Lost in translation: A check-up with a Burmese refugee

by BRADY LEAVITT

  • Click here to view a slideshow of my day with Zuli, Robson and Kamar (best viewed in full-screen mode)

Reporter’s note: Journalists traditionally remove themselves from the narrative of their articles to create an authoritative, objective tone in their writing. As I see it, the goal of the reporter is to become the invisible lens through which the reader, listener or viewer gets the truth. However, as I did the reporting for this story I unwittingly became an active participant in the day’s events. It was irresistible. To remove myself from the story would be to be to withhold the truth from the reader. So, in the interest of objectivity, this story is about me.

Zuli is a Burmese hill tribe refugee. As of November 2008, he had been in the United States for one year and two months. He has no last name. His medical records separate the second syllable from the first to form the required first-name, last-name construction: Zu Li.

For Zuli, everything is difficult. His wife is sick. He cannot find work. His shoulder aches all the time. As a Muslim living in Salt Lake City, he finds it hard to find Halaal meals, foods consistent with Islamic dietary code. Above all else, Zuli has a single, suffocating problem that envelops every part of his life — he speaks no English.

On Nov. 18, I accompanied Peter Robson, a translator from the Asian Association of Utah, to take Zuli to a routine doctor’s appointment to have his shoulder checked.

As climbed into his car, Robson, 23, explained he would be translating the medical staff’s questions from English to Thai. We were driving to pick up his partner, Kamar, who would translate from Thai to a mixture of Burmese and Karen, two of the languages Zuli speaks. The process would then repeat in reverse to convey Zuli’s responses to the nurses and doctors.

Kamar, 19, also a Burmese refugee, learned to speak Thai while growing up in refugee camps near the Thailand-Myanmar border. He has been in the U.S. for a little more than one year. Utah-born Robson, a native English speaker, learned to speak Thai while serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is where Robson and I first met, and where I also learned to speak Thai.

“Do you ever worry that when you translate something…?” I started to ask.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “Always”

I asked Robson how he knows when the chain of translation has broken down.

“By the answer they give,” Robson said. “I mean, you ask them the last time they threw up and they answer ‘No’ — you know something got lost.”

Kamar, Robson said, was very excited that I was coming. When we saw Kamar, Robson commented on how “dressed up” he was, saying that Kamar normally wears ragged jeans and T-shirts. That day he wore khaki slacks, a green dress shirt and faded red, white and blue flip-flops.

“Why aren’t you listening to music,” he asked Robson in Thai from the back seat of the car.

“Because I’m enduring an interview,” Robson responded, now speaking in Thai and motioning to me.

Kamar pulled out a knockoff mp3 player and informed me that he and Robson only listen to Burmese hip-hop in the car.

“What do you think of America,” I asked in Thai as we drove.

Kamar looked slightly annoyed. “I don’t think,” he said. “I’m listening to music.”

* * *

Zuli lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Rose Park with his wife, Poriba, and his five or six grandchildren. I say “five or six” because nobody, including Zuli, could give me a sure answer of how many people live there. He is either 55 or 59 years old, depending on whether one trusts his medical records or Zuli.

A pile of shoes lined the small entryway of the apartment. A moist, sour smell blanketed the apartment as we walked in. A collection of cardboard sheets ripped from packing boxes lined the wall, the names and phone numbers written on them. The names were written in Burmese making it impossible to tell to whom they belonged, but Zuli quickly asked me for my number which he added to the collection. The only other real decorations were the Islamic wall calendars, unidentifiable stains on the carpet and family pictures printed on inexpensive copy -paper and stuck to the wall with masking tape.

We sat cross-legged on the floor just next to a full-length sofa. Zuli began speaking in a dizzying blend of backwoods Thai and Burmese. He was animated and cheerful as he spoke. Peter listened to him and nodded.
Zuli said something to me, and flashed a tobacco-stained smile in my direction. I stared, hoping that whatever he said would eventually trickle into the part of my brain that could make sense of it. It never got that far. I smiled, nodded and tried to slink out of the conversation as fast as I could. They chatted for another few minutes before I heard something I did understand.

“Pete, you’re Christian, aren’t you?” Zuli asked.

Robson said he was.

