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June 21, 2013

World Refugee Day in Burlington: Bright Lights and Dark Stories

Refugees 006Outside on the Church Street Marketplace, lights shone from crowded bars and restaurants and amplified bands played as the second longest day of the year gave way to evening.

Inside city hall, World Refugee Day was being marked. Survivors of wars in Somalia, Iraq and Burma were telling of their flights to safety in Vermont. All three had lost friends and family members and had experienced extreme violence unimaginable to most Vermonters. Each also mentioned the absence of a convenience — electricity — that was brightly present on the Marketplace.

Zar Ni Maw (pictured), born in the jungle to parents on the run from a military dictatorship, said she had studied the Burmese alphabet in a textbook shared by 15 children. "We could only study in the day," she recounted. "There was no electricity."

Refugees 001Displaying photos of his family in happy circumstances, Yusuf Abdi (pictured) said "life was normal" in Somalia when he was a young boy. But chaos engulfed his country starting in 1991 and continuing to the present day. "The civil war destroyed most of my personality," Abdi said. "Every day you would go to school and never know what was going to happen to you. Life got very hard. There was no electricity."

 Ahmed Alaseedi, 27, (pictured below) noted in flawless English that he came to the United States from Iraq eight months ago. He had worked there as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. Alaseedi said he loves living in the U.S., a land of "liberty, equality and justice" and a place of comfort and security. Vermont presents none of the danger, grief and suffering of wartime Iraq, he noted, recalling summer days there when "it's 130 degrees and there's no power."

Refugees 003The three also expressed gratitude for the help they had received from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Alaseedi was particularly affirmative in regard to his treatment since arriving in the Burlington area. Friends in Iraq had warned him, he said, that "Americans will think of you as a terrorist as soon as they hear your name." He was thus surprised to find "how people were so open-minded" and so quick to befriend a refugee.

Abdi added that he is happy for the chance to work hard and study in Vermont. "I'm safe now," he said, "but it's only myself." His mother and other relatives are still in Somalia, and two brothers have become refugees in two different countries. "We didn't get to say bye-bye to each other," Abdi noted, again showing the 50-member audience some of the family photos he had brought along.

Zar Ni Maw, who works for the Burlington School District, told of the night her mother was shot by Burmese troops who also "arrested" her two-week-old brother. He was eventually returned to the family, which managed to reach safety in a refugee camp across the border in Thailand. But another of Zar Ni Maw's brothers later returned to Burma to carry out political activities in opposition to the military junta. He was arrested and tortured, she said.

John Turner, who fought in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, also addressed the forum, which was organized by the Peace and Justice Center. Turner recalled bursting into a home at 3 a.m. and ordering the Iraqi family there to leave so the Marines could establish an observation post. "As infantrymen," he said, "we were essentially creating refugees daily."

World Refugee Day was also marked on Thursday at United Nations headquarters in New York. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pointed out that there are now more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. "Someone is forced to abandon their home every four seconds," Ban said.

Photos by Kevin J. Kelley

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