Refugee Stories

These are the stories of our students at RHR ––
their families, their refugee camp experiences, and their flight from persecution.

Credit: Lindee & Tomothy Ohlman


His Story

When Ismail thinks of his home in the Darfur region of Sudan, he thinks of food. He remembers the mangos, oranges, lemons and papayas he could pluck from the trees just outside his home, along with the potatoes, peppers, corn and tomatoes that he grew on his small farm. It’s not really the sweetness of the fruit and freshness of those vegetables that Ismail misses most; it’s the meals themselves and what they represented: time with family.

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Her Story

Safi had a good life in Mogadishu. She had gone to college and worked for the government, then opened her own shop, selling housewares and clothing. Her husband also had a government job. They had a comfortable, smartly furnished home with two servants. Safi had splurged on some jewelry and was proud of her wardrobe. At 40 years old, she was a successful, independent businesswoman. “I was big momma!” she says with a laugh. “Not anymore.”

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Her Story

When Sadiya Omar’s mother wanted her little girl to be on her best behavior, she would tell her, “Someone is watching you upstairs.” As a child, Sadiya didn’t quite understand. “I thought there was someone in the ceiling,” she says of her home in Somalia. Nonetheless, Sadiya learned the values her parents imparted on her. “They told, me, ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated,’” Sadiya says.

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Her Story

If you run into Sahra at the Refugees Helping Refugees school, be sure to say hello. Better yet, ask her, “How do you do?” You’re sure to be greeted with a huge smile. Such was not the case 16 years ago, when Sahra first found herself in Rochester.

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Her Story

It’s hard to get Nasiva Ashera to tell you much about her past. First of all, the 20-year-old refugee from South Sudan can’t speak English. She learned Arabic in school, which helps her communicate with some of the Somali refugees who attend school with her through Rochester’s Refugees Helping Refugees program. But Ashera’s formal education ended after fourth grade, so she’s hardly fluent in that language, and she can’t read or write, even in her tribal tongue.

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Her Story

When you live your whole life as an outsider, you learn to look deep inside to figure out who you are. Rukia Abdimajor has a hard time finding ready-made labels that fit her. Is she Somali? Kenyan? American? African-American? She just graduated as valedictorian of her class at Rochester’s prestigious Joseph C. Wilson Magnate High School, but she’ll tell you she’s no genius. She’s Muslim, but she doesn’t expect most of her friends and classmates to understand what that means.

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Her Story

Most of us take for granted the luxury of having fresh, clean, pressurized water available in our homes. But until a few months ago, Bakita had lived most of her life without such a convenience. Bakita’s village in the Maniema Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo had no running water, which meant that each day she and her fellow villagers would walk 5 miles to the Kaligala River to fetch enough water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

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Her Story

Amina doesn’t know for certain where life will take her from here. One thing she does know, however, is that from now on she’ll be making her own decisions. Amina’s drive for independence surfaced at an earlier age. Unfortunately for her, life didn’t afford her many chances to choose and chase her dreams. Somalia’s civil war erupted when Amina was just 3 years old.

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Her Story

Kau Biswa always wanted to go to school. Today, as a 49-year-old grandmother living nearly 8,000 miles from home, she’s getting her first chance. Kau grew up in Bhutan, where the nearest school was a full day’s walk from her family’s rice farm. Like nearly 100,000 other Bhutan residents whose ancestors had immigrated to that country from Nepal, Kau found herself being forced out of her homeland and into a refugee camp in Nepal 25 years ago.

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Her Story

When Kaltum Sheikh Ibrahim thinks about her homeland of Somalia, she yearns for two things that have disappeared from the landscape: music and peace. Kaltum grew up singing and dancing in Somalia, a cosmopolitan nation with a broad mix of traditional African, Islamic and Western influences. Kaltum’s talents earned her a spot in Waaberi, Somalia’s famous 300-member singing group attached to its National Theatre. Waaberi toured across Africa and beyond during its heyday.

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Her Story

For Dahabo, one of the best things about living in the United States is simply being able to walk out the front door. For the past seven years, Dahabo has been living in Rochester, and for more than 20 years before that she lived in Kenyan refugee camps. But Somalia—a place she both loved and feared—was her original home. Dahabo and her husband lived a simple life in Somalia.

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Her Story

Much of Pirti’s life seems like a series of dreams. First, there are the happy dreams. In these, she can feel the cool, muddy water of a rice paddy envelop her feet, touch oranges hanging heavy on branches and spy the red flesh of tomatoes ripening on vines. This is her farm, her home, her source of livelihood on a small plot of land near the Lapsibote village in southern Bhutan.

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Her Story

Before there was ISIS, there was Al-Shabaab. The terrorist group, based in Somalia and affiliated with Al-Qaeda, has been waging war in its home country and staging terrorist attacks in other African nations since 2004. Like ISIS, it calls itself an Islamic movement, but its thousands of victims include more Muslims than any other religious group. And each time it raids a village, bombs a city square or sends gunmen to terrorize a mall, campus or compound, it leaves behind widows, orphans and homeless people.

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His Story

Ten years ago, psychologist Adrian White compiled a global index of national happiness, based largely on the how the people living in 178 nations rated their satisfaction with life. Sneaking in at no. 8 on that list was the little country of Bhutan, a nation of a couple million people nestled against the Himalayan Mountains between China and India. Naina, a native of Bhutan, can remember a time when he counted himself among those remarkably happy people.

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Her Story

When Nailaa gives birth to her fourth child this summer, it will be the first member of her family to be born in the United States. More importantly, it will be the first member of the family to start life in a peaceful land. Nailaa hasn’t lived in the US long enough to feel all that comfortable here, but for the first time in her life, she’s far away from bombs and battlefields.

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Her Story

Khadija misses many things about Africa: the fresh bananas and coconuts her family raised on their farm in Somalia, the walks to market to buy fish and meat, the times she spent talking with family members, many of whom she left behind when she came to the United States 10 years ago. Khadija was so young when her family fled Somalia that she didn’t even understand why they were leaving.

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His Story

Refugee camps are supposed to be temporary homes—safe places to wait for the dangers at home to subside or, if that hope fades, portals to new lands where persecuted people can resume their lives and find new opportunities. But for Bee, a native of Myanmar, two refugee camps in Thailand were practically the only homes he knew before coming to the United States a little over a year ago.

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Her Story

When Poch heard about the opportunity to take classes in English and citizenship through Refugees Helping Refugees, she couldn’t wait to get started. Told that class began at 9 a.m., she made sure her friend picked her up and got her to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit well beforehand. She took her seat in the classroom and waited. And waited.

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Her Story

The tip of Florida lies less than a hundred miles north of the island nation of Cuba, but when Yamila decided in 2016 to leave her home country and seek asylum in the United States, she knew a much longer journey lay ahead.

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His Story

In some respects, Abdi and his family were among the lucky ones. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, they were among the first to flee the country. Abdi’s father had worked for the government and 21-year-old Abdi had a job of his own. They had enough money to rent a car and drive across the border to Kenya. “We saw killing everywhere,” Abdi said. “If the government sees you, they think you are with one of the (militia) groups. If the others see you, they think you are with the government.”

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