“Christianity and Islam are really similar, you know,” Zuli said. “I say it, EE-bra-him, you say it Abraham.” He rattled off a few more Old Testament names. “They’re practically the same. The only difference is how we say it.”

I slowly began making sense of Zuli’s accent as the conversation continued.

Robson began asking Zuli questions about the day’s events. Zuli responded in garbled Thai half of the time and the rest of the time in a language that lies somewhere along the Thai-Burmese spectrum. Kamar filled the conversation’s gaps. Zuli told Robson that he thought he had an ulcer. He wanted medicine for that in addition to getting his shoulder checkup.

I was understanding about 25 percent of the proceedings when the volume of the conversation grew. Zuli was visibly amused that Robson had forgotten a detail from a previous appointment. Zuli erupted into belly-shaking laughter and pointed at Robson.

“I liked it better when we weren’t friends and he didn’t yell at me,” Robson said quietly to me with a smile.

We left for the clinic.

* * *

I had intended to spend as much time in the background as possible, to avoid interrupting the flow of activities. It was, I found, more and more impossible as we got closer to the doctor’s office.

In the car, Robson told Zuli I am engaged.

“You’ve got a woman?” Zuli cried in an excited spray of spit. “If you get married, I’m coming for sure, and I’ll bring you something.” He trailed off and gestured with his hands to show me just how large the intended gift would be.

A storm of confusion ensued upon our arrival at the University Healthcare Redwood Health Center in Salt Lake City. The translation system was about to be stretched to the limit.

A woman sitting with a nervous-looking Asian man was in the waiting room, which was full of people who spoke at least half a dozen languages. She jumped up to ask if we were the translators. The woman, an LDS service missionary, told us she had scheduled an appointment for her client but the hospital did not have anyone they could even call who speaks his language, Karen. The woman pleaded for our help after Zuli’s appointment as we were whisked into the exam room.

In the exam room, Zuli’s demeanor changed. He had been laughing and smiling and speaking almost non-stop, but now he was now silent and stared blankly at the wall, making eye contact with no one. A medical assistant came in and asked Zuli how tall he was.

“Zuli, how tall are you?” Robson translated.

Kamar translated the question into Burmese. Zuli spoke.

“Eight,” Kamar said, in Thai.

“What? What do you mean eight? He said eight,” Robson said in Thai and English.

In a flurry of further translation, and after standing Zuli back to back with Kamar, it was determined that Zuli is 5 feet 2 inches tall. The assistant did not seem too worried about actually measuring Zuli and entered his height into the computer.

“How is your shoulder,” the assistant asked.

Another 45-second volley of translation passed and Zuli again said, “Eight.”
It then became clear that Zuli was referring to a picture chart that medical staff uses to help patients rate the level of pain they are feeling. A rating of one is on the 10-point chart is associated with no pain and has a corresponding smiley face. An eight corresponds to a face with furrowed eyebrows and squinting eyes, the level of pain Zuli was feeling.

“Oh! I get it,” Kamar said. “See, I thought you were asking ‘how tall does it hurt’ a minute ago.”

The nurse laughed. I laughed. Robson laughed. Zuli did not. The medical assistant left and the room fell silent.

“Pete. Pete, help me, OK? Help me get this ulcer taken care of,” Zuli said quietly. Robson nodded and looked down at the floor.

The doctor came in and began to ask Zuli questions via the translation team. He said he was amazed at how efficient they were when compared to some he has worked with. The doctor checked Zuli’s shoulder and recommended an injection. Robson mentioned Zuli wanted medicine for an ulcer. The doctor said he would schedule a colonoscopy.

Robson stopped and looked at me. “How do you say colonoscopy in Thai?”
I thought about it and came up with the rough translation — a combination of words: check, look at and butt. We looked at Kamar who stared blankly at us.

“Oh wait. Yeah, I think my dad had one of those,” he said. He fired a stream of Burmese at Zuli who did not respond.

Robson then mentioned to the doctor that the Primary Care Network, a low-budget insurance plan provided by the Utah Department of Health for jobless refugees, covered Zuli.

The doctor stopped smiling and began typing furiously at his computer.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing else I can do, then,” he said. “That’s the worst insurance on the planet. It doesn’t cover anything.”

