Wednesday, April 22, 2015

My Heart for Eritrea and the Gift of My Family's US Citizenship

I am writing this story on the special occasion of my kids’ becoming US citizens on April 15, 2015, a naturalization ceremony that included 25 children from 18 countries. My name is Mussie Zena and I am originally from Eritrea. To appreciate our journey to US citizenship I must give some background about my country Eritrea. It is located in the Horn of Africa, bordered with Ethiopia in the South, the Sudan in the West, Djibouti in the South East and the Red Sea in the East. It has been only 23 years since gaining its independence from Ethiopia and unfortunately it has emerged as one of the largest sources of refugees in Africa - as well as one of the most militarized societies in the world. It is increasingly displaying signs of fragile state structures and an unsustainable humanitarian situation.

Eritrea is sometimes referred to as the North Korea of Africa. President Isaias Afewerki - the only leader this young nation has known - used the 1998 border conflict with Ethiopia as a pretext to eliminate all domestic opposition and indefinitely defer implementing the constitution and holding elections. At the moment there are not any human or democratic rights of any sort in Eritrea. 1.5 million Eritreans are estimated to live in the Diaspora and out of this number about 350,00 migrated just after independence, since 1991. Reliable data on the size of Eritrea's population is hard to come by, but estimates range between 5 and 6 million people. The United Nations documents reported that the average number of people fleeing every month has now reached 4,000. While the regime is in denial of the deteriorating conditions, Eritreans are voting in masses with their feet. The vast majority of the refugees are young people, and hence significant portion of Eritrea’s productive workforce has either fled the country or find themselves indefinitely conscripted in the military. It is also estimated by world human rights organizations that there are more than 10,000 political and prisoners of conscience in known and unknown prison cells inside Eritrea.

Those who flee the country to get to Europe through Libya or to Israel via Egypt usually fall victim to human traffickers where they can be kidnapped, tortured, and their families in the West extorted for ransom money by regional criminal networks. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has identified the involvement of leading figures in the Eritrean military in these criminal networks, the participation of high-level military personnel in these activities - which also include the trafficking of weapons and forced labor. At times the kidnappings by human traffickers reach to the extent of harvesting organs of the victims in the Sahara and Sinai Deserts. Those of them who have escaped from the hands of the cruel human traffickers also use very crumbly and unstable wooden boats to desperately cross the Mediterranean to get into Europe, specifically to Italy, and an uncountable number of them have died in the past 5 to 10 years. The Lampadusa tragedy of October 2013 which resulted in the drowning and death of 350 Eritreans including pregnant women and children, and other similar incidents including the hundreds who were just lost in the month of April 2015 in the same Mediterranean Sea is totally outrageous and heartbreaking.  

Currently, the Eritrean society is almost totally militarized. An indefinite, compulsory and universal military conscription policy applies to most of Eritrea's adult population. All students become conscripted soldiers at the end of high school.  The students must go to a military camp called Sawa to finish their last year of high school and become soldiers in due time.  Eritrea’s army is now one of the largest on the continent, and has the highest number of military personnel per capita in the world next to North Korea. In 2011, the Isaias regime took the additional step of arming a large section of the civilian population believed to be loyal to his party, the only party in the country i.e. People's Front for Democracy and Justice, PFDJ. Although huge amounts of resources have been devoted to Eritrea's military, political power is very much personalized in present day Eritrea, and remains largely in the hands of the president and a handful of military generals, who are rivaling and contesting each other over power, influence and control over financial resources.

Evan and Nazrwi proudly display their
 US Citizenship certificates with their father, Mussie,
 and Flor Bickel, CCI  Senior Immigration Consultant
I was born and grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was in Ethiopia up until my 10th grade of high school.  In 1992, one year after Eritrea got its independence, I went to Eritrea and finished both my high school and my first degree studies. There was one university in Eritrea before 2006 in which I did my 1st degree in Economics in 1999. It was officially closed by the dictatorial regime in 2006. I have a first degree in Economics from the University of Asmara in Eritrea. In the middle of my undergraduate studies and after my graduation I served my Eritrean national service mostly as a conscripted soldier for 2 years.  After serving for two years in the national service I got a scholarship for graduate studies in South Africa. I left Eritrea in March 2001 for my Mphil program in the field of Tourism Management at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. During that time (2001/2002) I never went back to Eritrea because I became a political activist during my student years in Pretoria. Despite my hard feelings and observations of the Eritrean regime’s wild and boundless abuses of all kinds of human and democratic rights while I was in Eritrea, there was not any room for me to express my feelings inside Eritrea. Because, the result would definitely be to be killed or if lucky to be rotten and thrown in an unknown underground prison under extremely appalling conditions forever. When I went to a democratic country South Africa, I couldn't accept the same kind of treatment, level of pressure and control coming from the same Eritrean regime through its embassy to South Africa. This coupled with the crackdown on all kinds of decent, the imprisonment of the regime’s higher officials commonly known as the G15 (group 15) just for demanding reforms inside the party and the banning of all private newspapers by the regime including the jailing of their journalists in September 2011, which literally turned the nation into an open prison made me officially decide to openly oppose the totalitarian regime of Eritrea. I sacrificed my graduate study scholarship from the regime because of my opposition to its wicked policies, but I managed to complete and graduate and to get my Master’s degree on my own terms.

