Lemlem Yohannes was born in Massawa, Eritrea along with her two brothers and one sister. She was born in 1968, and until she was able to flee to America she grew up in a hostile atmosphere of civil, religious, and political wars. With the constant chaos of warfare and the threat of low-income rates, it can often be extremely difficult for a young child in Eritrea to complete their education.
Therefore, at the age of fourteen years old, Lemlem was forced to drop out of school and begin working as a teacher. She focused on teaching the children Tigrinya, one of the native languages of Eritrea. Lemlem also developed a love for mathematics, and helped teach that to children as well. Before she left school and began her teaching career, Lemlem met her husband, an Ethiopian man named Teferi. They now have two children together, a son and a daughter.
Soon after marrying her husband, Lemlem was forced to flee her home country of Eritrea for Ethiopia.
She recalls, “there is no peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is not good that my husband is Ethiopian and I’m Eritrean.”
Marriages between Eritreans and Ethiopians are often frowned upon because of the violent tension between the two countries. As Lemlem crossed into Ethiopia with her two children in order to be with her husband, she risked her life because of the strict border patrols between the neighboring countries.
Once she had safely arrived in Ethiopia, Lemlem and her husband were placed in a refugee camp. They were told that they would soon be brought to America. Lemlem remembers, “there was no work and no freedom because the governmental relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is not good.” Inside the camp, people were no longer able to do all of the daily routines or traditions that they were once accustomed to, such as working and going to school. Having been a kindergarten teacher for over twenty years prior to moving to Ethiopia, it was quite a difficult transition for Lemlem to the very limited job availability inside the camp. Luckily, she was able to help teach the young children who were also refugees.
Finally, after four years of waiting and not knowing, Lemlem, her husband, and her two children were resettled to the United States in October 2012. She remembers the final step before being allowed to enter the country was a very intense interview by the Central Intelligence Agency. Since only arriving four months ago, Lemlem is still learning her way around Rhode Island and about American culture. She came directly to Rhode Island because she heard about Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island. She is very thankful for Dorcas International because they have provided her with a house, clothes, and English as a Second Language classes.
Her goals in America are to, “study English and teach kindergarten because it is my field.”
Although Lemlem is still adjusting to life in Rhode Island, she is very happy here. She is content in knowing that her children are receiving a good education and learning step-by-step. Also, going to the local church makes her happy. She has been to downtown Providence once and thinks it is very different than the life she once knew. Lemlem hopes that she will one day be able to explore more of this wonderful state.
Her husband Terefi, who is from Ethiopia, works at Falvey Linen Supply and can speak English and Arabic. Lemlem is happy to work anywhere and is thankful for her husband’s help during this transitional time. Overall, she says that the United States and the city of Providence make her happy because there is freedom, unlike the places she has experienced for most of her life.
Written and compiled by Katie Baker, Liz Mcqueeny, and Brannon Walker-Hodges
USCRI announced Here for Good, a social media campaign that celebrates the valuable contributions of refugees and immigrants to American life. The campaign—which launches today on USCRI’s Facebook page—uses visual and emotional storytelling to show how our lives are touched and enriched by newcomers every day.
Here for Good will confront common misconceptions about migrants, illustrating new Americans’ economic and cultural contributions to their local communities. The campaign celebrates the pursuit of the American Dream as a shared aspiration of the Founding Fathers and of today’s newest Americans.
Starting today, you can participate in Here for Good by sharing, commenting, and contributing to the conversation on USCRI’s Facebook page. We hope you will join us in celebrating the tenacity of refugees and immigrants as they pursue their new beginning. Together, we can highlight the ways in which our communities benefit from new Americans.
BEYOND BORDERS: Recognizing the Contributions and Struggles of Immigrants and Refugees in RI
Check out this video that was produced a couple years ago by a former intern from Providence College!
As budgets tighten, we are seeing austerity measures that discriminate against migrant workers, xenophobic rhetoric that encourages violence against irregular migrants, and proposed immigration laws that allow the police to profile migrants with impunity. During economic downturns, it is worth remembering that whole sectors of the economy depend on migrant workers and migrant entrepreneurs help to create jobs.
- Ban Ki-moon Message for International Migrants Day, 18 December 2012
Watch poet and journalist Musa Okwonga perform the Migrant Manifesto.
Migrants’ Rights Network is launching our new campaign called ‘Our Day: Standing together for International Migrants Day’. We are asking as many organisations and individuals as possible to get on board and show a united front in support of migrants. Share this video and go on our website http://www.our-day.org/ to add your voices of support.
The Migrant Manifesto was created in collaboration with immigration academics, activists, politicians, and community members at a convening at the Immigrant Movement International headquarters in Corona, Queens on November 4th and 5th, 2011. Thanks to Tania Bruguera and her team for sharing.
