Settled into new homes, refugees in U.S. say they are working for a better life for all

Settled into new homes, refugees in U.S. say they are working for a better life for all

Maryland became home to 763 new refugees in 2019, and one of them was Arnobia Bernal Ramirez, 57.Bernal Ramirez fled Colombia to Ecuador with her son, who has a cognitive disability, in 2016 after she was exploited and threatened by a local group. Unable to escape the danger, Bernal Ramirez applied for asylum in the U.S.As a Spanish speaker, she spoke to Maryland Matters through Andrea Sanchez, an intern at Asylee Women Enterprise, a Baltimore organization that helps asylum seekers.“She did live a bit of a calm life [in Ecuador] for a while, but [the harassers] ended up following her there,” Sanchez said. Through tears, Bernal Ramirez said she felt alone when she arrived in Baltimore and was constantly paranoid that she and her son would be discovered.“She was constantly living in fear that one day those people would find her, recognize her and her son on the street and kill [them],” said Sanchez.Unable to speak English or communicate with her 35-year-old nonverbal son, Andres, Bernal Ramirez hid from the world for months until she connected with Asylee Women Enterprise (AWE), where she found support and a job.

“At first she was very reluctant,” said Sanchez. “She felt as if she wasn’t worthy of getting help or any resources.”

But Bernal Ramirez said crossing the threshold at AWE felt like learning “what it was to live again.”

And while some people can be “hateful,” Bernal Ramirez admires the community she’s found.

“She doesn’t really even think the stereotypes [of immigrants] matter just because of the sheer amount of people that do actually care … and think that immigrants are worthy of being here,” Sanchez said.

Alex Mutabazi, 45, Democratic Republic of Congo

Alex Mutabazi and his family came to Tennessee to escape the violence in Central Africa. He has since started a church to help other refugees. Photo by John Partipilo | Tennessee Lookout

By Dulce Torres | Tennessee Lookout

Alex Mutabazi, 45, lost everything during the yearslong violence that spread through much of Central Africa.
After the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed millions, millions more fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to escape. Among the refugees were rebel groups, which prompted an invasion of Congo, resulting in widespread destruction.

Among the chaos, Mutabazi, his wife, seven children and extended family struggled to survive. Among the victims of the war was his mother, and after losing his property and livestock, the family had nowhere to go.

“I could not eat when my family could not eat and were dying,” he said.

A peace treaty was signed in 2003, but conflicts continued into the next decade. In 2016, Mutabazi and his family migrated to Tennessee into the political turmoil that comes from changing presidential administrations.

Mutabazi’s family was one of 2,051 that migrated that year to Tennessee, most being from Congo, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. Advocates helped them resettle, but refugees still struggled with discrimination due to language barriers and limited knowledge about local laws.

Seeing this, Mutabazi founded a church, called His Grace Christian Life Church, so the community could gather, worship in their own language and discuss the problems affecting them in their daily lives.

By August of this year, Mutabazi and his family will have been in the U.S. for five years and hope they will soon be able to start the process of becoming American citizens. Mutabazi has founded two churches in Nashville and Knoxville and has 155 members.

With another child on the way, Mutabazi knows the struggles of being a refugee hundreds of miles away from their homeland and hopes Joe Biden’s administration will fulfill his campaign promises to facilitate admission to the U.S.

“Life in Africa is so tough because of many reasons. Right now, in my country, they are having a war,” said Mutabazi. “I wish my four brothers will be able to join us here, because where they are now, they are not safe.”

Manasse Matala, 19, Zimbabwe

Manasse Matala graduated from high school in Wichita in May, overcoming steep language barriers. Now he hopes to bring confidence to refugees much like himself through motivational speaking. Submitted to Kansas Reflector

By Noah Taborda | Kansas Reflector

Manasse Matala, 19, endeavors each day to ensure he does not waste the educational opportunities available to him in the United States.

Matala and his family resettled in Wichita, one of an estimated 3.4 million Zimbabweans who have fled their home country to escape violence and killings. Kansas’s culture came as quite a shock, especially for someone whose English was shaky.

Through his studies, Matala said he overcame many of those language barriers. Still, the lack of fluency did affect his French-speaking family.

“My mom didn’t know how to speak English and it would be very hard for her to communicate or to find something like a job,” he said.

Now, Matala is hoping to bring inspiration and hope to more refugees through, of all things, speaking. He graduated from Southeast High School in May, and while he plans to pursue a degree in pre-medicine, he also wants to be a motivational speaker.

His message is a tried and true one — hard work pays off. Matala channels his own personal experience from things as difficult as overcoming language barriers to learning piano or playing soccer to demonstrate this.

He has also considered physical therapy as a possible career path. Whatever directions he takes, he wants to dispel misconceptions that refugees are a burden on their new country.

“I asked some of my friends about what you think about refugees, and everyone is telling me this bad stuff. I didn’t show my sadness, but it did break my heart a little,” Matala said. “We can’t just come in and start acting without even knowing the culture. We don’t even know what is going on.”