Refugee stories: the guts it takes to leave everything behind – World Refugee Day 2018

Refugee Well-being Project New Mexico: supporting refugees and facilitating refugee stories

Albuquerque, New Mexico  – For World Refugee Day 2018, Brandon Baca honors a family from Burundi and the refugee stories that opened his eyes and broke his heart.

Ever since my junior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the world but had no idea how. Four years later, as a junior at the University of New Mexico, I saw a class called Refugee Health and Development. Little did I know the class would change my life forever. As a student in this class, which is now called the Refugee Well-being Project, I learned that refugees were being resettled in Albuquerque and less than three miles from my home! It was then that I realized how insulated my life had been. The initial three months of the class were spent in the classroom learning refugee stories and history, including the history of the Great Lakes region of Africa, and it was eye-opening and heart-breaking.

We learned about the challenges that refugees face in resettling in the United States, but we also gained a deep appreciation for the guts it takes to leave everything behind and start again in a completely new place.

As a student-advocate in the Refugee Well-being Project, I was matched with a family from Burundi who had spent more than thirty years in refugee camps and had just arrived in Albuquerque. The first time we met was at their home, and they immediately took me in and the kids instantly became my friends. Every week we went to Learning Circles where we talked about our cultures, traditions and systems. I was amazed that some of the adults spoke 6, 7 or even 14 different languages. Many people were really skilled at farming, owned their own businesses or had important social roles back home. It was a humbling experience.

Members of the Refugee Well-being Project
Members of the Refugee Well-being Project

Then we spent a lot of time hanging out, having fun, and we spent a lot of time accessing local resources. It was then that my perspective really changed. Their family taught me that despite the many challenges in life that one faces, you’ll make it through. Getting through it isn’t the point though – the process is where transformation happens.

Despite having very limited English skills, their 17-year-old son managed to find himself a job. He didn’t wait around for someone to help; he did it on his own, in a new country that he didn’t understand and that certainly didn’t understand him and his culture. His family refused to let me leave with an empty stomach and always treated me and others with the utmost kindness.

My experience working with their family also taught me that the United States can be a rough place for a newcomer. The neighborhood they lived in was very poor and it we frequently heard shootings and witnessed violence. It was also the first time that I had ever actually seen racism first-hand. It happened when my partners were threatened with eviction: upon arriving at the leasing office, we overheard a highly racist conversation between staff about their African tenants. Working with refugees opened my eyes not only to other cultures but to the social injustices around all of us – whether it be in Burundi, Syria or the United States.

Spending time together was really what changed my life. If it wasn’t for that experience, I would not be where I am. I joined the Peace Corps and, although Burundi wasn’t accepting volunteers, Rwanda was. After two years in Rwanda, I came back able to speak Kirundi/Kinyarwanda with them. I also became the coordinator for the Refugee Well-being Project and continue to work with refugee families. Now my life is dedicated to this work, but the work is only part of the story.

They taught me a deeper appreciation for the privileges that I have, and they taught me to laugh and take my time and spend it with others. As they used to say, “Haraka haraka haina baraka”. Hurry hurry has no blessings ….

Refugees shaking hands

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World Refugee Day 2018

This month, to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, US-born Americans across the United States honor newcomer Americans with a story from their states – telling asylee, immigrant, or refugee stories about people they admire. From soldiers to politicians, employers to students, social workers to business people – everyday Americans tell their refugee stories to celebrate the goodness and courage of the newcomers who make the United States a better place.

Every day in the month of June, the Refugee Center Online will publish a new story from a different state. Check back for new stories each day:

Learn more about World Refugee Day. All across the country, there will be events celebrating World Refugee Day. Visit this map to find an event in your community.

About Brandon Baca
Brandon Baca graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2008 and after a period in the Peace Corps is now the coordinator of the Refugee Well-being Project, which brings newly arrived refugees together with students from the University of New Mexico. To learn more about the Refugee Well-being Project go to:

Refugee Stories – Read the Stories of Newcomers from Stronger Shines the Light Inside

In 2016, Angie Smith created Stronger Shines the Light Inside, a photo project to document refugee stories – the stories of why refugees were coming to Boise, Idaho and their new lives.

Angie generously shared some of the photos and stories with the Refugee Center Online and we have featured them here to help you learn about the stories of refugees in the United States. While they come from so many different places and bring their own unique strengths, they all share this journey of starting over – and a dream of rebuilding their lives here in the United States.

Ahmed and Abdullah, from Iraq

Refugee Stories: two refugee brothers from Iraq.
Photo by Angie Smith/Stronger Shines the Light Inside.

My name is Abdullah Abdullah and I’m 16.

We left Iraq in 2007. It was a long journey from there. In Syria there was a civil war. I could hear a lot of gunshots nearby, bombs dropping. This one time, there was a gunfight in the street we lived on. It was really scary. There was no electricity because it was bombed. It took the whole night to finish.

I just want to say I’m here like other refugees, for a better future for me and my family. A better life. If we stayed in Iraq I don’t think I could be anything. We still have dreams too. With hard work, discipline, and dedication you can do whatever you want. I’m Iraqi, I’m proud of who I am. Yeah sure I want to be an American but I’ll never forget who I am.