After I stayed as an activist and a student in South Africa for 3 years (2001-2004) I left South Africa for Ethiopia to become a full time political activist and help my people from a closer range. This was the time where Ethiopia started to be flooded by thousands of Eritrean refugees. My 5 political activism years (2004-2009) that I spent in Ethiopia were the best years of my life. I was doing everything to the fullest of my satisfaction. I was able to learn more about Eritreans in general and Eritrean politics in particular. I was freely and deeply involved in exposing the true color and the undemocratic nature of the Eritrean regime in plenty of occasions, meetings, seminars and demonstrations both inside and outside of Ethiopia in neighboring countries such as Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa. I also used to often visit the remote Eritrean refugee camps in the Northern part of Ethiopia to help tell their stories and their poor living conditions to the world communities, Eritrean opposition Medias and the government of Ethiopia.

In the extremely cold month of January in 2009 I came to the US to the city of Indianapolis, IN through the UNHCR resettlement program. My US life is great, especially for my family. To be honest, they (my wife and my kids) are happier and more satisfied than me in the US. It gives me pleasure to see that. I have 3 children who were born in Eritrea, Ethiopia and the US respectively. This is another indication of how our Eritrean family life is totally distracted and unstable at present. We do not know where we will end up year after year. For my family, life became stable after we got to the US. For my kids, since they have been growing up in the US from an early age, the US is their home country and they are always extremely pleased for being here.  For me, I always have the burning desire to finish my long started but unfinished business of democratizing and freeing Eritrea from the most brutal tyrannical regime of our time, the present Eritrean PFDJ regime. I am usually physically here, but mentally in Africa. The best thing that I like about the US is its freedom of movement, that I can always do my activities freely. Regarding employment, I have a sub teaching license for the state of Indiana, I am a Natural Helper, and I grade State student exams for several states including the Indiana ISTEPS.  I also serve as a member of the IRSC (Immigrant Refugee Service Corps) at the office of employment services with the Catholic Charities of Indianapolis.

To close, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to all the governments and people of the countries of South Africa, Ethiopia and the US for giving me and my family another opportunity to live and a place to belong to when we were/are stateless. My special thanks also always goes to my colleagues at the Catholic Charities of Indianapolis for helping all of the refugees resettling through our office and for their exceptional and all-time friendly assistance and cooperation including processing the US naturalization application for my whole family.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” - Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
 - Ludwig Wittgenstein

For our English language learning clients, the above statement couldn't be any more true. They are finding that their aspirations for both themselves and their families are very intricately bound to their dedication of learning and building from basic English communication skills. However, this looks very different based on each individual’s level of English and achievement rate.

For many of our beginning learners, I issue them with “emergency English” skills. By exposing them to high frequency words and conditioning them to associate meaning, they can use their understanding of very few words in a variety of contexts. I have adapted the name “trigger” for this strategy. I teach these clients what the most likely desired response is when their hear or see isolated words. Initially, they are posed with many of the same questions (What is your name? Where are you from?) and by learning key words (name, from, country) rather than whole phrases that are grammatically sound, they can more readily participate and respond in conversation.

For many of our advanced students, I work not only with typical aspects such as grammar and varied vocabulary but also with breaking down other applicable skills. One of these is teaching them the functional English that they will encounter in everyday situations. For many of them, this means distinguishing between the British English that they learned (trousers, film, lift) to the American English that will be more common here (pants, movie, elevator). For these clients, even just the confusion between this handful of words can severely inhibit their potential for comprehension within a sentence or context.

