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Refugees in Columbia

Refugees find a home through friends, worship and the community

February 14, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

View Refugees of Columbia: Where they came from in a larger map

The smell of grilled meats and cinnamon fill the kitchen. Peeling a beef kabob from the pan, Ali Said chooses his garnishes: black olives, sweet pickles, freshly cut tomatoes and green peppers. Said, 47, his wife, Shurok, and their daughter, Maryam, converse in Arabic. The Saids are Iraqi refugees, and they’ve lived in Columbia since 2010. This dinner isn’t common for the trio.

It is October 2012, and Said (sigh-ED) is working close to 75 hours a week trying to rebuild his family’s old Baghdad life in central Missouri. They don’t always have family time. Said is working two jobs, at the Hampton Inn and Truman Hotel in Jefferson City; his days usually begin at 5:30 a.m. and end at 11 p.m. His only break is an hour between jobs when he squeezes in a 20-minute nap. Life is cut down to the basics: eat, sleep, work and take care of the family.

Before coming to America, Ali and Shurok were educators. Ali was a physics teacher, and Shurok was a principal. They had nice furniture, three cars and a beautiful garden. During peacetime, life was good and unhurried. As a teacher, Ali’s typical day began at 8 a.m. In the afternoon, he would volunteer for the U.S. Army to help plan and build bases. Evenings were spent eating family dinners, sitting in the garden and reading before bed.

First friends

“Where do they come from?”

The answer is on the tip of Jen Wheeler’s tongue as she sifts through a clothes rack in a neighbor’s garage; she answers her neighbor without looking up.

“They come from Burma, Congo, Burundi, Iraq, Eritrea. ...” The list trails on as she answers her neighbor’s question about the more than 1,300 refugees who live in Columbia.

Wheeler says countries such as the United States and Australia resettle eligible refugees each year in select cities based on nationality. The Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City’s Refugee and Immigration Services receives grants to help refugees settle in mid-Missouri.

Grabbing a pile of clothes taller than her, Wheeler walks out of the garage to the trunk of her car. Her three children follow behind her like ducklings. The children add VHS tapes and a toy railroad to the pile, items Wheeler will sell on her Facebook page to help fund refugees’ basic needs and the salary for those who volunteer to drive them to their jobs. Wheeler is the board president of the nonprofit organization City of Refuge and founder of a cleaning services business, Safi Sana, which employs refugees to clean houses, apartments and businesses. Both organizations help refugees adapt to American life.

There are roughly 8,000 foreign-born residents in Columbia, but the difference between most immigrants and refugees is that refugees flee. They are forced to leave because of war, persecution or natural disasters. Refugees are survivors and have endured hardships in crowded camps.

Now in Missouri, they must adapt to their new surroundings. Wheeler and other volunteers are these survivors’ first friends in America.

When refugees arrive in Columbia, most experience culture shock as they encounter a language barrier, a foreign way of life and the trials of finding work.

To cope, refugees such as Ali Said’s family from Iraq often need emotional support and friendship, whether through their own ethnic communities or people like Wheeler and Lori Stoll, another volunteer and friend to refugees. It’s how these newcomers adjust to life in Columbia and how they come to call the city home.

“Those friends really make it comfortable for me,” Said says. “When you live in a place, you need someone to have your back when you need something. You need to talk to someone who really takes care of you. Those friends are really great.”

Since meeting young refugees in 2009, Wheeler has been a proud friend to Columbia’s refugee community. She just wants to know them more; she wants to help because they have enriched her life.

“I want refugees to be proud of the term ‘refugee,’” Wheeler says. “Their families survived some frightening events. They survived war and lived to tell about it.”

Said and refugees like him are resilient. Although they have started over, they are grateful to be alive with their families and to have support and fellowship. Some hope to eventually return home, while others have found their home here through community, religion and the pursuit of their career aspirations.

“What makes a home a home is family and your friends,” Wheeler says. “When you feel like you belong in the city, you connect with the people.”

A loaded message

Said sleeps about four hours a night and keeps a pillow and blanket nestled in his car so he can nap during the day. He misses using his mind; he traded in his bachelor’s degree in physics to coordinate meeting rooms and check pool temperatures.

