New to a Land of Dreams

Volunteers help Tallahassee’s refugees to succeed



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Lindy Allen Photography

Like any group of kids, Tiba, Misimango, Angela (front row), Loy, Kibonge and Nestor (back row) tease, pinch, tickle and squish one another good-naturedly during family photos.

 

I Like your headband.” These were the first words I ever said to a refugee. In my defense, the headband was adorable in Suzanna’s black hair. It was pink and plastic — the kind of headband I remember wearing as a kid. The kind that pinched behind the ears and, when my sister and I played Star Trek, slipped over the eyes and transformed me into Geordi La Forge — never mind gender differences.

“Thank you,” Suzanna replied, touching the headband with her fingertips. She has never heard of LeVar Burton, Star Trek or PBS television programming, but she, too, has dreams — dreams that actually have a chance of being realized, now that she and her family are in Tallahassee.

“Your turn.” Misimango, who sat across from Suzanna, gestured to the Uno cards Suzanna held. She scanned her hand, made a decision and placed her card on top of the pile.

“Green three!” Misimango said.

The other children in the circle groaned, good-naturedly, but they knew they’d have to be quicker if they wanted to beat Misimango at identifying colors and numbers in English.

LINDY ALLEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Siblings Misimango, 11, and Angela, 5, were among the first refugees of Congolese descent to come to Tallahassee. Misimango is in his second year of school. Angela is attending school for the first time.

I watched the game for a few minutes, and then I joined another group of refugees, including Misimango’s 8-year-old brother, Kibonge. This group taught me to count to 10 in Swahili. A small argument arose among the children when we got to 10; there are different words for the number, depending on which dialect of Swahili is spoken. I wrote both words in my notebook, and then I read the list of number names aloud.

“Nzuri,” Kibonge said, giving me a thumbs-up. “Good!”

Like most of Tallahassee’s young refugees, Suzanna, Misimango and Kibonge were born amid the destitution of refugee camps, where their parents had fled from war-torn homelands. For them, coming here was like coming to another world.

In the best refugee camps in Africa, shelters are built from wood, with tarps for roofs. But often, refugees are forced to live in huts made from whatever materials are readily available in the surrounding countryside, such as sticks and grasses. In Mozambique, where Misimango and Kibonge were born, flooding has been a terrible problem, and many refugee camps turn into mud pits, where disease runs rampant. To curb the spread of lice, fleas and other parasites, refugees’ heads are often shaved to the scalp. Flooding also leads to the migration of old civil-war landmines to new locations, sometimes miles away from their original, noted positions.

In Syrian refugee camps, the majority of which are located in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, the shelters are usually tent-like structures made with wooden stakes, rope and tarps. Some lucky individuals live in corrugated tin boxes.

The conditions in all of the camps are, in the eyes of the citizens of first-world countries, deplorable. Health care and medicine is limited, and health-care providers are often unqualified. The food rations are almost never sufficient, and the heads of families are lucky, indeed, to find work outside of a camp. If there is a school within a camp’s boundaries or in a nearby town, the quality of education is generally poor, because there are not nearly enough teachers.

“When the refugees first got here, they were entranced by the drinking fountain, because they had never seen free-flowing water before,” said Shannon Haire, the assistant principal and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) coordinator at Riley Elementary School, which is where I met Suzanna, Misimango and Kibonge. “Sometimes the Congolese boys come to school wearing pink and purple clothing, or shirts with flowers on them. We really want to encourage these kids’ excitement over beautiful things, because that’s a part of who they are. But at the same time, the American kids don’t always understand where the refugees are coming from, culturally. So we have to help the refugees to wear socially acceptable clothing. It’s a balancing act.”

Riley Principal Karwynn Paul is enthusiastic about his refugee students’ progress. “These children are growing in so many ways,” he said. “You can’t measure their growth just by their grasp of English — although their English is getting much better.”

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