It was all about waiting. They killed us with waiting. Everyone get bored and have some thoughts to go back to Iraq. But we kept staying. But on the seventh year in Syria it was war, and everyone wanted to give up and go back to Iraq.

I was kind of excited that when I came to America everything would be smooth and so easy, like heaven. When I came here it was different. It’s peaceful but you can’t expect anything. Donald Trump, he’s scared me I guess.

I’m a guest in this country. I am just here to live peacefully. I respect the laws here. This what builds America right? It doesn’t matter what religions or thoughts, traditions. So I just respect it, I just go with it unless you’re not hurting anyone by your traditions.

I do remember war moments but I stay away by reminding myself where I am right now. I’m here to make a better version of this country. If you’re trying to do something here you can do it. All you gotta do is push yourself. And if I do it, I will make it better, I’ll make a better version.

Paw Lah Tse and Paw Lah Htoo, from Burma

Two refugee sisters from Burma in Boise, Idaho
Photo by Angie Smith/Stronger Shines the Light Inside.

We were born in Burma. We left when were thirteen because of persecution. The Burmese military burned down our houses. We were hiding in the jungle.

We were in a refugee camp in Thailand for thirteen years with our father and our brother. Our mother passed away when we were six years old. She was sick, we could not prevent it from getting worse.

Life in the camp was hard because you cannot go outside of the camp. And the food they were giving to us was decreasing. We were hungry sometimes. There is no way of making money and buy food, so it was hard.

We went to school since we entered the camp, from fourth grade to tenth grade. That’s as high as it goes.

When we found out we were coming here we were happy, and at the same time we were worried because we didn’t know the language and the environment and the culture. We asked to come to Boise because we had a friend from the refugee camp here. Everything is new.

Belma and her mother, from Bosnia

Refugee stories: Belma and her mother, from Bosnia
Photo by Angie Smith/Stronger Shines the Light Inside.

In 1993 we escaped Bosnia. We went to Germany. We lived there until 1998 and after the war, we were told it was safe to go back. However it was not nearly as safe. My parents were afraid for our lives and so we decided to move to Croatia.

I vividly remember that night when dad hired the person to smuggle us across a border. It was January and cold. I asked my dad, ‘Why aren’t you getting in the car?’ All I remember he said: ‘I have to stay.’ I couldn’t understand like wait, we always went together, I remember thinking ‘Why do you have to stay?’

As a child, going from what you know to what you don’t know. It was a new language. I experience that pretty quickly when I was enrolled in elementary school where they spoke German. I was the odd ball out. I didn’t understand the culture. I didn’t have any friends.

I always feel like I’m in between. I’m never enough one thing. And it’s beautiful in a way because you try to take the best of all cultures. But as a human being, it’s natural to strive to belong. When we came to the United States it was very similar except people were much more welcoming, accepting, helpful. I can’t ever pay back the people that were so selfless and just opened their hearts up to this refugee family from Eastern Europe. But I want to pay it forward.

I am a doctoral candidate in the college of education and curriculum and instruction at Boise State. My area of research is multi-cultural education for refugee students in particular. I want to be the stepping stone, the buffer for future teachers, engineers—I want to be the encouragement. I want to show them that, hey if I did this, you can too. I go to High Schools and I tell students my story and I walk out with student’s eyes wide, you can tell they want to go to college. I just want to make sure that no one can say, ‘I’m not good enough to go to college.’ Because that is the whole rhetoric of refugees, you are never good enough. You never belong, you don’t quite fit in. I remember thinking, ‘Who am I to go to college? I’m just a refugee.’

I personally like to call us New Americans, Emerging Americans. You come with the hope that you will be a part of this community of America. If you ask anyone, ‘What do you think of when you hear the word refugee?’ It’s what the media portrays too: suffering, pain. But if you look at it from a different angle—perseverance, grit, resilience, new beginnings right? That’s positive, it’s a new start. I want this nation—because we are a nation of immigrants—I want to say that we really need each other. I want people to see us as assets, not responsibilities.

Awot, from Eritrea

Refugee stories: Awot from Eritrea
Photo by Angie Smith/Stronger Shines the Light Inside.

In 1998 we got in a war with Ethiopia because of the border. That time of my age was to serve military, to defend the country, but I’m the one who takes care of my four sisters and I was in school also. I am the man who take responsibilities of my family, and my third reason is I had accident, I am disabled my right leg, and I asked the government to give me favor because I couldn’t survive the military service. The government did not accept my request: either go to military or go and leave the country to refugee camp.

It was hard to find a job when I first came [to Boise] in 2010. Later on I got help from Idaho Department of Labor. They were paying me for going to class related to my cooking skills. Then I had met non-profit organization [Create Common Good] and I took class with them. After ninety days they see my potential and they hire me. I think I was a very good team player with all of them, they loved me and I loved them. I was working hard because I got married and I got my kid so I worked hard to get out from the apartment. I don’t want to stay with my kids in an apartment. My dream was to buy a house and I bought my house in 2013.