The continued challenge of working with a wide spectrum of levels simultaneously requires precarious instruction each day. As shown in the photo, I designed an activity where the clients used story cubes to associate vocabulary or, depending on their level of English, write entire probable stories based on the pictures that they rolled on their dice. Such exercises allow me to accommodate a variety of levels that promotes both growth and support accordingly in order to individualize the instruction.

*Anne has been with us since the summer of 2013 and currently serves as our Intensive English As A Second Language Instructor.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"I Can Do Life Now"

Ismael Morsal is no stranger to restless days and sleepless nights.  Growing up in the Darfur region of Sudan, conflict surrounded him for most of his life.  He attempted to live his life and raise a family in his homeland, but one night changed everything for him.  While staying with his cousin in the town of Geneina, he awoke to the sounds of the Janjaweed breaking in to the house and killing his cousin.  Miraculously, Ismael managed to gather his wife and two young children, and flee overnight to the neighboring country of Chad—he feared they would be next.

The refugee camp in Chad proved to be only a temporary resting place, as the threat of attack remained ever-present.  A truck eventually brought Ismael’s family to Lagos, Nigeria, where they lived in a refugee camp on the outskirts of town with thousands of displaced persons from across the African continent.

Food was scarce.  Ismael explained that each nationality within the camp had a designated chairman that would make the rounds the night before food rations would arrive, announcing the news via megaphone.  Ismael would awaken early and bring his ration bag and oil container to wait in line for the entire day.  Though no one knew when the next supply would arrive, the evening the food rations were received was full of music, dancing and celebration.
It was a life of waiting, and having no idea when the wait would be over.

For Ismael’s family, the wait lasted five years.  Representatives from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) reviewed the case and eventually approved his family for resettlement in the United States.  On a snowy day in February 2010, Ismael and his family arrived in Indianapolis, Indiana.  They were welcomed at the airport by Catholic Charities staff and escorted to their new home, where dinner was waiting for them. 

Ismael enthusiastically describes the compassionate services he received from Catholic Charities:  cultural orientation, financial assistance, health care coordination, school enrollment, English and pre-employment classes, and, finally, his first job in the United States.  He couldn't believe he was hired to work at a beautiful hotel in the city, and he charmed hotel guests with his bright smile and infectious laugh.

Currently, Ismael is excited to report that for the first time in his life, he is soon to own his own home.  He is now employed by Catholic Charities, lovingly assisting newly arriving refugees in their state of transition and serving as a driver and interpreter.  Also, his family has grown into a family of six, with two children born in the United States.  He is attending classes in graphic design, hoping to advance his existing skills and further support his family.

Reflecting upon the trajectory of his life, he looks at the years spent in fear and hopelessness—and it never ceases to amaze him how life can change.  With his characteristic laugh, he muses:  “Oh..I can’t even describe how it feels..I can do life now.”  

* Ismael is employed by Catholic Charities, lovingly assisting newly arriving refugees in their state of transition and serving as a driver and interpreter. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Country We Call Home

The past year was exciting for my parents and brother. They became naturalized U.S citizens! After living in the United States for over 20 years, my family decided it was time to show our loyalty to this country we call home. It was not an easy journey for my family. We came, not knowing the language and culture. The only person we knew was my grandfather. My father made this decision because he wanted a better future for my siblings and I. He didn't think we received the same type of education and opportunities in our home country. His ultimate goal was for his children to become successful in whatever we decided to do. 
We have many of these stories come through our citizenship classes. Most of our students are adult learners. Like my mother, they came to the United States not knowing the culture and the language. Even though they didn't know English, it didn't stop them from pursuing their American dream.
On the first day of class I always ask my students why they want to become U.S citizens. The two common answers I get are “better opportunities” and “freedom”. Our students either came to the United States on their own or as refugees fleeing for their lives. Their stories differ, but they share one thing in common; they came to a new country not knowing the culture or the language. Without knowing the language, they made Indiana their new home.
Coordinating the citizenship classes has been a rewarding job. Over the period of 10 weeks, I've seen students not only improve their English, but also boost their confidence. Many students confessed the most they had spoken English was during the citizenship classes. Many were soft-spoken and it seemed like they were embarrassed to speak English, because they were scared the other students would criticize them. Once they realized our classes were a safe and comfortable environment for them to speak English, that fear went out the window.
The day of their naturalization ceremony is an exciting and emotional day for the students and their families. These ceremonies reward new citizens for all their hard work and dedication. I am also a naturalized citizen, and I know the feeling of receiving that certificate. My heart wanted to burst with excitement knowing I could now vote and contribute to the place that had been my home for the past 20 years!
We want citizenship classes to continue to grow and expand. These classes wouldn't be possible without our volunteers. Please consider becoming an instructor or tutor for our citizenship classes. It’s a rewarding experience when you see the students proudly holding up their U.S flags and naturalization certificates!

