Refugee Stories


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

Credit: Lindee & Tomothy Ohlman

Ismail


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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Safi


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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Sadiya


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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Sahra


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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Nasiva


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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Rukia


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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Bakita


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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Anima


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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Kau


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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Kaltum


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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Dahabo


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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Pirti


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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Muhibo


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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Nailaa


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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Khadija


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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Bee


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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Poch


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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