Gracias “Jim” Hakizimana was born in 1987 in Katumba Camp and later moved to Mtabil Camp, a refugee camp located in Tanzania, where he lived until coming to Rhode Island at the age of 20. His parents, both teachers, fled the country of Burundi in 1972 due to the ethnic civil war between the Tutsis and the Hutus. They feared for their safety due to the escalating violence in their country, and sought protection first in the Congo, and then in the refugee camp in Tanzania.
“In a refugee camp, the life is like a prison. We don’t have like enough clean water, no access to education. I did my elementary school in a refugee camp. I did my high school in a refugee camp. And then when it was time to get to college, there was no access to higher education, like a college or university. Life in a refugee camp was a really, really tough life.”
Jim, his mother, and his three brothers came to Rhode Island in August 2008. He traveled from Tanzania to Kenya to London to New York and eventually landed in Providence.
“We didn’t know where we [were] going…I didn’t choose Providence, Rhode Island. They just picked for me. I was in a plane. I didn’t know where I [was] going. Just, you know, I’m going to US. I was just happy.”
His first six months in Rhode Island proved to be different from how America was portrayed in the refugee camps.“I was expecting big things… just live like in a fancy neighborhood somewhere, you know, like drive a fancy car. But, it was not that way that’s how we see America actually like on TV.”
A major struggle was learning English, because Jim had never learned how to speak English, and the only English he ever heard in the refugee camp was British English. However, he was able to overcome the communication barrier by taking ESL classes at the International Institute of Rhode Island. He was able to grasp the English language in less than a year by working hard. He Hebecame a part of the Rhode Island community.
“When I got here I [was] excited because life was not the same life I used to live, you know? I wake up in the morning, I see people…smiling. Different people. There’s electricity; there’s no electricity in the refugee camp. There’s people using computers; there are no computers in the refugee camp. It was really, really nice. When I wake up one morning and be like, yeah, I made it. I’m in America right now.”
Jim began taking classes at the New England Institute of Technology in the Metro-Engineering program. Although he was still learning English, he managed to succeed in the classroom, eventually earning his Associate’s Degree. “If you work hard you can achieve. It’s a matter of working hard,” states Jim.
Although Jim loves being in America, he constantly thinks about the family he left behind at the refugee camp in Tanzania. Several of his siblings were not approved to come to America, and are still waiting to become reunited with Jim and his family in Rhode Island. The refugee camp where Jim’s siblings reside is closing next month, and he is worried about where his brothers and sisters will go.
Jim’s dream has always been to help others. “When I was even younger my idea was like, just work with people, helping people, you know, do something for people.” Currently Jim works with Youth Vision in Burundi, which aids children there to receive a better education. He also dreams of being a doctor one day. “I just need to be a doctor.” He currently works at PharMerica, a pharmaceutical company, and has started taking pre-pharmacy courses on the road to his fulfill his dream.
Jim has found Rhode Island to be a welcoming home during his four years residing here. “I never think about moving from Rhode Island… I have a lot of opportunities in Rhode Island…I think it is a great choice to be in Rhode Island.” He looks forward to spending many more years as part of the Rhode Island community.
Compiled and written by Kelley Garland & Katie Cavanaugh
Maliss Men Coletta was born in Cambodia in July 1977 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, a communist group that ravaged the country from 1975 to 1979. The genocide resulted in the deaths of 25 percent of the country’s population from starvation, overwork and executions. Her mother called her a miracle baby.
When the war ended in 1979, Maliss and her family resided in the Kandal Province near the capital Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The country began reconstruction and Maliss’ family was fortunate to have been successful during that time by owning a business. However, with lingering uncertainty about their future, her family decided to set their sights on a better life in America.
At the age of seven Maliss was forced to leave her home with her parents and four siblings; they embarked on a journey that eventually brought her to Rhode Island. Maliss recalls being awoken by her older sister early one October morning in 1984 and being told to prepare for a “family trip”. Her family was then led through rice fields and forests by a paid merchant, in hopes of avoiding soldiers and making it to the border of Cambodia and Thailand. There they hoped to be accepted as refugees by the Thai government and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but things were not so easy.
After being abandoned by their guide, the family was robbed and threatened at gunpoint by Khmer Rouge soldiers just at the outskirts of their first camp. They were lined up and told to face a machine gun. Even at a young age, Maliss understood the severity of her situation, and knew that she was sixth in line. Fortunately, the soldiers let her family go after the robbery.
The family later spent time at United Nations-sponsored camps which were not much safer, being plagued with robbery and rape by soldiers who were meant to protect them. The UN aid workers were not aware of this, having left the camps at nightfall for their own safety. Maliss’ mother dressed her sisters in boys clothing to protect them while plotting their escape.
“We became displaced people moving from one camp to another due to conflicts among those who were controlling these camps, mostly politically motivated. We were trapped in a battlefield, living in limbo and still trying to hang on to any hope of a better future.”
