June 25, 2008

Beginning to Feel at Home

By Karen Lee Ziner

At World Refugee Day, an Iraqi woman says she feels "like a newborn" as she and her family settle in to Providence.

PROVIDENCE -- Two years ago, a U.S. jet dropped a bomb into Ghaydaa Ghalum's kitchen in Baghdad. It happened seconds after a neighbor, angered by the U.S. Army's presence in the area, shot at the jet overhead, Ghalum said.

"I covered up my children and saw my house fall apart," Ghalum said. "My daughter was shaking all night and my son kept crying and wouldn't open his eyes. All night we saw dust coming down from the ceiling. The next morning my entire family came to our house to see if we were dead or alive."

That was the last in a series of cataclysmic events that pushed the family into exile, said Ghalum at the fourth annual Rhode Island World Refugee Day ceremony yesterday, at Providence City Hall. The International Institute of Rhode Island hosted the event.

In 2003, Ghalum's husband, Adel, then working for the U.S. Army as a carpenter, "was kidnapped and tortured by the terrorists and almost died," she said. "... Like many other Iraqis, we left Iraq because we didn't feel safe there anymore. Everybody lives in fear; there were gunfights in the streets. My children saw dead bodies on the streets."

The family fled first to Iran, then Lebanon, before being resettled in Rhode Island last December by the International Institute. Now, Adel works full time while the children, Ahmed, 4, and Miriam, 6, attend school. Ghalum said she hopes to earn a nursing degree.

Ghalum told the audience that she feels "like a newborn," and thanked both the Rhode Island community and the institute "for helping us make Providence our new home."

But it was not an easy transition.

"My daughter registered in school, but at first, she was afraid that somebody in school may kidnap her," Ghalum said. "When we first arrived in America, I was still nervous and upset about all those years we lived in fear and violence. I was angry and confused about the new life in America, but the International Institute helped us with everything. They made us feel at home, and calmed me down."

World Refugee Day honors millions of refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their homes around the world by war or civil strife, religious persecution and disaster. The International Institute helps hundreds of refugees who arrive in Rhode Island every year, as well as immigrants, to learn English, find jobs and become acculturated. It also provides legal and health services.

Lavinia Limn, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, in Washington, said there are more than 14 million refugees in the world today, "and 99.5 percent of all refugees in the world don't have the opportunity to be resettled."

In the worst areas, "people have been murdered, sent back to their dictators, raped, drowned ...," she said. More than 8.5 million people have been displaced by war for five years or more. And some refugees have been displaced "for 10, 20, 30, 40, or even 60 years, with no hope of moving forward in their lives."

Yesterday, a group of children from Burundi, Angola and the Congo danced to drumbeats and their own voices. Christopher Bihiga, who taught and led the children, said one song drew parallels with the Israelites being led from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Said Bihiga, "That's how we also managed to come" to America. "God helped us to cross the sea."

Albert Rajabu and his wife, Esperance Mitamba, sang a song in Swahili. Though it was in another language, the imaginary tears they traced on their faces required no interpretation.

Rajabu said the words meant, "We are crying to the Lord, as children of Africa, because Africa has become a field of war, conflicts and battles, so we are sad ...."

Institute executive director William Shuey presented refugee service awards to Sister Anne Keefe, of St. Michael Church in Providence, and Dr. Carol Lewish, of the Hasbro Refugee Clinic, who maintain partnerships with the institute.

Baha Sadr, director of the institute's refugee resettlement program, said more refugees from Iraq, Somali and Burundi will be resettled in Providence this year. Three Iraqi families, including Ghalum's, have been resettled here since last summer.

"It is a miracle for a refugee to flee their home, and a miracle for them to survive, and a miracle for them to be accepted by the U.S. refugee program," Sadr said. He called Providence a "very diverse city," and one "that is enriched by the many new refugees coming here."

Iraqi refugee Ghaydaa Ghalum tells a personal story of herself, her family and their lives in Iraq, and now in Rhode Island, at yesterday's program celebrating the fourth annual Rhode Island World Refugee Day at Providence City Hall. The Providence Journal / Kris Craig

Nagulida Ntibargirigwa dances after she and the Great Lake Children Cultural Dancers performed.

Ayidani Niyonzima beats on the bongos as members of the Great Lake Children Cultural Dancers perform during the International Institute of Rhode Island program at Providence City Hall. The Providence Journal / Kris Craig [email protected] / (401) 277-7375

Originally published by Karen Lee Ziner, Journal Staff Writer.

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