The doctor had been planning to refer Zuli to an orthopedic surgeon to inject medicine into his shoulder and to have Zuli return for colonoscopy. Because of the insurance, all he could recommend was to have Robson help Zuli file an appeal to the local insurance representative to have the treatments covered, he said. Kamar was still explaining the treatment plan to Zuli who said, “Look, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. All I know is that I hurt. And I don’t want it to hurt anymore.”

The doctor said if the appeal was denied, the best he could do was to schedule an appointment to have the injection done by a non-specialist doctor at the clinic. He asked whether Robson would accompany Zuli at that time or if it would be some other, “clueless translator.” Robson asked the doctor several more questions about Zuli’s options, to which the doctor replied he did not know.

At that moment that I became suddenly disenchanted with the whole process. The translation had been fun and somewhat exciting, if cumbersome, but now I felt as though Robson was the only one who understood Zuli’s needs and no one seemed able to tell him what to do.

We took Zuli to the pharmacy to buy the Tylenol the doctor recommended and some medicine for his wife. We passed the LDS service missionary who was still waiting with her client for a non-existent translator. A friend of Kamar happened to walk by at that moment and offered to help translate.

Robson decided to stop by the Asian Association to report to Zuli’s caseworker. This was Robson’s first time to meet the person primarily responsible for Zuli’s needs, but was his tenth time to help Zuli. Even the caseworker had difficulty giving Robson clear direction of how to help Zuli further.

* * *

Before we headed home, I decided to seal my lack of objectivity and journalistic disinterest by inviting Zuli, Kamar and Robson to lunch. We ate at an Indian restaurant called Curry in a Hurry, which, Zuli was delighted to find out, serves Halaal food.

Back at the apartment, Robson began explaining to Zuli how to take the medicine. Zuli wrote the directions on the bottles in Burmese. I noticed six or seven other orange bottles that held medicine similar to what we had just picked up. Robson asked Zuli to throw them away.

We were about to leave when Zuli insisted he wanted to give me something. He went into the back room and returned with a plain white T-shirt. He presented it to me as a token of his thanks. He could not remember my name so he called me “my son” and restated his intention to get me something “really good” for my wedding. We left.

Robson told me he would be paid only for the time he spent translating, excluding transportation time, or about three of the six hours that he had spent helping Zuli that day. But he gets more than money out the deal, he said.

“There’s something compelling about the refugee, something charismatic about spending time with them,” Robson said quietly as we drove, listening to a mix of Thai patriotic music played by a squeaky brass band. “It helps me keep things in perspective – if school or my social life isn’t going how I want, it helps me realize how outrageously well-off I am.”

He summarized the day by saying, “It’s pretty healthy, I think, to hang with these people.”

I think so too.

Sports are their safe haven

by BRAD TAGGART

When the air starts to get cold and the grass begins to freeze it means one thing here in Utah: church basketball is about to begin.

For many men and women in Utah church basketball is a way to spend time with friends and get to know new members of their communities. However, for two individuals it is much more than that. 

For brothers Hau, 17, and Minh Nguyen, 13, church basketball is a place to belong, an organization to be part of. Church basketball is their release from the harsh reality that invades their past and their minds.

Hau and a friend in Salt Lake City.

Hau and a friend in Salt Lake City. Photo by Brad Taggart

In their home country of Vietnam, Hau and Minh were victims of war and poverty.  They spent most of their childhood in refugee camps where they weren’t able to play sports, much less basketball.

But these two boys were among the lucky ones.  After spending the first nine years of their lives in the refugee camps they were given the opportunity to come to the U.S.  This is a process that takes time and many efforts from many people on their behalf.

“I remember praying to God while I was in the camp to let me free and to live a good life,” Hau said.  “At first nothing happened and I didn’t know if there was a God but then we were helped and freed. I will never forget that God rescued me.”

The International Rescue Committee was the answer to Hau’s prayer.  The IRC is an organization based in New York City that helps individuals and families like these boys come into the U.S. and escape the horrific life of the refugee camps. 

Minh, 13, moved to Dallas before settling in Salt Lake City.

Minh, 13, moved to Dallas before settling in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of the Nguyen family.

Once the necessary paperwork was complete the two boys and their mother ended up in Dallas.  This is where they were introduced to the game of basketball and were shown the ropes by some of the volunteers at the IRC.

