Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Being human

The following interview was done by Valerie Luckey, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Adam Ali* teaches English and living skills to refugees in Erie, Pennsylvania, United States of America at Saint Benedict Education Center (SBEC), a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie that provides education and job placement services. A refugee himself, he understands their struggle. It is through his work with these refugees and others that he has grown in compassion for the inherent struggles of being human; it is also through his work with these refugees and others that he has grown himself as a human. He recently sat down with me to share his story for the Peace Stories blog.

Adam Ali was born in Iraq, outside the capital city of Baghdad. As a young child, he spent time with his four sisters and four brothers. His father worked as a carpenter and his mom worked at home while being self-employed as a carpet maker. He also played with friends, growing up in a neighborhood with “green areas called orchards” and “natural life and quiet.” He played soccer and enjoyed going to school – a normal upbringing for many children. Adam said it was his mother and father who taught him, “This is wrong. This is right,” and “You have to be respectful of people, even if they don’t agree with you.”

In the top tier of his class, Adam attended both high school and college, choosing to study English literature at the university level. There he read the classics like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, as well as Waiting for Godot and Great Expectations, while learning grammar and composition. Adam was studying to live his dream of being a translator or a teacher. His oldest brother was an Arabic teacher, and another brother was an instructor in agriculture – his role models.

Little did he know how those dreams would realize themselves.

After attending university, Ali began teaching English at the high-school level. This was during the 1990’s, during the First Gulf War. At this time many Iraqi people, including his friends “left legally and illegally, having to give money either way.” Adam said he did not have the money to leave the country, but if he did he “would have spent it on the family.” Making only the equivalent of three U.S. American dollars each month, he had to sell gold and furniture, work in the market, and teach private English lessons to the children of wealthy citizens to support himself.

During this time as a teacher, Ali married his wife and began a family. Then the year 2003 came. Saddam Hussein fell from power during the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March of that year. Now, there was no government. One day Adam was walking and saw a Humvee with an announcement declaring a need for doctors, engineers, and interpreters. Adam felt encouraged to apply as an interpreter. With his translation skills, he passed the written and oral exams with ease and was hired immediately.

From 2003 until 2009, Adam worked for the Civil Affairs of the United States government in Iraq. During that time he “rebuilt schools, orphanages, and hospitals.” He “talked to people in the street, asking, ‘What are your concerns?’” I wondered why Ali would choose this work where “people will look at you like a traitor,” where he was threatened more than once, where he moved to live in different locations at military bases away from his wife and children for days at a time. By 2007 the sectarian violence had escalated greatly: “If you are an interpreter or translator, you are killed right away. Many of my friends were killed, thrown in a dump field.” Why then, would you do this work, full of risk and danger?

“I helped people,” Ali told me, “like rebuilding schools and other things. When you do something like that, you feel you are human.”

Ah, there it was. Adam felt like he was human. I asked him to elaborate. He told me, “It made me feel proud.” I asked if he felt the same way, the same goodness of being human, working with refugees here in Erie. “Yes, being through this myself, I want to help them.”

In 2008, Ali applied to come to America through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He was in the first one hundred accepted. People wondered, with the danger to his life in his US government work, why he stayed as long as he did in Iraq, “My family did not want to come because life here is not easy, especially if you don’t have friends or relatives, so you have adapt.” Again, Ali conveyed to me his understanding of and compassion for the struggle for so many refugees today. While many members of his family still live in Iraq, he had to tell them, “Just let me go; I want something safe.”

In 2009, Adam and his family came to the United States of America. When they were in Frankfurt, Germany he thought he was coming to Raleigh, North Carolina, but there he was told that he would come to Erie, Pennsylvania.

Since then, Ali has worked as a translator for a family doctor and for the International Institute, a committee that works to help uprooted people rebuild their lives. Once he found employment at SBEC, he started teaching in a classroom again. More than just English and life skills, he teaches his students that they are worthy humans, “Here they feel embarrassed and nervous, so I teach them to be confident.”

In 2015, Adam became a citizen of the United States. But even as he continues to settle here with his wife and children in this country, he remembers the reality of being human, a reality he has learned through his own struggle, “You don’t know:  Today you are healthy; tomorrow you are sick. Today you are rich; tomorrow you have no money.” Adam is moved to compassion when he sees others struggling, “When you someone in need, you wish to help them.”

Adam’s story, unique yet filled with the truth of being human, taught me that in all the uncertainty intrinsic to life, the best thing we can do is be there to help others in their need.

*Not his real name.

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Valerie Luckey recently entered religious life in the community of Benedictine Sisters in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA. She is currently a novice studying the history of monasticism and the community while exploring many new adventures. Before entering, she taught fourth grade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: The teaching of life

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The following interview was done by Valerie Luckey, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Khina Dahal became a naturalized American citizen in June 2016. She is a former Bhutanese refugee. When I first met Khina Dahal in September 2015, I was beginning my ministry at Saint Benedict Center, an early education childhood care center in Erie, Pennsylvania. On my first day of ministry, I was asked to help in a classroom consisting primarily of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese children, many of whom had been born in Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal.