Eventually the family escaped and found safety with fellow Khmer families at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand. It was another year and a half of escaping- fleeing from the refugee camp to Bangkok, Thailand only to be jailed for six months and sent back to the refugee camp where they started.
Her family escaped again from the refugee camp in 1986, walking hundreds of miles down the east coast of Malaysia and swimming to Singapore expecting to be accepted as refugees by the US Embassy. Instead, they were handed over to the authorities in Singapore who jailed them for five and a half months. Maliss’ family chose to return to Thailand rather than stay indefinitely in jail.
They set out on Thai fishing boats but a storm sent them off course and they were able to take another boat from Malaysia to Indonesia where they finally were welcomed. Maliss’ family was interviewed by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and was finally permitted to come to the United States.
At age 11, Maliss was thrown into an American world. Her mother’s cousin sponsored the family so they could have a better life in Rhode Island. The family had little money even with her mother working three jobs, and prided themselves on getting the best education they could. She struggled to fit in and didn’t understand why her neighbors in Lincoln, RI thought it was odd that more than 10 people lived in one house. In her culture, it took a village to raise a family, but that was not the American way.
Today, Maliss’ greatest accomplishment is being amongst her four siblings; all who have worked hard to receive a college degree to make their mother proud. She currently resides in Wickford with her husband and enjoys the beach and being close to her mother. Her brothers and sisters have dispersed across the country, and she dreams of one day reuniting the family because of their experience together. Maliss is currently a teacher and case manager at the International Institute of Rhode Island where she assists fellow immigrants and refugees to become self sufficient.
Despite the obstacles Maliss has faced throughout her life she still has a bright, infectious sense of optimism that shows she will not allow anything to get in her way. Maliss states that she owes all of her success to her mother.
“Her courage, determination, perseverance, and her motherly instincts to protect and nurture her children got us through an unimaginable journey from Cambodia to America.”
Compiled and written by Veronica LeJeune & Lakisha DaCruz
Ali Mortezaie was born in Tehran, Iran in 1972. He spent much of his youth as part of a youth activist group that spoke out against Iran’s non-democratic government, supporting the freedom of speech and movement.
At the end of 2002 issues within the government began to get out of control and Ali left Iran and fled to Turkey. In Turkey he requested refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but after four months he was deported back to Iran. Upon his return, Iranian government officials asked him why he fled to Turkey and requested refugee status. Fearing execution, Ali had to lie for his own protection and was sentenced to prison where he spent a year in jail.
In 2005, Ali’s family gave up some of their property so he could get out of jail. Soon after, Ali and his friend left Iran and paid a guide to help them navigate through the mountains in Turkey. Turkish police stopped Ali and his friend at the border and tried to deport them back to Iran but they explained that they could not return and were waiting for an interview with UNHCR. They stayed in a deportation camp on the Turkish border for nine months. “Every day they gave us half of a sandwich with salami and cheese.” Desperate, Ali went on a hunger strike for fourteen days until UNHCR came and accepted his case.
In 2008 the United States accepted Ali’s petition to come as a refugee and he got married. His wife however, was not approved through UNCHR. Ali’s case was suspended until his wife was approved so that they both could come together. Because it took so long, over a year, their case was closed by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and UNCHR transferred their case to Canada. They waited 5 months but during this time his wife’s brother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and UNHCR decided to send him to the United States for medical treatment.
Ali wanted to support his wife and her brother and contacted the UNCHR lawyer to ask to transfer their case back to the United States. UNCHR accepted his wife in order to care for her brother, but Ali was not allowed to come with her because his case had already expired. Ali was told by UNCHR that he would be able to meet his family in the US within 6 months.
Having struggled for so long to escape the harsh rule of the Iranian government, Ali finally arrived in the US two years after his wife in January 2012.
“When I arrived at TF Green airport the Customs officer said ‘Welcome to your home’. This was the first contact for me with Americans and I saw their hospitality. I was ready to cry.”
Life in the United States was not an easy adjustment at first. Ali went through many personal issues with his family and was not able to communicate with his family back in Iran for fear of their safety. Regardless of some difficulties in the beginning, Ali has become an active community member in Rhode Island. He enjoys having many freedoms that he did not have in Iran.
Ali began an urban garden and enjoys giving vegetables he has grown to others. He also gives advice to his neighbors about planting their own garden. Currently he is taking classes at Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center for IT Programming to receive his A+ Certification. He is also enrolled in a workforce training class for customer service.
“Education is so important for all people when they come to the United States so they can communicate with others and be certified to find a better job.”
After everything that he has gone through, Ali still maintains a positive attitude. Though he misses his family and home every day, he has accepted his new life here and enjoys being in Rhode Island. Ali loves the fall season for the colorful trees and also enjoys fishing. He dreams of opening his own business one day to develop computer program software.
Compiled and written by Lauren Pedulla & Adebanke Otunba-Payne