After spending a few years in Dallas the boys and their mother moved to Utah to be with some relatives from Vietnam.

“All I wanted to know was if there would be basketball in our new home,” Hau said.  “When I found out that there was I was very excited because I really like basketball now.”

The boys were told about church basketball by a friend from school and have not stopped going ever since.  “I didn’t know if it was OK to play basketball at a church,” Nguyen said. “I asked my mom and she said it was OK and that I should have fun. I was really happy when she told me that.”

Randy Kruger, activities coordinator for the Riverside Stake in Salt Lake City, said, “Its great to see so many new faces. They [Hau and Minh] seem to really enjoy the basketball and it’s a good way to befriend some kids or adults in our community that may not be LDS.”

Church ball has been around for several years and every year it seems to get more popular. Members of the LDS church are the ones responsible for inviting those friends who like to play basketball but don’t have anywhere to play it. 

“I have invited a couple of friends,” said Kalab Cox, a member of the 29th Ward basketball team in the Riverside Stake. “My one buddy said that he thought the church was cool for putting together this league.” 

Basketball isn’t the only sport refugees can find in Utah. Soccer is a very popular sport around the world and many refugees have found places to play in the valley on a weekly basis.

In Rose Park soccer begins every Sunday at 9:00 a.m. and lasts until about 1:00 p.m.  Anyone is welcome to play.

Hau is one of many people who play soccer there. “I like to play basketball in the winter and soccer in the summer,” Hau said. “I am really bad at soccer though. I think I am better at basketball so I play that more.”

The sports continue to gain followers and more and more refugees are finding a way to get involved and play the sports they love.

“Over 30 players come out on a regular basis,” said Gilbert Sanchez, a member of the family that started playing every Sunday. “Every Sunday it seems to get bigger and bigger.” Some of the players come from all over the world. 

A small town just a few miles from where Hau and Minh grew up in Vietnam.

A small town just a few miles from where Hau and Minh grew up in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the Nguyen family.

“We have players from Africa, Asia, South America and from here in Utah,”  Sanchez said. “We want everyone to come play and have fun.”

But Kruger and others hope refugees will continue to find their way to the basketball court.

“I just want to continue to see more and more newcomers,” Kruger said. “If they are or aren’t refugees I want them to feel invited and welcome. That is our whole goal with this church basketball league.”

Hau and his younger brother Minh will continue to play as long as they can. “If they will let me play ’til I am 70 years old I will still come and play,” Minh said. “As long as I can walk and shoot the ball I will keep coming.”

Iraqi refugees in SLC find differences and similarities

by BRETT PERFILI

  • View a slideshow of the families and the Humanitarian Center (best viewed in full-screen mode)

In the spring of 2003, the U.S. government sent in troops to invade Iraq because it was believed the country held weapons of mass destruction. The invasion also aimed to put an end to Suddam Hussein’s support for terrorism and to free the Iraqi people.

Since then, the United States is still there fighting for the freedom of the Iraqi people. However, U.S. troops have been able to capture Iraq’s leader and also see him executed.

Many Iraqi people have fled from their country to avoid persecution, discrimination and even death. Some of the Iraqis who have fled their native country have come to Utah.

Mazen Hamoudi, 32, an Iraqi native, is a doctor in Salt Lake City. Hamoudi said when American troops first arrived in Iraq there were differing feelings toward the soldiers.

“When the American soldiers came during the first few months, most not all, most of the Iraqi people say hello,” Hamoudi said. “But, after three months people started to hate the American soldiers. Americans angered Iraqis because of their behavior.”

Hamoudi did not flee his country as a refugee; he came by choice. He can speak fluent English, which he was taught beginning in the fifth grade. Hamoudi received his medical degree from Baghdad University and decided to come to the United States to avoid the dangers of living in Iraq and also to seek more money.

In late December 2006 Hussein was hung at Camp Justice, an Iraqi army base in a neighborhood of Baghdad. And again, mixed emotions existed among the Iraqi people, Hamoudi said.

“It is difficult to express my emotion,” he said. “He killed people, so he had to be killed, but not by this behavior. I was not happy at the time.”

Hamoudi said he now finds it was the right thing to do, but will always feel that Hussein contributed many positives to his native country.

