Refugees Living in Lehigh Valley Shared Their Experiences with Lehigh Audience
By Lindsay Plodwick
They all came to America from different places and for different reasons. Yet, each of the refugees who spoke at Linderman Library last month expressed a very similar sentiment – a sense of optimism about America and pure gratitude for the lives they now have living in the United States.
And, not one person said that they would return to their home country even if they were provided with rights there.
The four individuals who shared their experiences and talked about the path that took them to the United States wound up in the Lehigh Valley due to the work of the Catholic Charities from the Diocese of Allentown. The charity, refugee caseworker Benjamin Shedlock explained, helps to support refugees with whatever they need. Shedlock said they do everything from picking people up from the airport to helping them find housing and jobs, and even helping to plan funerals or weddings.
Ousman Idris, a refugee from Eritrea was an ex-military soldier in his own country. He served in the national service for 10 years. However, he said that the reason he had to become a refugee was because he simply asked about his rights.
Idris’ wife remains in their home country. Still, he is happy and hopeful about his life in America and in the future hopes that his wife can come here too.
“America is a new life. I had a hard life,” Idris said in broken English. “Here I can work, I can walk any place. Here,” he said, “I like here.”
Nkunzimana Enock was the youngest refugee speaking, and the most recent to arrive in America, coming in 2008. Enock’s parents were from Burundi but because of war they lived in a Tanzanian refugee camp for 12 years.
Now, Enock is settled in America and studying at Northampton Community College in hopes of one day becoming a lawyer. He explained how much nicer his life is here, noting that in the camp he could go all day and all night without eating. But here, he “can eat everything.” However, the transition was not so simple, as Enock was not used to paying so many bills.
“Wow, did I have a problem with money,” Enock said with a laugh.
Moses Thlenga is a refugee from Burma by way of Malaysia. He lived in Malaysia outside of Kuala Lumpur in an apartment paid for by the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees, where there was one bedroom per family.
“I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to remember,” Thlenga said.
The only woman on the panel, Abeer Niemet, is a refugee from Iraq who left during the reign of Saddam Hussein. She escaped to the Netherlands, and eventually to the United States. She said of her old life in Iraq, “I had everything, but I didn’t have security or peace.”
Because Niemet was from the North of Iraq, she did not have the right to possess a passport. In order to leave the country she received a passport with a different name to get intro Turkey. From there she went to Russia, where she lived with her two children without a job. She was living off the money her then husband had saved from his job as a doctor. But by the time that they got to the Netherlands, their money had run out and she and her husband were getting divorced.
Even though times were tough, she said she knew, “We are out of Iraq. It’s going to be okay.”
Niemet, who was a teacher in Iraq, began to learn the Dutch language and got a job as a teaching assistant. She was happy to be on her feet, but she was still looking for companionship.
She ended up meeting her husband, also an Iraqi refugee, online. He, however, was in Israel at the time. He ended up coming to America as a refugee and with the help of the United States; Niemet was able to join her husband.
“I left everything to become a refugee for the second time,” she said. This includes both of her daughters, who stayed in the Netherlands and were in their 20s at the time.
Now Niemet hopes to begin teaching again, as she truly misses it. But she is joyful in her new life. “I feel home,” Niemet said.