Theatre was started by two Brits, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, when, in 2015, they passed through Calais, France, on their way to Germany and they saw the makeshift refugee camp that had formed there.

“Many theatremakers might feel the need to share the refugees’ story with the world, but first Murphy and Robertson wanted folks in the camp to have ‘a platform to express themselves,’ explained Dina Mousawi, Good Chance’s creative producer.

“So they decided to construct a theatre there in the shape of a geodesic dome, which has since become Good Chance’s signature pop-up venue; they spent seven months there in total.

“Vincent Mangado, a Théâtre du Soleil company member who joined their effort, described that first dome as a place ‘where everything could be spoken, a place of peace, a nerve center of the jungle, where you can share stories or throw a party, not just a theatre.’

“Upon returning to the U.K., Murphy and Robertson were commissioned to write a play about their experience in Calais, which grew up into the international hit The Jungle (now at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through May 19). They traveled around the U.K., leading workshops with migrants and asylum seekers to continue gathering material. And cast members: The Jungle’s ensemble comprises of actors of 11 different nationalities, including some people Murphy and Robertson met in Calais who had since emigrated to Britain.

“The action of The Jungle is set in an Afghan restaurant that was built in Calais, and is staged with such an immersive aesthetic that audience members feel as though they are fellow diners at the restaurant. Along with the café, makeshift mosques, churches, shops, and other restaurants were constructed in Calais, despite extremely limited resources (just two water spigots and two porta-potties).

“Mousawi joined Good Chance in September 2018, though she had been doing similar work for years both on her own and with Complicité. In fact, she led the first Good Chance workshop in the dome in Calais with 35 Sudanese men in Arabic.

“Raised in Iraq, Mousawi left during the war to move to England, but returned to the Middle East during the height of the conflict in Syria, feeling called to help by making theatre. There she worked with Syrian women to produce work telling their stories, which only strengthened her conviction that theatre is for everybody, and should be radically inclusive. …

“ ‘Theatre can act as a tool for so many things, and one of the ways we use it is to encourage integration in areas where there might be tension.’ …

“To those audiences moved by The Jungle, Mousawi recommends reaching out to migrants recently arrived in your local community to see what you can do to make them feel welcome. ‘That’s what Good Chance is all about,’ she said. ‘Making people feel welcome, not alienated.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Brian Peterson
Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang with her father, Bee Yang. The daughter’s lyrical book about Bee Yang’s unconsciously artistic storytelling,
The Song Poet, will be turned into a youth opera in Minnesota.

When I was working at a magazine that focused on the concerns of lower-income communities, I sometimes tried to get the voices of immigrant authors in there. One such author was Kao Kalia Yang, a Minnesota Hmong writer whose work I greatly admired.

Yang spent her early childhood enduring the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand but eventually moved with her family to St. Paul, where poverty and a strange new culture made life difficult in whole new ways.

One of Yang’s lyrical memoirs focuses on her father and the way he sang stories about life in the old country that brought other Hmong immigrants to tears. Now it’s being turned into an opera for young people.

Jenna Ross writes at the Star Tribune, “Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet. Soon, his story will be an opera.

“The Minnesota Opera announced [in April] that it’s creating a youth opera based on ‘The Song Poet,’ Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.

“It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said. … The book follows a young boy [Yang’s father] whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. …

“For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with ‘The Song Poet,’ he knew it would make an incredible opera.

“ ‘Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,’ Andrews said. … ‘The Song Poet’ becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. …

“Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. ‘When I began singing song poetry, I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,’ he said in the book.

“This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book ‘The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,’ which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. …

“To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. ‘It’s not just a Hmong cast,’ Andrews said. ‘But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.’ …

“When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. ‘You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.

“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children.’ ” More.

I highly recommend Yang’s memoirs. Maybe some of you will check them out.

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Photo: UNHCR
Shukria Rezaei, an Afghan Hazara refugee in the UK, with Kate Clanchy, writer-in-residence at Shukria’s school.

Years ago, my husband’s company ordered his department to move to Dallas from upstate New York. We decided not to go, which was a big no-no in the corporate world at that time. Other wives got a laugh when I said, “I don’t transplant well.” That’s probably true of many people who get used to their place. When I think of the thousands of migrants leaving home now, I know they are not doing it just for fun but because there is no other choice. Most people love their home.

The young Afghan refugee in this story longs to go home someday. In the meantime, she is learning all she can, including how to write poetry in a new language.

Caroline Brothers reports for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that a few years ago “no one, not her family, her teachers, nor any of her 900 schoolmates, was more surprised than Shukria Rezaei herself, when she was judged the best poet in her year. A shy, 15-year-old Afghan girl, who was still grappling with an adopted language.

“Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school whose catchment area includes deprived localities, had just run a poetry competition to discover what talent might lie hidden in a student body speaking 54 different languages.

“ ‘Everyone was shocked, even myself,’ said Rezaei, now 20 and a scholarship student at the University of London, recalling the moment when Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence and the competition’s judge, announced Rezaei had won first prize.

“Less than a year before, Rezaei and her mother – Hazara refugees – had arrived in Oxford from Quetta, Pakistan, which hosts a large population of displaced Afghans. The two were reunited in 2011 with Rezaei’s father, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after a three-year separation.

“Rezaei, for her part, was still struggling to master a language whose barest bones she had learnt at Afghan primary school and refugee school in Pakistan. As a child in the Afghan province of Ghazni, she awoke to the tap-tap of sheep trooping past on their way to the fields; a few hours later, she would set off through the mountains with a dozen other girls.

“ ‘School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot,’ Rezaei told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. ‘We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half.’ …

“In England, in the thick purple jumper of a strange school uniform, she was struggling to keep up.

“ ‘I could only understand what was written down,’ Rezaei said of her first year. She survived, she said, by reading rather than speaking, copying everything she saw on the blackboard: ‘I just did as much as I could.’

“With the poetry prize, however, things shifted. From feeling invisible, Rezaei suddenly had an identity within the school. Clanchy, meanwhile, invited her to join a poetry group she had formed on a hunch that the quiet foreign girls at Oxford Spires might in fact have something to say.

” ‘At the beginning, I couldn’t talk,’ said Rezaei. But seated among 15 or 20 aspiring poets, she began to express herself. …

“Since then, Rezaei has had work published in Oxford Poetry, the emblematic literary journal that has showcased many of the country’s greats. She will be included in an anthology, England, to be published by Picador in June; one of her poems, ‘Homesick,’ has already been translated into German. …

“Like many children of refugees, Rezaei is acutely aware of how much hope her parents have invested in her. Even in the bleakest moments, amid profound dislocation, giving up was never an option, either for them or for her. …

“Rezaei is finding her feet in London, another major adjustment after Quetta and Oxford. Having won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, she is studying politics, philosophy and economics, which she hopes to convert into a law degree.

“She still misses aspects of her Afghan childhood, but for now her hopes are firmly focused on England. She recently passed her driving test, and is exploring the creative writing scene.

“ ‘Afghanistan is still dear to my heart,’ she said, ‘but I have a lot more to achieve here before I go back.’ ”

Here is one poem.

I want a poem
with the texture of a colander
on the pastry

A verse
of pastry so rich
it leaves gleam on your fingertips

A poem
that stings like the splash of boiling oil
as you drop the pastry in …

I’d really like to copy the whole lovely thing, but you better click through to read it.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day on Instagram.

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