“I consider him the perpetrator of the Iraqi people,” he said.

Omar Shakir, 40, a patient of Hamoudi’s, feels the same about Hussein, but still is mourning over his execution. Shakir cried after the execution of the Iraqi leader.

Speaking in Arabic, Shakir said he was still very sad.

“Omar thinks as leader and Arabic leader,” said Hamoudi, who translated the conversation.

Before Hussein’s execution U.S. soldiers marched into Firdos Square in Baghdad and pulled down a tall concrete statue of the Iraqi.

This was also a devastating moment, Shakir said.

“From his [Shakir’s] perspective the falling down of the statue all of Iraq was falling down,” Hamoudi said. “I was happy because I did not see the falling of the country. When he fell down I considered Saddam falling down.”

Shakir said he feels the invasion of Iraq by the United States was not a smart move. But, now he fears if U.S. soldiers pull out, there will be a civil war. Shakir feels this would only create larger problems for his country.

Unlike Hamoudi, Shakir was forced from Iraq. He literally was chased out of his country with bullets being fired at him because of his religious beliefs.

Shakir has lived in Utah for four months. He has only recently begun earning a salary for income at the Deseret Industries through the LDS church.

Shakir said language is the biggest barrier for employment at this point. He finds life in the United States frustrating because in his country he was considered a rich man, and in Utah he is not. Shakir was a businessman in Iraq where he owned his own supermarket.

When Shakir arrived from Jordan he was able to bring his wife, Huda Shakir, 33, their son and daughter and his brother, Mahmoud, 32. They are all living in a Salt Lake City apartment on 309 E.  4500 South in the Cottonwood Creek Apartment Community.

Faris Ali, 45, is also a refugee from Iraq who has lived in Utah for four weeks. He lives in the east side of Salt Lake City in an apartment.

Ali has taken a different path to the United States than Shakir. He also holds dissimilar beliefs about Iraq, however, he does find some things in common.

Ali sided with the United States during the 2003 invasion, which is why he left Iraq to come to Utah.

“I was the first Iraqi to go for the United States when America raised for our help,” Ali said in a telephone interview. “I made a pledge to help this country through the good times and the bad times.”

In contrast to Shakir, Ali was not saddened by Hussein’s execution.

“I felt great on that day,” Ali said. “He killed lots of people. He was dangerous to all of the war. He was the biggest terrorist in the war.”

Like Hamoudi, Ali attended Baghdad University. He received a degree in mechanical engineering. He is seeking a job here that will allow him to use his skills. One problem he faces in finding a job with those skills is no social security in the United States.

Right now he is working temporarily as an interpreter at the International Rescue Committee in downtown Salt Lake City. The IRC is an organization helping refugees find housing, employment and medical care.

Ali never plans on returning to Iraq, He considers Utah his home now, he said.

“I forget about my birth country. This is my new one,” Ali said. “I don’t miss anything about my country.”

However, he is still waiting for the arrival of his family within the next year or two.

Shakir and Ali agree that people are very kind and nice in Utah. Neither one said they feel discriminated against because of where they come from.

“They are so friendly, so nice,” Ali said. “Everyone says hi. They are not like this in the Mideast.”

Shakir said in Arabic that the people are very understanding to his origin. One of his initial thoughts entering the United States was Americans would see his culture and religion from the wrong perspective, however, this was not the case.

Still, Shakir hopes to be able to return to Iraq one day.

“He considers his home and country everything,” Hamoudi said.

However, Shakir said there is a lot that needs to be changed before he can go back. If the security changed in Iraq he would go home tomorrow, but he can’t. He would be killed.

With the war still ongoing and Iraqis as well as Americans being killed every day both Shakir and Ali feel blessed to be where they are today. They have families, are able to practice their cultures and are doing everything they can to succeed in a new place.

Diversity is complicated for refugees in Utah

by BRADY LEAVITT

In a state that is 93 percent white, Gerald Brown represents diversity.

Brown is white. He wears bow ties and peers through round-rimmed glasses. When asked if he speaks foreign languages, he says, “Only Southern.” When asked what his epitaph might read, he says, “A Holy Man.” And when asked if refugee caseworkers are tough, he says without hesitation, “Shit.”