Like all refugees, Said fled his home. Living in Baghdad, where war was the backdrop to daily life, Said hadn’t felt safe for nearly 20 years. Gunshots and the sight of dead bodies were regular occurrences, and he often feared for his family’s safety.

When the Iraq War began in 2003, schools shut down. With no place to teach, Said worked for an Iraqi company that had ties with the U.S. Army. One day, Said received a letter with a bullet inside. Al Qaeda sent it to dissuade him from helping the U.S. Although the Saids moved in with relatives, three more letters came, and one day the threat was more than just a letter.

Gifts from the community

The only sound on Redwood Drive is the rustling of leaves and the occasional chirp of a bird. This afternoon the only person outside is a neighbor reading on his lawn. Among the driveways and modest pewter-colored duplexes, one house stands out.

“I can usually tell it is a refugee home because there are no cars in the driveway,” Wheeler says, explaining that most refugees resettle with almost no possessions.

This home belongs to a new refugee family from the Karen (Kuh-REN) state of Burma. They and more than 500 other persecuted ethnic minorities from the isolated country represent one of Columbia’s largest refugee populations. A plastic bag of bread on the doorknob, a green plant in a cardboard box and a pile of bikes — gifts from the community — suggest their arrival.

Wheeler is about to bring them even more donations from her collection of garage sale items as she heard from Stoll that this family was in need of resources and a welcome.

But they’re not home, so Wheeler leaves gift after gift in front of their door —145 gifts to be exact. A pyramid emerges with VHS movies, sheets, pans and a VCR player. Atop the heap, she places a toddler-size SpongeBob SquarePants pillow. When this family returns, they won’t be able to reach their door.

“I try to bless refugees and their families,” she says. “I think they are amazing people, and they have incredible stories of survival and hardship.”

Ali Said stands outside the Hampton Inn & Suites during a Sunday evening maintainence shift. While waiting on maintenance calls to come through, Said checks the outside of the parking lot for maintenance issues like burned-out light bulbs. Photography by Kile BrewerAt a church service for African refugees, Juditha Mbonimpaye, raises her hands during a song while carrying Baraka Gustave, 2, on her back Sunday afternoon Jan. , 2013 at the J.W. "Blind" Photograph by Kile BrewerPhotograph by Kile BrewerAt a church service for Aftrican refugees, Vena, left, closes his eyes during a closing prayer Sunday evening Jan. 6, 2013 at the J.W. "Blind" Boone Community Center. Photography by Kile Brewer

A quick exit

Picking up his daughter from school, Said heard the sound of bullets firing; this time they were aimed at him. He instinctively grabbed his daughter and ducked behind his car. Everything happened quickly; Said only remembers a car speeding by. When the shooting stopped, bullet holes peppered his car. For a family man, that was enough. Said would leave Iraq that night.

He left his friends, his house, his cars and his collection of 900 books within hours of the shooting. But he still had his family and his college transcript.

Said and his family crossed into Syria and lived in Damascus for four years. Life was terrible; he and his family lived in a cramped apartment with seven people, and Said spent most of his savings on rent payments. During his last two years in Damascus, he worked illegally at a hospital for about $18 a day. Once he was approved to resettle in Columbia, he had only $500, more than most refugees have when they migrate.

Together in worship

The faint sound of children singing resonates through Heather Ridge Apartments’ parking lot. There’s a pile of shoes at the doorstep where the sound emanates. Inside, roughly 20 refugees from the Karen tribe of Burma crowd into the cramped space. The mothers stand behind the children; the men sit in the kitchen.

The smell of cooked rice wafts through the air. The children stand in a half-circle facing a handmade altar, a wooden table with a white lace skirt and pink flowers. The children sing about Jesus’ life as the preacher listens behind the altar. After a long week, this worship provides a space for the roughly 40 Karen refugees of Columbia to come together as a community.

The Baptist worship occurs weekly and gives the community an opportunity to be together, relax and preserve their religion and language, says Taw Taw, a 20-year-old refugee and community organizer.

In the late 1990s, the Burmese government launched a major military offensive against rebels in the Karen state, according to the Karen Human Rights Group. After fleeing their homes, living in crowded refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border and moving to America, Burmese refugees still face many difficulties.