My dream is to open another big store but it will be take a while. I am always dreaming. Thanks god, my first goal I got it, my first dream, it was having home. So I did it, and my second dream is to have a small business and I have it. God is helping me to reach the big goal and my hope is I will. I will do it, whatever time it takes.

The Boise people I see, they are very welcoming to refugees, they encourage us to improve our English, to have better job, to have better life. From Create Common Good I met a lot of interesting people, amazing people, they change my life. I don’t want to forget my volunteer, Michael. I will never forget him in my life. He is making me a man in this city. He was teaching me to ask, ‘are you guys hiring people at this time? Who is your boss?’ Pushing me to speak with people, and teaching me how I can be successful. He is the first person making me successful in this country. And still he is beside me if I have any difficulty. At this time, I am trying to help anyone who is lower than me. Wherever I am from, inside my community or outside, I don’t care, if someone need help, whenever I can, I help.

Khamisa with her children, from Sudan

Refugee stories: Khamisa with her children.
Photo by Angie Smith/Stronger Shines the Light Inside.

I grew up there [Sudan] till the age of ten and then came to Kenya to seek for refuge in the year 1996. It wasn’t easy. The only thing that I remember is that we had been staying for a very long time—like days—without eating. The only thing that we had to eat was desert fruits and those ones grow mostly in the bush.

Life on the camp is very hard. If you’re someone who doesn’t have hope and you don’t believe that there is God then definitely you can’t stay. During those days there was too much killing going on. The local people would come at night with guns, start shooting people, killing—at times they won’t take anything, they will just come, they kill you and they go.

I always had the dream of working as a nurse. When I was in the camp I did a course with UNHCR as a mental health care assistant for one year and six months—I had a certificate for that. I had been working as a caregiver. That was something I wanted to do in the future, helping people. Because I saw a lot of people had to lose their life because there was no one who knew anything about medicine.

For my future, to tell you the truth, before even I came here I used to believe in doing things by my own, without help. Like standing on my own feet. And that’s why I had been trying at least to work two jobs. Though I know Health and Welfare is there to help people, but I took it to another dimension. Since I have seen myself like I am blessed, at least I’m still young, I’m strong, I can work…there are a lot of people coming in, they don’t get enough help. I thank god I have everything, I have eyes, I have hands, I just thought it’s better for me to work, even if it is two jobs. A lot of people need food stamps—I just feel I want to do everything on my own.

Even if you know the language, the environment is new to you—you don’t know when and how to get to the market, appointments. Thank God I had social services. They helped me with counseling, with finding resources. I used to work two jobs, sleep only one and half hours every day. Now I’m at least strong, not like before. I have stayed with all this for a very long time. I couldn’t talk because when I would start talking I would just be crying.

My kids are the ones who keep me going. If I can see them laughing every day, I don’t think of anything else, I just feel happy, I feel thankful. Both he and my daughter have passed through a hard life. I’ve seen a hard life through them.

Muga, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Refugee stories: Muga from the DRC
Photo by Angie Smith/Stronger Shines the Light Inside.

I left the Congo when I was five years old and we moved to Rwanda. That’s where we lived for seven years before we came here. You don’t just expect to wake up in the morning and still be alive. Some people will be sleeping and you wake up the next morning and they are gone. Or they might be sleeping and in the middle of the night, fires all over their house. It was not a safe place at all. Hunger was all over, people killing each other.

The last year before we got here, I was excited to come to a new country where we would have more freedom. I was excited for it and just took everything easier, trying to keep everything safe so I would make it to the last day of the year.

When I got here, everything was really different from what I experienced in Africa. We got here when it was snowing and in Africa, I had never seen snow. Neighbors were really nice, they would even come to my house and try to be friends with us, being nice and making us feel welcome. Neighbors brought food and took us to the store. The kids were nice to us, they even gave my twin brother and I a soccer ball. I was really happy. Back in Rwanda when we were using soccer balls, they were made from plastic bags.

The language was the most difficult. We had to go to doctors appointments and we didn’t have transportation. I mean, we had to be there but when you don’t have transportation—I mean there was a bus but if we don’t know how to use it, we can’t get there. We started getting used to providing for ourselves and not relying on the neighbors. We thanked them and realized we can’t depend on them so we provided for ourselves and got used to things we didn’t know.

When I first got here I saw a bunch of food. That’s the first thing that we saw when we got in the house. There was a bunch of food on the table. And so right when I saw that much food and then I rethink back when I was in Africa and there was nothing. You’d come back from school, or playing soccer, or work, get home there is nothing. But, here in America you get from school and there’s already food here on the table. That was the most difficult thing for refugees back then in Africa, was food. There’s nothing to eat. And there is just a lot of things that I always stop and think back, ‘I didn’t have this in Africa so what should I do with it?’ I usually take really good care of it.

Thank you for taking time to read these refugee stories and to hear the voices of refugees who have been resettled to the United States.

About Jessica Marks
Jessica Marks is the founder and co-President of the Refugee Center Online. Jessica's expertise is in rural refugee resettlement and religious intolerance in the US. Jessica believes refugees and immigrants make our communities better places. She is focused on using technology to help newcomers re-build their lives.