Khina worked as an assistant teacher in the classroom, helping these young preschoolers learn and grow while also aiding with language translation. With no other staff speaking the Nepali language, she proved to be an invaluable asset at Saint Benedict Center. She continues working at the center today. Khina agreed to tell me her own story as a Bhutanese refugee in Nepal, a story that began for her at the age of ten.

In 1989, the Bhutan government imposed the law, “One Nation: One Policy.” This law stated there would only be one religion practiced in the country, one language spoken: Dzongkha, and one set of customs and clothing accepted. The educated Nepali-speaking southern Bhutanese appealed this law, asking for the rights to practice their own religion, speak their own language, and continue living their own customs. The Bhutan government denied this appeal.

As a result, in the 1990s, the Bhutanese government began arresting many Nepali ethnic minorities living in the country. At that time, the Bhutanese armed forces began looking for educated men, including Khina’s own uncle. At that time, she and her family were living in Bhutan, working on the family’s farm. There they enjoyed fresh air, and fruits and vegetables, which they would sell to support themselves. Khina’s youngest uncle was educated, and the Bhutan army came and demanded that he be given to the government, or at the least, to be told where he was.

But the government’s armed forces did not just come to doors either. “When you were walking, the government forces would grab you, arrest you, and put you in jail,” Khina told me. In addition, they came for females, to be used for sex. It was during this time that her grandfather made a decision. He said, “We have to leave the country.”

So, in 1992, Khina, who was ten years old at that time, left the country and went with her family to Maidhar River Site Refugee Camp in Jhapa, Nepal seeking refuge. On their family-run farm, the family had enjoyed fresh fruits and vegetables, but at the camp it was “just rice, all the time,” which was provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency. The conditions were unbearably hot; the family had to make a tent out of plastic, and the water, besides being insufficient in quantity, was unsafe to drink.

The family stayed for six months. During that time, Khina told me, “We saw a lot of dead bodies. People were dying in the camp – so many – but thank God we didn’t die.” She believes that about half of the people died there, and she and her family would often wonder, “Who’s going to be next?” After the continuous suffering, many started to move to other camps.

The second camp where Khina lived was Beldangi II Refugee Camp, also located in Jhapa, Nepal. Khina continued her education and was eventually able to become an assistant teacher in the camp herself. She told me that conditions in the second camp were much better and healthier than at the Maidhar Camp. Shelter, food, and clothing were provided by the United Nations’ agencies but they were still not sufficient enough to live a normal life. Nevertheless, many of the children were able to attend school for free, which was provided for by the aiding agencies. It was during this time that Khina read many articles written by other refugees. She looked at one particular picture and wondered, “Who is that?”

Khina eventually married Harka Dahal, and with her marriage, moved onto a third refugee camp, that is, Pathari Bhutanese Refugee Camp, located in Morang, Nepal. Khina continued to teach, and it was in this camp where her daughter, Sulochana Dahal, was born. During this time, some members of her family began working with International Organization for Migration (IOM) to begin the application process to come to the United States. Khina and her husband Harka followed suite, and in January 2011 flew from Nepal to the United States. They settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, the same place where Harka’s family lived.

In order to receive benefits, Khina had to attend the Multicultural Community Resource Center in Erie. There she had to practice her English alphabet and vocabulary along with other refugees. But, Khina already knew English and had already been a teacher herself. Her brother and sister encouraged her and her family to move away from Erie and seek better opportunities in another city, but with her husband’s family here, they decided to remain in Erie.

Khina was able to find part-time employment at a local daycare center, Bundles of Love, while the Curtze Company, a specialty steak service employed Harka. Because they were now both employed, the family needed childcare, so her husband enrolled Sulochana at Saint Benedict Center. When Khina went to pick up their daughter, she was asked if she wanted to work at the center, as they were in need of someone who spoke the Nepali language with many Nepali refugee families enrolling their children. Finally, Khina was able to grab this opportunity and become a part-time assistant teacher at the center. Here, in the United States of America, Khina became a teacher again.

As she began working at Saint Benedict Center, she wanted to become a full-time employee. She told herself and her husband, “I’m going to get that job!” She did. Some of her students from the refugee camps still contact her now: “They are big boys and girls now!”

I had talked to Khina before, but I hadn’t listened to her story. When I approached her to ask if she would be willing to do this interview, she said yes. Before we sat down, I thought of Khina as a timid woman, but when I heard the tenacity in her voice as she said, “I’m going to get that job!” I knew I was in the presence of a strong, determined woman. I also learned that I was in the presence of a woman forced into maturity before her time. Remember, she was only ten when she witnessed the atrocities at the first refugee camp. When we began the interview, she admitted to me of her story, “I didn’t want to remember at one point.” To have been exposed to so much pain, suffering, and death at such a young age makes me believe that she has been and continues to be a gift to all her students on both continents. We need teachers who can be compassionate with students’ struggles. Watching her kindness and care in the classroom as she instructs and empowers today’s youth, I see someone who, because of her own experience, knows how to be a sign of hope and determination for others.

Valerie Luckey recently entered religious life in the community of Benedictine Sisters in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA. She is currently a novice studying the history of monasticism and the community while exploring many new adventures. Before entering, she taught fourth grade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.