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‘This is my home’ Somali refugees adjust to Owensboro life

OWENSBORO, Ky. (AP) – Hamza Ibrahim Ahmed cried his little heart out on a recent Wednesday morning.

The 4-year-old had a doctor’s appointment to attend, but he would rather have stuck with his usual routine at Hager Preschool.

“Yesterday, he was telling me, ‘Papa, they’re teaching us songs today!’” Ibrahim Hassan said from his living room the next day. He communicates with his son and daughter, Hafsa Ibrahim Ahmed, 2, in their native Somali tongue.

“He only had to miss school one day, but he came crying when he knew he couldn’t go,” Hassan said. “He has good friends there.”

While a change in the routine may not move Hassan and his wife Sahara Amin Nekow to tears, the couple are just as fond of their new lives in Owensboro.

They moved here two months ago from Dadaab, a refugee camp in northeast Kenya – with about 350,000 refugees from various African countries, it’s the largest refugee camp in the world. Of those, nearly 330,000 are from Somalia.

Situated in the Horn of Africa – a peninsula in the continent’s northeast that goes hundreds of miles into the Arabian Sea – Somalia is bordered by Djibouti to the north, Ethiopia to the central west, and Kenya to the southwest, with Yemen lying just north, across the Gulf of Aden.

Many Somalis fled in 1991 or soon after, when the country was wrecked by civil war.

“In Somalia, the main problem is interclan violence,” Hassan said, noting two of the most powerful clans as the Hawiye, who generally live in the capitol Mogadishu and other south central areas, and the Daarood (commonly Darod), who mainly live in the north.

“Problems depended on which tribe you come from,” he said. Of course, most descendants of those clans, or any clan, are not involved in nor approve of the violent acts. For those who were, though, “It was not only a matter of shooting; some would organize as troops and shoot, take things, force people from their apartment and takeover things they didn’t own.”

It caused people to leave for their lives, but Hassan, 28, didn’t always understand why as a child. He left with his father and grandmother in 1994, landing in the Kenyan settlement. There, he met his wife, who is now 29; she had fled there with her parents two years earlier.

Throughout his time at Dadaab, Hassan worked with two of the many non-government organizations (NGOs) that provided services to the camp: the National Council of Churches of Kenya, with which he was a peace promoter; and Care International, with which he was a hygiene promoter. He also attended high school there.

Here, Hassan works as a machine operator at Omico Plastics. His wife – she had just left for an appointment with a case worker -worked for a few weeks before the couple decided they could better care for their daughter, who’s not in school yet, with only one of them having to be away.

Omico is fine for now, he said, but he has other dreams.

“I work 12 hours, 7:30 at night to 7:30 in the morning; you can’t carry on working as a laborer, it’s hard work and hard to stand for that long,” he said. “I want to study business administration, I’m interested in accounting. That’s my main objective.

“Business is a large field; you can have your idea here and plant it anywhere in the world,” he said.

Of the 150 refugees the International Center of Owensboro resettles each fiscal year, about 80 percent in the past three months have been from Somalia while the remaining 20 percent are from Myanmar (Burma).

“Over the past year, with improvements in the political situation in Burma, our arrivals have transitioned from mostly Burmese to mostly Somali,” said site director James Litsey. The center has helped resettle people from Myanmar – who make up the largest population of refugees in town – Vietnam and Cuba over the years, but he doesn’t anticipate any other nationalities for the 2017 fiscal year.

The International Center secures housing, food, medical care and jobs for the refugees, with the Tyson Foods Inc. plant in Robards being a major employment partner. About half the new arrivals work at Tyson and the other half work at various places in Owensboro.

The International Center also has an orientation on American culture and life skills, and it enrolls children in to school and their parents into English classes.

“I’m routinely amazed by how well they do,” said Litsey. “Within months, even those who arrive with no knowledge of English, are working, their children are in school, and they are beginning to navigate our culture and our community. By one year they’ve submitted their first 1040 form and many have purchased a car. By five years, many are buying homes and becoming citizens.”

Refugee resettlement in Owensboro started with local churches and the Center was established to assist in those efforts, he said. Those partnerships have continued and the school systems, hospital, law enforcement, Owensboro Community & Technical College and the health department have long been a part of the effort. A growing group of landlords and employers are coming along now, he said.

Refugees often succeed here, he said, because of the “good hearts of local people.

“Refugees are different from immigrants – immigrants choose to leave their country and come here, usually to find a better job,” he said. “Refugees didn’t choose to leave their country for a better job. The refugees coming to Owensboro left their home country because of a war. They fled to a second country to seek shelter, but the country to which they fled was not willing to host them forever. Both immigrants and refugees have been an important part of the American experience since the beginning.”

He regards the U.S. as the most hospitable of the countries in the United Nations’ refugee host program, as it resettles between 70,000 and 100,000 people each year.

“(The U.S. is) continuing to give substance to those words on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’,” he said. “They’re still coming and America is still welcoming them. And now communities like Owensboro are the new Ellis Island. It’s an amazing opportunity for us. We’re already doing a good job, but we can do even better.”

Litsey has heard stories of explosions, killings, sickness and crime surrounding the refugees’ journeys from Somalia to Kenya to the U.S.

He encourages local residents to be considerate of that.

But, “These are real people who don’t need or want our pity,” he said. “What they want is a safe place to live and work and raise their children. They want to find the part they will play in the American story.”

The International Center welcomes volunteers, donations of home items like sheets and small appliances, and tutors. People can also help at the center’s aforementioned partner organizations.

“Perhaps the most important way (to help) is to welcome them. Take the first step. Smile. Introduce yourself,” Litsey said. “If you have new refugee neighbors, bake them some cookies. Learn their names. Just remember, these are real people. Imagine your situations being reversed, and treat them the way you would want them to treat you.”

Hassan and his family have also found refuge at the Islamic Center of Owensboro. Staying connected to their faith eases the transition, though he still has a few things to get used to.

“The climate is so different. It’s humid (in Kenya), but here, you shiver at midday,” he said. “I like the business centers where you shop; you can find everything you need at one place, like Wal-Mart.

“And the people – there’s good people and bad people everywhere you go – but here seems to be a higher percentage of good people,” he said. “You see them and they smile to you.”

Somalia has been crawling toward resolve and stability, the BBC reports, since an internationally-backed government was installed in 2012, but challenges remain.

His native country will always be a part of him. Kenya, too. But with both of his parents now deceased, Hassan said he has no plans to live there again. He and his wife hope to have more children and root their family here.

“This is my home,” he said. “We want to stay. I’m already an Owensboroan.”

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Information from: Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, http://www.messenger-inquirer.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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