Brown, 57, is the director of the Refugee Services Office in the Utah Department of Workforce Services. He works as a sort of traffic cop at the intersection of politics and nonprofit groups, coordinating efforts to help refugees integrate into Utah’s communities and culture.

Brown became director of the Refugee Services Office in February 2008 after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered its creation. Huntsman and the state legislature appropriated $200,000 to fund the office, the first time state money has been provided specifically for refugees. The sum is small, Brown said, less than 10 percent of the money he receives from the federal government. However, it as a sign that the state is willing to invest in refugees, he said.

“I need Huntsman for another term,” Brown said, referring to the upcoming elections. “He gets it.”

A self-described “lefty activist type,” Brown wants democratic Sen. Barack Obama to be elected president in November. He figures that with a Democratic president, Republican Gov. Huntsman will be re-elected in Utah and not called to a cabinet position in Washington.

Before Gov. Huntsman’s executive order, the Refugee Services Office consisted of “one guy and a cubicle,” Brown said. Now the office has six employees and one volunteer coordinator.

While he enjoys working in Utah, Brown’s fondness for the state and its governor only goes so far. He expressed frustration with the organizational difficulties of his job. One of his office’s goals is to build a network of trained volunteers to assist caseworkers. But, he said, the bureaucracy is slowing it down.

“Do we have trained volunteers on the ground yet? Nope. Because we’re still meeting,” Brown said.

Brown began his work in the field of refugee services assisting Cambodians at a YMCA in Houston in 1981. It was his first-hand experience that inspired him to be an advocate and an activist. The most effective activists, he said, are those who have had similar exposure to diverse populations.

Brown both praises and criticizes Utah in this respect. He accuses many Utahns as being insular and in many cases ignorant when compared with other groups of people he has worked with.

Peter Robson works as an interpreter for refugees at the Asian Association of Utah. He said that he included his work experience at a refugee resettlement agency on his resume. As he interviewed for jobs this past summer, many employers would ask him about it.

“These were well-informed people, but they were surprised that there were real refugees in Salt Lake,” Robson said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah’s population in 2006 was identified as 93.5 percent white and only 5.1 percent black, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

Robson, 23, is a native Utahn. Growing up in his east Salt Lake City neighborhood he was separated, and not just from the refugee community, he said.

“It’s easy to insulate yourself and separate yourself from anyone who is less-privileged,” Robson said.

Robson said his experiences working with the refugee community have changed his underlying career goals – salary and other considerations are no longer as important as the satisfaction that comes from helping people.

Robson is similar to many people that Brown knows in Utah. Brown said he is baffled by how simultaneously sheltered and eager the volunteers he finds here are.

“Utah County is the volunteer capital of the U.S.,” Brown said, “It’s like the perfect job.”

Brown said that diversity is edifying and that people need to begin to realize that the world is getting smaller and people are more reliant upon each other than ever.

While Brown may feel that Utah is not a hub of diversity, he maintains that Utah is the “Wild West for resettlement work,” meaning that he feels so much is possible because people and organizations are so willing to help. And despite his criticism insularity, Brown said that one of the reasons it is so easy to work with people in Utah is that they are conservative and relatively nondiverse. ”

They have no complicated experiences,” he said, “and people seem generally nice.” Brown epitomizes in many ways the unique and unlikely diversity of Utah.

Diversity, Brown said, is a two-way street – a street on which he directs the traffic.

And doing so, Brown said, “I have had the privilege to get to know the world.”

Issa Moursal, determined not to fail

by BRAD TAGGART

Issa Moursal was riding in a truck with his cousin when he felt a burning sensation on the back of his neck. As he reached back to feel what had burned him he noticed blood running down his neck and soaking his shirt.

“I looked at my cousin and the same bullet that grazed the back of my neck had hit my cousin and killed him,” Moursal said. He sat and reflected for a second remembering the terrifying moments.

Moursal, now 38, grew up in Chad, Africa, in a French colony. Moursal had aspirations of becoming a lawyer. He studied hard and for long hours with that goal in mind. He would walk to school with no shoes, and sit under a tree for class, which was typical in Chad where the economy struggled.

Scenes of Niger, Africa. Photos courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Scenes of Niger, Africa. Photos courtesy of Issa Moursal.

