She has that independent Texas spirit – World Refugee Day 2018
Abilene, Texas – A writer celebrates refugees in Texas in honor of World Refugee Day 2018.
I admire all refugees – for their resilience, ability to learn, and motivation to succeed – but if I had to choose one to represent refugees in Texas, my vote would go to Angela. Why? I think she has that independent spirit that so many Texans have. Time and time again, she has shown a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude.
I met Angela fourteen years ago while working at a resettlement agency for refugees in Texas. We resettled her and her family in Abilene, Texas, in the summer of 2004. (I call her “Angela” because she does not want her name to be disclosed. She is one of the twenty storytellers in my recent book, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories.) This is her story.
Angela has a family, but she is a career woman who never stops learning. She can take all that life brings her and make the best out of it. Every time a disaster strikes, she does everything she can to get back on her feet and even to take initiative to help others. It happened in every country she went to.
Angela started out with running education programs for women in rural Rwanda. She says:
“For me, my ‘good days’ were from about 1977 until we had to leave our country in 1994. I had all our children in school already then, and it was good for me because I was working with women in those days and was extremely busy. I did a lot of program work. You know, people are not rich in Rwanda, and they are not educated. So, we really had to do something for them, especially for women, in the areas of education and rural development. It was my job, and I loved it. It was the best time for me.”
Then, the ethnic conflict started in which almost a million Tutsis were killed in three short months, setting the retaliation war against all Hutus in motion. Angela had to flee to Bukavu in Democratic Republic of Congo. At first, there is no help, no supplies, but eventually, a refugee camp is set up and people settle in the camp routine. What does Angela do? Again, she gets involved and finds a way to help others:
“When in a refugee camp, I got busy, too: with some teachers from different schools from our country, we created an education center for young people. We worked with UNICEF and had five hundred students, all young people, and the teachers were volunteers. …”
War spilled over from Rwanda to Democratic Republic of Congo. Angela remembers the events in Congo:
“At that time, we felt something ominous was coming. That’s why my husband and I arranged for two of our daughters to go to Ivory Coast. It was in February of 1996. We had a big family and did not have much money, so we could not go all at once. Our son and another daughter left some months after. Then, my husband and I left as the last ones from our family. It was in September, just one week before the war broke out in Congo, so we were really lucky to get out in time. But after we had left, many people got killed in Congo—among them, many of our good friends.”
A peaceful life in Ivory Coast followed, but it was soon disrupted by a new war, leaving Angela and her family in hardship once again:
“On the whole, Ivory Coast was a very good country; people were nice to us, people helped us, and we helped each other. But after six years, a war broke out in Ivory Coast, too. It was not the same war; it was their own. Too many wars! And when a war starts, it seems to never end. But before this war, we had very good jobs in Ivory Coast, and life was good. I was the director of a college, and I did follow-ups on teachers and dealt with students and prepared tests and examinations. I did all kinds of things, and my salary was good. [When the war came,] I was still working but did not get paid anymore. … But we still continued working. You know, students still came, and we thought that if they saw that nobody was in school, it would be hard on them, heartbreaking.”
In 2004, Angela and her family were resettled to Abilene, Texas. And with all her education and excellent credentials—though no English—she had to start over again, this time with a dishwasher’s job at the local university. This I admire most. I never heard her complaining about having “such a lowly job.” The only thing I heard was, “I need this job.” But let Angela herself tell how it felt at that time:
“It was my first day at work, and it was really hard. But I told myself over and over again, You have to do it, you have to do it, we have to pay the bills, pay the rent, buy food, everything, and we have to have that money. Still, it was very hard. But then, I started to like my job, and I did it very well. …
“I had several hours between the work hours to work on my English. I would bring my books with me and learn to read and write in English from books, but I could not speak well. … But since my daughter had a job with Abilene State School then, she told me one day to try to apply there. … Now, it has been almost nine years in State School for me. I like my job; we work with people who are in wheelchairs and who are mentally handicapped, and we do everything for them.”
Angela has always been active in her community—be it in Rwanda, in a refugee camp in Democratic Republic of Congo, or later in Ivory Coast. Now, one of a small group of refugees in Texas, Angela is active in her ethnic group and her broader community.
She praises life in the US, saying, “I like it here because we are safe, and we are free to do things and to talk, and it feels good to be free. But the most important thing here is safety and security.
“Wherever we went, there was war and fighting, and we were so tired of fighting. It was so stressful. I could not sleep at night because of the war, and I did not know if we would be alive the next day—really, it was an awful feeling. Now, I go to work, I come home, I eat, I sleep quietly. It is very important.”
Angela has since become a US citizen, and the family lives in a quiet neighborhood where they have bought a house that has a nice garden. Life has turned out good for Angela. And I can say that she and her family have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps again!
Welcome Refugees to Your Community
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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 state – a story of a refugee, asylee, or immigrant they admire. From soldiers to politicians, employers to students, social workers to business people – everyday Americans tell their 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: therefugeecenter.org/world-refugee-day.