*Rebeca has been the Citizen Education Coordinator with Refugee and Immigrant Services since September 2012.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

People Are So Giving Here

Andrei was just 12 years old when the Soviet Union fell and his beloved country of Moldova gained independence and a fresh start. In the midst of initial excitement, Moldovans experienced the collective confusion of how to rebuild and start anew. Many regained possession of family-owned land that had been taken by the Soviets, only to find acre upon acre overgrown and weed-infested, with no resources to make it usable or profitable. With a lack of infrastructure, jobs were scarce and available jobs paid such low wages that most families lived below the poverty line. Andrei recalls how he watched many adults, devoid of purpose, literally drink their lives away.

Surrounded by this depression, Andrei found himself vulnerable to this same pattern as he grew into adulthood. He regrets that he fell victim to this lifestyle for a period of time, but his life changed when he had a spiritual experience that redirected the course of his life. As a result of this experience, he found new purpose in church involvement and actively caring for the disadvantaged around him. He found that some were receptive to these acts of care, while others were quite hostile. Andrei was not a member of the Orthodox Church, and was therefore considered a heretic by many who adhered to national traditions. He calmly relates that he was even beaten and stoned for his beliefs - a horror that he later found was to positively change the fate of his entire family.

Andrei, his wife, and his three children lived their lives as best they could in this environment. However, Andrei's heart was breaking as he envisioned his children's future. In particular, he was concerned for his firstborn son, who suffers from mental retardation and epilepsy. In Moldova, such children were denied education and often abandoned by parents who could neither tolerate nor afford them. He heard that there were special programs available for such children in the United States and dreamed that one day he might be able to provide special care for his son. As fate would have it, he found that his entire family was approved to resettle in the United States due to the targeted oppression Andrei had suffered.

Andrei's case was processed with the help of Catholic Charities Indianapolis - Refugee and Immigrant Services. His sister, who had married a man from America and moved to Indianapolis, filed a family petition with the assistance of resettlement staff. When Andrei and his family arrived in Indianapolis, they brought with them only a few suitcases and the hope for a new life.

Services provided by Catholic Charities Indianapolis - Refugee and Immigrant Services began by greeting them at the airport upon arrival and taking them to their new apartment. Over the next few months, Andrei and his family were connected to all necessary resources to start their lives again, including assistance with food, financial support, medical appointments, welfare, English classes, disability resources, employment training and even finding jobs. Additionally, all of Andrei's children were enrolled in school, including his son who had previously been unable to attend. Andrei became teary-eyed while recounting it all - he said, "People are so giving here."

Andrei is currently working as an administrative specialist for a local company, and is delighted to provide for his family. He expressed his deep gratitude for the services provided by Catholic Charities, and when asked how he feels about his new life here, he paused for a moment, smiled, and simply offered, "It's great."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A New Man

My name is Faisal Mohamed Awale. I’m a refugee from Somalia. I’ve been in the United States since 2012. The government in Somalia broke up in 1991. From 1991-2012 Somalia has been without a government, which caused a civil war to break out in my country. Things were bad and people were hungry. A friend of mine offered to give me four trucks of free food if I handled the distribution. I contacted leaders of churches and lands to organize the distributing of food. Because we didn’t get money from selling the food, some people got angry because me and my friend gave the food away. Even when there is good going on, evil is always around. The evil people threatened our lives. My parents told me to leave now and that they would take care of my six children. I left Somalia in haste. I left Somalia on December 15, 2007. My friend was killed for wanting to help the people of Somalia.  I went to one of our neighboring countries called Uganda. There, I was a man with only one leg, traveling by myself, with no parents, no children and no family. I decided to leave because of death threats, but also so that I could have a better life for me and my children. In Uganda I was given asylum. Even in Uganda as a refugee there was hunger. As rations, we were given for a month:  1.5 kg of maize, 1.8 kg of beans, 1.2 kg of csp (like cornmeal), .6 kg of oil and .15 kg of salt, not much for a month’s supply. Because I was a man with a plan for my life, I was driven; driven to succeed and prosper for my children. While in Uganda, I opened a shop. I sold food and goods to the people.
After being in Uganda for years, I was given the opportunity to come to the United States of America. I remember the first time someone said, “You will come to the United States of America”. All I could do was clap my hands. The plane ride I believe was 28 hours. We went from Kenya to Holland, to New York, and finally to Indianapolis, Indiana. We were helped by Catholic Charities immediately.

