Invisible American Families

Invisible American Families African refugees in Cincinnati try to focus on the future

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PHOTO: GRAHAM LIENHART: Austino Lewis (left) and son, natives of Liberia, currently call South Fairmount home.

 On a cloudy day in the early spring, Austino Lewis sits at a table in a sleepy Arby’s in South Fairmount before taking two busses to cover his shift as a cook at a local nursing home. Talking about what seems to be a different life time, he tries his best to demonstrate — using only words and gestures — what it’s like to live in a country where the government is overrun with cor ruption, murdering its own people based on reli gious, political affiliation or gender.

“They could shoot you and nothing happen,” he says regarding the lack of any authority to stop what’s been deemed geno cide in his native Liberia.

Lewis describes machine gun-toting Liberian teenagers drugged out of their minds scattered along even the most unremarkable settings. The well-preserved fortysomething points a slender arm toward a nar row, grassy hillside on the other side of the park ing lot adjacent to the Arby’s as an example.

In light of what the United Nations only recent ly called a “food crisis,” Liberia — a West African nation of 3 million people — has been named one of three countries that will receive the first por tions of $200 million in grants from the World Bank to assist the world’s poorest nations.

In a conference room in downtown Cincinnati, Jeff Nzobigeza, a native of Burundi in Central Africa who now helps new transplants in the area, sketches a similar picture to Lewis’.

“I have seen people butchered,” he says without any sign of reflection on his face. His memories seem guarded by a keenly hope ful worldview. “I don’t like war. War is not a solu tion.” Some immigrants come to the U.S. for a better jobs and resources. But for more than 1,400 refugees who have been admitted here into the Catholic Social Services’ Refugee Placement Program since 1988, their journey is matter of life and death.

Though generally glossed over, the genocide that’s taken place in Burundi is similar to the more publicized upheaval in neighboring Rwanda, with 250,000 people killed in massacres associated with a civil war. Catholic Social Services (CSS), located down town, is the only remaining local organization that helps refugees — those who can’t return to their native country due to a well-founded fear for their life, according to the U.S. Refugee Relocation Act of 1980. Hamilton County is expected to receive 142 refugees for placement in the 2008 fiscal year. Overall, Ohio has proposed that 2,178 refugees arrive in the state this year. The closing of a processing center in Kenya, however, is expected to prevent expectations from being fulfilled.

“They are not standing in line to come to America,” says Cindy Grieme, director of the refugee placement program run by CSS ( “They are try ing to save their lives.”

Not all will grow

It’s not unusual for Burundians — the largest refugee population in Greater Cincinnati this year — to run between 15 and 90 miles to escape east to neighboring Tanzania. Sleeping in trees during the day, they advance across the border when the sun goes down. They visit foreign embassies in hope of getting interviewed and fingerprints taken, part of the process to be granted status as a refugee. In order to have even the chance to come to one of 10 countries where the United Nations places them, they have to wait — a wait that often takes decades, according to refugees who were inter viewed.

Now in southwestern Ohio, these Burundians exist virtually unnoticed as laborers in the back of restaurants, nursing homes and hotels.

Back home, Nzobigeza says, the people of Burundi are motivated to have large families because they know at least some in the family unit won’t survive.

“They have to make more children because they are not sure they will all grow,” he says. “Some will be killed and some will die of disease. They are motivat ed to have many children, stay strong as a unit, have protection.”

Lewis left Liberia for Ghana. The situa tion in the refugee camp there, where he estimates 40,000 people lived in brick or mud houses or tents, wasn’t much better than his home country.

In addition to mysterious violence, malaria and starvation pounded the camp inhabitants. The sun beat down while they waited in line for hours for rations of rice, potatoes, beans or lettuce.

“In Liberia and Ghana, people are mur dered and no one know who does it,” Lewis says. Though he’s spoken English all his life, his words drip with a French- African dialect.

He recalls a 6-year-old boy shot dead urinating next to a house and a middle aged man butchered in his neighborhood. The perpetrators remained anonymous.

Now a resident of South Fairmount, Lewis moved with his family from Winton Terrace, where he says several African refugees live. The violence and drugs he saw in Winton Terrace irritated old scars.

Lewis says that he and local refugees he’s become friends with are not comfort able in areas where people are socially aggressive. He doesn’t like a hostile envi ronment.

While crimes against vulnerable refugees have been the exception, a CSS councilor says it’s stressed to refugees that they remain within “their box” as they could easily be — and have been — preyed upon. “Downtown is OK,” Lewis says, “provid ed you don’t get in anyone’s way.” About 2.5 million refugees have reset tled in the U.S. since 1975, according to the Brookings Institute. This is approximately twice the number of the combined nine other countries accepting refugees via the United Nations.

The flow of global refugees had slowed in recent years, but spikes in Iraqi and Afghani refugees in the last year have reversed the trend, according to a recent Associated Press report.

Urgent business

“Where is the post office?” asks a newly retired high school teacher, Patty Reitz, a volunteer with Catholic Social Services.

“Help me find the post office,” she inquires forcefully. For refugees in a placement program like this one, practical tasks that are learned over decades by natives of the Western world — local customs, laws, how to use a bank — must be grasped within weeks.

Today, Reitz’s lesson is directed at a young-looking couple seated across from her. Tootsie Rolls, which are called the “universal pacifier” when they occupy the mouths of refugees’ young children as the adults take their weekly lessons, are scat tered in a few bowls throughout the base ment room in the CSS office downtown.

Salvator, a 36-year-old from Burundi, alternates glances between the teacher and the laminated map sprawled out on the table before him. Trying to read his teacher’s body language, his palms press down on the map. On it are illustrations of a generic, quaint municipality. His wife of more than 15 years, Vanancia, is seated to his left. She locates the post office.

The couple’s four children were born in a camp in Tanzania and were assigned Jan. 1 birthdates when they arrived in the U.S., as there was no concept of a calendar in the refugee camp. Their next task is to find the school for the children.

“Excuse me ... can ...” Vanancia offers, pushing forward through a veil of what someone later describes as African Creole.

Her expression is of hopeful frustration. “Excuse me? Can you help me find the Kroger?” Despite the dramatic change in culture, refugees have only a short time to familiar ize themselves with American life, more than 7,000 miles from home. In their new home, their children bring home permission slips or notes from

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