News: Invisible American Families

African refugees in Cincinnati try to focus on the future

Jun 25, 2008 at 2:06 pm
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 lifetime, 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 corruption, murdering its own people based on religious, 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 genocide 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 narrow, grassy hillside on the other side of the parking lot adjacent to the Arby's as an example.

In light of what the United Nations only recently 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 portions 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 hopeful worldview. "I don't like war.

War is not a solution."

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 downtown, 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 trying 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 interviewed.

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 motivated to have many children, stay strong as a unit, have protection."

Lewis left Liberia for Ghana. The situation 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 murdered 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 comfortable in areas where people are socially aggressive. He doesn't like a hostile environment.

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, "provided you don't get in anyone's way."

About 2.5 million refugees have resettled 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 scattered in a few bowls throughout the basement 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 familiarize themselves with American life, more than 7,000 miles from home.

In their new home, their children bring home permission slips or notes from school; the parents having no idea what the scrawl on the paper means. Americans simply can't understand this level of isolation, Grieme says.

"The federal government requires that housing, school and vaccination are acquired within the first 30 days while at the same time they're trying to ride the bus though they don't know English," says Shannon Constable, who evaluates refugees' progress as part of a University of Cincinnati undergraduate program. "There is a sense of urgency. When they come here, they are really, really lost."

In fiscal year 2007, Ohio had 1,579 primary refugee arrivals. The number doesn't include a large number of what are called secondary arrivals — refugees who first settle in another state and then move to Ohio for any number of reasons.

A spokesperson for the Ohio Refugee State Coordinator's office says that cost of living and availability of jobs that don't require fluent English make Ohio attractive to secondary refugees. For instance, Columbus' sizable Somali population is the second largest in the U.S.

Killing images of the past
Though they are able to carry few personal belongings from the refugee camps where organizations such as CSS have been allowed to set up, many of the older refugees harbor dark memories.

"I was afraid when I saw a policeman," Lewis says, describing a childhood in Liberia where government officials were often the most ruthless villains. "It takes a long time for these things to go away."

The psychological impact of being immersed in such violence is evident with many refugees. But experts say that the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often associated with war zones has a different context for Africans.

It's the uncanny ability to cope with these sorts of violent images that Mark Mosert, a Regent University (Virginia) professor who has studied disabilities in victims of war, attributes to the refugees' "Africanness."

"Things that would be extremely debilitating in (a Western) context, they have the ability to thrive," he says.

Reading the effect of PTSD on refugees, however, is difficult due to nuances that exist within the cultures, he says, even from one African culture to another.

"In some cultures, being open with your feelings is an asset," Mostert says, "and in some it is a no-no, which makes it difficult to approach. I don't think that level of sensitivity exists in the U.S."

The only way to survive is to kill those images in your memory, Nzobigeza says. "They come up, you just put them aside."

Grieme says she's observed that refugees have a hard time indulging in the kind of help that Americans find so common.

"They have trauma, fear and anxiety, but they don't have the luxury of dealing with that," she says. "The reality is that they are here and they have to get on with life."

Refugees account for about 10 percent of annual immigration to the U.S. Once a person is granted refugee status and placed in this country, he or she becomes eligible to apply for a green card after a year. After five years, they can apply for citizenship.

"Coming here was a relief because, being a refugee, there (was) a psychological imprisonment," Lewis says. "You were a social outcast. There is nothing that you are entitled to."

Just as refugees interviewed indicated their unwillingness to dwell on past pain, Lewis says he feels no guilt for being in America now. Instead he hopes that others will have the same fortune as him.

"Thousands of people are over there with the hope," Lewis says about those in African refugee camps who haven't been chosen yet. "I have a friend ... who has all the hopes of coming here, (he has a) very strong desire to achieve and to go to school. He is just sitting and praying for the best." ©