Catholic Charities helped me with housing, medical, education, transportation and also with the process of looking for a job! The staff at Catholic Charities has been wonderful!!! They have been helping me to bring my family here to the United States. I want to thank Catholic Charities for all that they have done for me, and Mr. Tim who has used his time to help me a lot. So I say to Mr. Tim, God Bless You!!
I want to thank the United States government for accepting me to be brought here. I thank President Obama for opening the door to refugees, like me.
When I got here, I didn’t understand the English language. Now, I’m a student in the process of getting my GED. I was just offered the chance to take advanced courses in English and Math. Not bad!! I hesitated to talk to people in person or on the phone. Now, I don’t hesitate and I talk for some of my other brothers and sisters. When I got here I was using crutches. Now, I’m walking on two legs. I have my prosthetic leg. I’m a NEW MAN according to what I used to be. I have a job and I’m awaiting the arrival of my children soon! On behalf of my children Mohamed, Sadak, Abdikadir, Said, Samiya, Hani and me, Faisal, I want to say Thank You!!! So, I’m very happy to live in America and let me be the friend to everyone.

* This letter was read at our 3rd Annual World Refugee Day Dinner. Faisal was also recognized at the dinner as Refugee of the Year.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Story As A Refugee

My name is Sajjad Jawad and in my third visit to the U.S. on January 2010 I intended to make the U.S. my final destination to resettle in this new community for myself , my wife and my two kids.
Despite that I visited the U.S. twice on September 2004 and February 2008, it was hard for me to adjust with this huge transition to live in the U.S.
Through my work with the Civil Affairs American Army deployed in Iraq, I got the required documents to travel to the U.S. as a Special Immigrant.
Also, I worked in the United States Institute of Peace as the Senior Training Program Specialist and I started to train the senior Iraqi officials on the concept of peaceful conflict management.
Through my two jobs I was supporting a huge number of Iraqis and became famous as the guy who is helping the Americans to establish a new free democratic Iraq and finally I became part of the sacrifices to establish democracy in Iraq. 
The procedures in the Iraqi Embassy in Baghdad were smooth and well organized and I was able to travel to the U.S. within a few months after submitting my documents to the U.S. Embassy that coordinated with the International Migration Organization (IOM) too.
The IOM explained that they will allocate my family in Indianapolis and not in Virginia as I was originally planning for considering the high cost of living in Virginia.
Seeking advice from my friends in Virginia, I had been told that Indianapolis is a wonderful city and the cost of living is cheaper comparing to Virginia.
Upon my arrival to Indianapolis it was clear that I will smoothly adjust to the nice community here in the city of Indianapolis, one of the most beautiful cities that I ever saw in my life where the green spots are everywhere.
After two months I received a car from the teacher of my son in Nora Elementary School as appreciation for my volunteer activities to help the students speaking Arabic in this school.
Later on, I received another car from the mosque that noticed my volunteer help to my neighbor refugees and the mosque informed me that they will give a car as a gift for helping all refuges around me.
So in five months I received three cars where I use two of them and the third one was a permanent gift that I am keeping to this moment. The nice thing that very time the donor was filling the car with the fuel to show complete appreciation for complete volunteer support to others.
The leader of Catholic Charities, Gabrielle Neal, offered all support to find me a suitable administrative job, but most of the jobs were variable jobs and finally Gabrielle offered me the full time in the unique Catholic Charities as an Employment Assistant.
Through Gabrielle I was connected to a special program that allows refugees to buy their houses regardless of their credit history and I purchased a nice house and moved to it on December 2012.
Many other refugees adjusted in the community of Indianapolis and they started to buy their houses.
The refugees expressed their admiration for the standards of living dominating the community of Indianapolis and in the great nation of the U.S. where all laws decreed to support all categories of community starting from children, women and old people.
I am an optimistic person, but after living in Indianapolis I became more optimistic and I feel that I can be a good source to help all people.
Iraqis are not experts to live abroad or in exile, but the U.S. became a real home of peace for me and for my entire family.

  *Sajjad currently serves as Manager of Employment Services.