Taw Taw says he misses home, friends and the mountains; he misses the simpler life where rent wasn’t due. But this worship and the strong sense of community help him and the Karen persevere.

Although most of the Karen refugees attend the regular service at Midway Baptist Church in the morning to connect with the mid-Missouri community, this smaller service gives them the freedom to worship in their own language and the opportunity to bring a small piece of their home to Columbia.

Every Friday morning, Stoll and some of her friends help the refugees read phone bills and Medicaid statements; she speaks slowly and stresses each word sharply. Stoll knows each Karen by name and story. She enjoys learning about their culture because, to her, their friendship is mutually enriching. Before going home, Stoll brings four women to her car. Items such as a toaster, board games and a suitcase fill her trunk. The women dissect this pile and take what they need.

Stoll offers these gifts so the Karen can live more comfortably. She couldn’t rest if she knew they needed something. But there is a prize item in Stoll’s pile — the suitcase. A Karen mother claims it along with a pumpkin Stoll taught her how to roast. Taking it, she speaks to Stoll. Stoll translates: “When they came here, they had a plastic bag. When they go back, they’ll have a suitcase. That means they’ll be Americans.”

In the J.W. “Blind” Boone Community Center, the Agape Fellowship congregation worships. No one stands still. Synchronized music blasts from a keyboard while women young and old stand at microphones and praise God through song as they sway their bodies side to side. Each woman wears authentic, patterned dresses with head wraps, but some younger girls mix in storebought clothes.

Everyone contributes to these songs; if they are not dancing, they are tapping their feet. The floor shakes, and the pastor screams “Hallelujah” as each song ends. Like the Karen service, Agape Fellowship Church is a place for this community to congregate and share problems.

This community of refugees from Burundi, Rwanda, Ghana and the Congo is not meeting in a church. Educational posters about grammar adorn the walls, and the congregation sits in plastic chairs. Through song, dance and praise, the room transforms into a place of worship. The pastor speaks Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s language, while Caritas Habimana, who once fled Rwanda herself, translates the service into English.

Before services, Christian Fellowship Church volunteers sit with some Africans and help them study for their citizenship exams, which they are eligible to take after five years in America.

Citizenship, along with fellowship, helps refugees find a sense of belonging in America, Habimana says. Love is the core of this church, as agape means love in Greek. Love for God is what unifies this African community. Love for one another is how each community member endures challenges.

Building himself

When Said and his family first arrived in Columbia in 2010, Wheeler found Said a job as a painter and then a cleaner. Since then, they’ve been close friends. Although he struggled with the idea of working in a hotel at first, Said is positive.

“When I started in housekeeping, the first thing they had me do was clean the bathroom. In that day, I was angry. I says, ‘I teach physics for 15 years, and now I am cleaning a bathroom.’ After awhile, I said to myself: ‘Ali, go ahead, keep working. There is nothing shame in the work. Keep working till you return to being a physics teacher.’”

What he wants to do now is rebuild himself and his family. Said wants to do something special, something more.

“My friend Matt said, ‘One day, Ali, I am going to find you as a senator,’” Said says. “I say: ‘OK, why not? I am going to try.’ I can serve the country. This country saved my life.”

But to do this, Said must first pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language, an exam that evaluates his English skills before he can go back to school to pursue a master’s degree at MU and return to being a teacher. Wheeler is currently trying to find him a teaching position at a local college, but she hasn’t been lucky. In February, she’ll host a luncheon with the City of Refuge board members, the community and Said as a way to find someone to help finance his journey toward higher education and a better job.

Because of the support he has received from his family and friends, Said has always thought of Columbia as his home. When he read a text from Wheeler saying she would help him become a teacher again, he said: “Oh, this lady tries to do many things for me. I really love her.”

Currently, Said is taking a course at MU’s Intensive English Program to study for the TOEFL. In order to do this, Said quit his job at the Truman Hotel, which means he lost roughly 40 work hours weekly.

Said is trying to balance part-time work, daily test preparation classes, his family and paying the bills. He says it isn’t easy returning back to school after 20 years. But he also knows he has to try to regain his old life. If he fails, he vows to try again because, to him, “nothing in this life happens without the God wanting it.” Once he succeeds, Said feels he will finally find his place in the fabric of America. He’ll only have to worry about Maryam. That’s the dream for Said.

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