5 Horrific Experiences I Lived As A Child Refugee
You hear the term "refugee" in the news a lot, conjuring the image of desperate people who mostly exist in our consciousness as political footballs or scapegoats (how many people do you turn away to prevent the monsters from getting in?). But whatever your opinion on refugee policy, you have to admit one thing tends to be overlooked: In many cases, what these people are doing is fucking amazing. We're talking about people who fled a bullet-riddled hellscape, traversed the globe, and wound up in a place that to them had to seem like freaking Mars.
We talked to a guy named Abdullahi Abdi, who was born in a refugee camp 19 years ago and eventually finally made it to America. His little corner of Hell was called the Kakuma Refugee Camp. It was founded in Kenya in 1991 to help people trying to escape from the Second Sudanese Civil War. It expanded over the next 23 years and now is home to over 180,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda, and more.
We asked him what it was like to grow up without a country and try to then adjust to life in the USA.
Real-Life Refugee Camps Are Fucking Terrifying
The bloodbaths in the Kakuma camp tended to start with hunger and desperation.
Camps like Kakuma receive millions of dollars a year in food aid, but there is always demand for more. Right now, Kakuma is 10,000 people over capacity (Dadaab, another camp in Kenya, is 340,000 people over capacity), which means there's not nearly enough food to go around. Today, 17 percent of the people in the Kakuma refugee camp are malnourished. "If we had two meals a day, we were lucky," Abdi told us. "At the age of 7, I had to start earning my own meals." All most of us had to earn at age 7 was the right to take the class hamster home for the weekend.
Millions in aid may seem like a lot, but when feeding the equivalent of Knoxville,
it doesn't stretch that far.
According to Abdi, food became a kind of currency. If you had enough to eat, you could use it to pay other people to make your life easier. Even if that someone was 7 years old. "I used to dig a hole that could be used as a bathroom and then carry the out to the lake, which was a mile and a half," Abdi said. "I earned a meal a day (from other refugees) doing that." That kind of economy can function only if there's a lot of desperation, and since Kakuma's police force is only barely present, that desperation often turns to violence. "Sometimes would sell us chicken or the cows, and then at night they'd come and take it back by force. If you yelled or screamed, they'd just blast you."
Reminder: This is violence over groceries.
Despite the fact that this is the kind of place most of us thought existed only in post-apocalypse fiction (serious question: Would you rather live there or in the Mad Max universe?), Abdi said his family wasn't entirely sure they wanted to travel to America. There were two reasons: One, the process is insanely difficult, and two, they were told that America wasn't friendly to Islam and that they might lose their culture and religion. Eventually, the constant threat of violence forced their hand:
"One night, I was at my uncle's tent, and then at like 2 or 3 a.m. the people came in the house. My uncle got up, trying to protect us. They just heard a sound and they just blasted him. Inside our small space, there was blood everywhere. This is the first time I'd seen it with my own eyes. There was so much blood. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever seen. Blood raining down like water. That is a moment I will never forget. I was 8 years old."
Abdi and his family made the call to move. But, unfortunately, that was only the beginning.
Immigrating To America Takes Over A Thousand Days
If you get your news from certain sources, you might think that emigrating from a refugee camp to the United States is a simple matter of waving your passport at a bouncer and walking into Ellis Island. In reality, the process involves literally hundreds of tests and lots of travel.
"The way the tests go, they interview your mom, then your dad, then whoever else is in your family," Abdi says. "They ask you the same questions, and they expect to get the same answers. And if you give the wrong answers -- say, your father says he met your mother in one quarter of the camp, and she remembers a different quarter -- then you fail the test. And your dream of coming to America, you gotta kiss it goodbye."
Also, note the date when you kissed your dream goodbye; that'll probably come up
on the next country's test.
It's not just testing, either. Abdi moved from Kakuma to two different refugee camps, all to chase these tests and results. Since Abdi was too young to fully understand what was going on, Cracked reached out to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and spoke to Director of Communications Stacie Blake, to get some explanation. "What you're talking about is the background and security screen process that all refugees undergo. It's a mix of security, medical, and background screens. It takes about a thousand days to complete," she said.
If you're anything like us, that seems like entirely too many days. But she confirmed that, yes, 1,000 days is the average. "It is a great challenge, because some of the screenings expire, and they have to be done in order, so it's very easy to be going along, and if you do something in the wrong order, and one of your things expires, and you have to start over."
Meanwhile, you cry when you have to stand in a DMV line for a few hours once every five years.
Still, it should be noted that the United States has the largest resettlement program in the world. It's just that the world has a ton of people who need to be resettled. "There are 60 million refugees in the world today, and 70,000 of them will be allowed to enter the U.S. this year," says Blake. There's a lot of desperation, and desperation leads to people lying about their relationships, which can rip families apart.
But after those thousand days, Abdi and his family made it to America, and everything from that point on was a walk, right? Well, actually ...
Starting Over In A New Country Is Harder Than You Think
Three days after Abdi stepped off a plane in Arizona, he was at his first day of American school, which is a nightmare situation for anyone moving to a new place. For someone who has lived in refugee camps for basically their entire lives, the transition is a hundred times more jarring. "It was just crazy. There were Caucasian people everywhere. I felt like I was in a new world. I finally get to class, and everybody's speaking English -- and I don't know how to speak English. I don't know what they're teaching; I don't know what anybody is saying."
Because the only worse thing than being the new kid in school is knowing
that people are badmouthing you in a language you don't understand.
That's right -- Abdi started going to school before he even knew how to speak English, because he didn't have any other choice. "The U.S. refugee resettlement program is based on the idea of self-sufficiency," Blake told us. "They're expected to be self-sufficient as soon as possible." Abdi's family was given a furnished house, a medical checkup, and access to good schools, which is all an incredible step up from digging toilet pits for food. But that doesn't mean life suddenly became easy -- it just became difficult in a different way.
