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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Students & refugees share experiences

“One cannot prepare to be a refugee. You come here and you try to learn a new language, a new custom, a new culture. You come here with a sense of loss. You’ve lost everything; especially, especially your dignity,” said Bosnian refugee Zeljka Krvavica.

The five keynote speakers who spoke on the first night of Drake University’s The World at War: Conflict and its Consequences Conference were strikingly different in a multitude of aspects—in complexion, height, mannerism and cultural background. Yet while they came from different parts of the world, they all left their home countries to seek refuge in Des Moines, Iowa.

“They told me I was to be placed in Des Moines, Iowa. And I thought to myself: Where is Iowa?” said Sudanese refugee Joseph Malual, eliciting chuckles from the audience.

Malual was born in Southern Sudan to an agropastoral family. The Sudanese Civil War resulted in 4.5 million displaced persons and 2 million deaths. After being displaced in Khartoum and Ethiopia, Malual was finally offered an opportunity to be settled in the United States in 1999.

“But I love Des Moines, now. People here are very nice,” Malual said. “I came here and for the first time, I was able to think to myself what I would do tomorrow, or the next year, or the next two years.”

The four other speakers recounted similar narratives. After years of war, terror, and poverty, they recalled that they received the initial news of resettlement in Iowa with a mixture of relief and slight perplexity. Yet they all expressed gratitude in finding a new home and community here.

As the presentations progressed to a question and answer session, the atmosphere began to resemble a supportive community that embodied the Iowa in which refugees found relief and comfort. Many of the audience members were refugees themselves and the session became an assembly of encouragement and advice for one other.
“Joseph, I just wanted to thank you for your comment where you said that you came here and realized that you could think beyond today, and into tomorrow. Thanks to you, I now realize that the American dream is not only the opportunity of a better tomorrow, but the American dream is having the opportunity to know that there is a tomorrow,” a refugee from the audience said.

“Mone, I see that you only immigrated to the U.S. two years ago. Your English is amazing. I just want to offer you something someone said to me when I first came here as a refugee and was struggling to learn English: just because your words may be a little broken, does not mean your thoughts are broken,” an audience member said to Mone Aye, a 21-year-old refugee from Thailand who was the most recent immigrant and the youngest speaker of the panel.

Another refugee from the audience asked the speakers: “I struggle with identity. What can I do to remember who I am while assimilating in this culture?”

Malual quickly stood up to respond. “When I was getting my U.S. citizenship, I had to ask myself: What does that mean? What am I giving up? It does not mean you have to give up your native land. I am a U.S. citizen, yet I am tied to Sudan. That means we go to HyVee, buy the same food everyone else does, and when we get home, we turn it into something completely different!” Malual said, emphasizing the solidarity between himself, a Sudanese, and the inquirer, a Bosnian, with the pronoun “we.”

“It was interesting hearing about people’s individual experiences,” said Najma Osman ’12, a Grinnell student who participated in the conference. “We always hear about the general impact, but listening to the personal narratives was powerful. As a refugee myself, it was interesting to hear the ways other refugees were giving back to the community; the community meaning the community of refugees in the United States and also their communities back home. Joseph talked about his community of Sudanese refugees raising money here in the U.S. to give back home. They are using their privileged status here to give back to their native countries.”

The conference not only highlighted the community of people suffering genocide abroad, of struggling refugees in the United States, and of local refugees gathering to uplift each other within the confines of the conference room, but it invited non-refugees to participate in that community as well.

“Acceptance and sponsorship from the mainstream is essential,” Krvavica said. “Help a refugee with English. Take them to a doctor. Make then feel more comfortable. An amazing sponsor can work miracles. You can change a refugee’s life.”

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