To Be a Teen Refugee

teen refugees"When I just came [to America], I used to cry. In front of my [classmates], I used to just put my head down and cry," admits Belize Munezero, 14. Belize is a refugee from Burundi, a country in central Africa. She resettled in Atlanta after escaping the civil war there. She is now a freshman at Lithonia High School.

According to the U.S. Committee For Refugees, refugees are persons who flee to a different country because of a fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group, political opinion, armed conflict and lack of a durable solution. World Relief, a Christian-based humanitarian organization, estimates that more than 1,400 refugees come to Atlanta each year. They come from all over the world, including Somalia, Bosnia, Vietnam, Iran, and Sudan. Many of these refugees are teenagers who attend schools such as Clarkston High School, where at least 52 countries are represented. Teen refugees must learn to adjust in the American schools while coping with the fresh memories of life in the refugee camp.

Life In a Refugee Camp

"I saw a lot of tents, people, and crying. I always saw mean people in the army just looking. It was muddy, very very sad," says Shpresa Aliu, 13-year-old Albanian refugee who is now a 7th grade student at Stone Mountain Middle School. "There were like 300 people there, and more people were coming. There was only one store for food." Shpresa lived in this refugee camp for five months.

Teen refugees say that living in a refugee camp literally changes your mind. You cannot walk out from a camp the same as when you walked in. "There is a feeling of hopelessness," explains Bryan Hudson, youth coordinator with Refugee Family Services, a metro-Atlanta based community center assisting refugees. "They constantly have to deal with a situation where they have no choices."

"I remember everything. I remember poor people with nothing and they didn't have any work. It was really hard because people were dying without food, and people were going back to their country," says Fouad Saleh, 17, now a junior at Clarkston High School. Fouad left his native country of Iraq and lived in a refugee camp in Syria for nine years before moving to the United States.

Refugees are escaping life-threatening situations. In refugee camps, the sheer desperation provokes people to use creativity, stretching their imagination to bring relief to the morbid atmosphere. "I remember some kids just playing, try'na have fun. We tried to make thing fun," recalls Shpresa.

Belize has similar memories. "Every Saturday [we] would play drums. [We] hated what was going on in the country so [we] would try to make it happy."

The American Journey

There were an estimated 10.3 million refugees worldwide at the beginning of 2003, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That means that there is a new refugee every 21 seconds, says Amnesty International. The United States resettles more of these refugees than any other country in the world. According to the UNHCR, there were 68,400 refugees in the United States as of 2001. The majority of refugees in 2001 came from Afghanistan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Angola, Sudan, and Congo.

The general public is not aware of the large population of refugees. Refugee Republic, an internet-based advocacy organization, explains that refugees lack self-representation because the mainstream media does not give attention to their struggles. Because teen refugees do not have much of a voice, American teens are not able to hear them. "It's a lack of awareness. I think it has a lot to do with misunderstanding," explains Catherine Dhongade, youth program manager with Refugee Family Services.

With its rights and freedom, America is seen as a haven. Refugees come from all corners of the globe but it is a long and strenuous trek. "A majority of refugees are coming into this country with just the clothes on their back," explains Glory Kilanko, a Nigerian refugee and director of Women Watch Afrika, a nonprofit women's organization. Shamsoun Dikiri had this experience. He is now freshman attending Stone Mountain High School but he lived in a refugee camp for six months in Sudan. "I had absolutely nothing when I came here," says Shamsoun, 14.

Refugees must have documents to prove that they are in fear of persecution, such as birth certificates and passports that reveal that they are from a different country with some type of conflict. "I did not have any documents. Just a little clothes and food," Shpresa adds.

"One of the things that is really important when talking about refugees is that they always have to travel with papers. If you have to walk around with papers to prove that you are a legitimate human being, that is a constant trauma," says Hudson with Family Refugee Services.

New Country, New School

Despite the vast diversity of many metro-Atlanta schools, not all students are accepting of refugees. In school, teenage refugees are often labeled and discriminated. "[American teens] have a very uneducated idea about what a refugee is," explains Hudson. The media projects images that American teens take in and assume as correct. "On TV, they [American teens] saw huts and people naked, lions," Belize says. After a long pause she adds, "[The students at school] would make fun of you, move away from you, and they think we don't take a shower."

"Some of them [students] ask, 'Do you chase lions?' Because I am fast in school," Shamsoun, 14, says.

School officials do not always try to identify with refugee students either. "Teachers and administrators are looking at these people as refugees first and teenagers second," says Bryan. Because of their accents and limited knowledge of English, the teens are made fun of much too often. "It was just people laughing so much," reveals Shpresa. "We miss our country so much."

Adjustment Crises

"I had to learn the language and get use to the food and the music. It was all weird and hard," says Shpresa.

There is a great amount of stress placed upon teen refugees. Along with trying to hold on to their culture, identity, language, and pride, they have a lot of domestic responsibilities. A stereotype of refugees is that they pack around each other. Family bonds are tight and usually include the extended family as well. Teen refugees must work hard in academics and make friends. On top of all this, they are learning the American way of life. They must become accustomed to behavior and rituals that may be different from their own. This includes learning the American greeting, hangout places, music, slang, and sports. Unfortunately, there is little time left to just have fun. "These refugees have it four times harder than American teens," Bryan explains.

The End?

With all the psychological, mental, and emotional trauma, teenage refugees can still be who they are: teens. They can laugh and be themselves, but this will only happen if American teens help. "American teenagers should try to talk to us and not just assume things," adds Belize.

"I think it [America] is a great, great country. Although I miss my country, I feel that America has helped a lot. It's fun!" Shpresa expresses.

We can do our part to assist the teen refugees that we meet and learn from each other. Treat everyone the way you wanted to be treated. There is no other way to say it. Live to learn and respect all human beings.

Chika Oduah is a senior at Chamblee Charter High School counting down the days until graduation.

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