Just four months after Abdi arrived in America and had barely begun to get a grasp on the language, his teacher called him to the front of the class to "present himself." This went about as well as you'd expect. "Before I could say anything, people started booing me," Abdi says. "I thought 'boo' was a cheer -- I thought they were cheering for me. Until one student says, 'He can't speak English! You gotta go back to your Awawawa country.'" ("Awawawa" was a reference to Abdi's native language.) "And when he said 'awawawa' and 'country' next to each other, that's how I understood. Tears started coming out of my eyes because I was so sad. I didn't know what to say; I didn't know how to say anything."
Pretty shitty treatment from Americans for someone who was literally tired, poor,
and yearning to breathe free mere months before.
Needless to say, learning English became a priority for Abdi. "I realized then that I had to step up my game," he said. "I started spending every day after school studying vocab." Oh, and you know how lots of colleges require you to have taken a second language in high school before you can even apply? Apparently having English itself as a second language doesn't get you around that -- meaning Abdi immediately had to go about learning a third. "I'm already having a lot of problems with English, and second, I have to learn Spanish? On some tests, they were giving me words in Spanish that I didn't even know in English!"
He'd have complained, but words like "arbitrary" and "bureaucratic"
were still pretty far on the horizon.
Cracked spoke to Mallory Clarke, one of Abdi's teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle (his family relocated again shortly after arriving in Arizona) and found out that this is a common problem for these students. "Students will be shown a picture of a highway, and the test will say 'What's the Spanish word for this?' And the students don't even know what a highway is."
And problems like that don't just go away. In fact ...
The Culture Shock Keeps Following You Through Every Stage
It's important to remember that for Abdi, America isn't just Africa with taller buildings, weirder music, and more white people. Every single aspect of how people interact with each other is completely different. All of the customs, everything that's considered polite or rude ... all of those rules are reset; all of your personal boundaries have to be adjusted. For example, imagine you went to a restaurant in another country where no server ever came to your table, because it turned out what you were supposed to do was go take food off of other diner's plates. You're sitting there hungry because where you're from, doing something like that is rude beyond belief.
A fast food place, a gas station, and a restaurant all have subtly different rules for this same machine, rules that
no one tells you but that could get you kicked out or accused of shoplifting for mixing up. Welcome to America.
Well, that's the kind of thing Abdi ran into at school. "For some English Language Learner students, in their culture it's disrespectful to ask the teacher for help," Clarke explained. "I taught about flashcards. The second thing I taught him was talking to teachers." Abdi thought he was being polite by being quiet -- if he hadn't learned to make himself do what he considered rude, he would've been totally left behind.
Then there's the racial component, which isn't exactly a minor thing these days. Like most black Americans in big cities Abdi has plenty of stories about being hassled by the police for what he was wearing or where he was walking, but it gets even worse when the language and culture are so different. There are several stories of Sudanese refugees going to their neighbors' houses to introduce themselves and discuss their new neighborhood (because that's a common form of polite interaction in Sudan) and having the cops called on them. Again: Everything you know is wrong.
Of course, this is on top of all the weird, racist interpersonal stuff he has to deal with on a daily basis. "People think I'm naturally dumb because I'm from Kenya," Abdi says. "One day I was playing soccer, and this white boy says, 'Go back to your poor country, your GPA is shitty.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'You know, your 1.5 GPA. And your dad is in jail.' I said, 'OK, thank you.'"
You Never Know What's Going To Save You
One of the weirdest problems Abdi faced came when applying to college. As a Muslim, he can't take any loans that have interest, because if he dies with debt then he will be denied a place in heaven. If he can't raise money through donations and summer jobs, then he has to choose between skipping college or gambling with his soul (and we don't mean "gambling with his soul" in the metaphorical "Charlie Sheen in Wall Street" way). Again, you can scoff at what probably seems like an arbitrary rule that should easily be broken in the name of necessity, but here's where you have to try to put yourself in a similar scenario. Like, say, if you moved to a place where paying your tuition required you to donate to the church of Scientology or have a bunch of anonymous sex with strangers in a bus station. It would be awfully easy for the locals to dismiss your objections with, "Hey, you're in our country; you play by our rules!"
"This is America, pal; go find a Greyhound station and integrate, dammit!"
So, considering most people take decades to pay off student loans (during which time death is a definite possibility), Abdi had to find some other way to get into college. He's doing a GoFundMe to help cover expenses, but one of the skills he learned during his life in the refugee camp made college possible in the first place. "When I was 6 and still in the refugee camp ... my older brother brought me a biscuit and said, 'Here, take it.' When I went to take it, he took it back, saying that I could only get it if I played soccer with him. He said that he would give me a biscuit every day that I played soccer." This was a huge deal, because biscuits weren't easy to come by in the camp. Abdi had no idea where his brother was getting them, and to this day he still doesn't (and, really, it's probably best to leave that mystery unsolved). "I worked for that biscuit every day, and then all of the sudden I became a soccer freak. One day I told him, 'I don't want the biscuit anymore. I just want to play.'"
The biscuit couldn't be reached for comment.
When Abdi lived in Seattle, he was quickly snatched up by a soccer club. That brought him to the attention of some soccer coaches, and now he attends Lycoming College on a combination merit/need scholarships and the aforementioned donations. When he graduates, he wants to become a physical education teacher so he can help other young kids like him. And maybe years from now, some bratty student will hear his accent and say, "What country are you from?" At that point Abdi will have a very long story to tell, and some kid will find out just how damned lucky he is.
For more insider perspectives, check out We Met Syria's War Refugees: 7 Awful Things They Told Us and 5 Survival Lessons From Inside A Real World Dystopia.
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