In school, Moursal learned to speak two languages. French was his primary language and Arabic was his second language.

He attended high school in Niger and would visit home during his summer vacations. One particular summer Moursal returned to his village for vacation. As Moursal and his sister went to get firewood some government officers from Chad approached them. The officials asked Moursal to tell them where his father was. Moursal’s father was an officer in a rebellious tribe that was trying to overthrow the government. Moursal refused to tell them.

“I knew if I told them [where my dad was] that they would not only kill him, but kill me also,” Moursal said. “So I refused to tell them and they started beating me.”

Moursal’s sister pleaded with him to tell them but Moursal knew the consequences and kept his fathers whereabouts secret. The officers arrested Moursal and took him to a city about 20 miles from his village where he would spend the next week in jail.

While in prison Moursal came in contact with a Catholic priest who knew Moursal from his congregation and had sent Moursal to school in the first place. The priest asked city officials to release him and they did.

After being let out of prison Moursal left for Sudan where he would begin fighting for his tribe and against the government.

“The government is corrupt in Chad,” Moursal said. “They can arrest you for not even doing anything and can kill you if they want with no reason.” Moursal’s tribe joined forces with another and together, they were able to overthrow the government in December 1990.

Issa Moursal holds a traditional mask from Niger. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Issa Moursal holds a traditional mask from Niger. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Afterward Moursal was assigned to be part of the security team that would protect the new vice president. Things remained calm for a period of time until the tribe that had helped to overthrow the original government decided to try to take over the new government.

Moursal and his cousins were in a truck protecting the vice president when they were shot at. Moursal recalls the situation being frantic and chaotic. “That is when I felt the burning on my neck,” Moursal said. “I looked and my cousin was dead.”

The fateful event led Moursal to decide to flee Sudan and seek protection. “I had to go into hiding for just a couple of hours,” Moursal said. “Then I traversed across a river and then was smuggled across the border to Nigeria and then to Niger.”

By the time he arrived in Niger, his neck was badly infected. “I went to the University hospital and met a nurse from my tribe to help with my infection,” Moursal said.

Even though Moursal had escaped the war he still had the desire to fight for his people and go back. “The nurse convinced me to stay,” Issa said. “She told me go to talk to the United Nations and they would help me.”

An official from the United Nations listened to Moursal’s plea and decided to protect him with the stipulation that Moursal study and then work for the United Nations. He agreed.

For the next two years Moursal began to realize his dream yet again. He had two years of law school under his belt when he was awarded a scholarship.

After getting the good news of the scholarship, Moursal encountered yet another obstacle in his path. The United Nations had enough lawyers and needed to pull Moursal out of law school and place him in a technical school. He agreed to continue and finished his degree in library science in spite of not being able to become a lawyer.

After a seven-year stay with the United Nations Moursal was offered the chance to come to the United States as a refugee. “They came and interviewed us to see if we could make it in the States,” Moursal said. “I was not convinced that I would be going but knew I had as good as chance as any.”

Moursal was one of 3,000 possible candidates to come to the U.S. Only 27 were selected; he was among the 27.

When granted asylum by the U.S. Moursal needed to find an organization that would accept him and help him with the transition. He came in contact with the International Rescue Committee, which helped Moursal with the final details of his arrival.

On June 4, 1997, one year after Moursal was asked if he wanted to come to the U.S. he arrived in Utah. He was a little different than most of the refugees, though. Usually a refugee needs help getting started.

“Finding a job, paying bills, and other tedious tasks can be a big problem for newcomers,” said Michelle Amussen, a student in the Occupational Therapy program at the University of Utah, who helps the new refugees get settled.

“Most of the time they don’t speak any English at all and this seems to be their biggest downfall,” Amussen said. “If you can speak English it is much easier to find a job, understand mail and paperwork, and navigate through the system.”

Two weeks after his arrival Moursal’s resilience began to shine. He found his first job without the help of the IRC at a Marriott, booking rooms in French.

“I don’t want to be a parasite for society,” Moursal said. “I want to be able to do it on my own and be successful.” He is currently working at Franklin Covey as the International Operation Coordinator and is studying business at the University of Utah working toward his MBA.

Issa Moursal with Mona and Melissa.

Issa Moursal with friends Mona and Melissa. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

“Life is good here,” Moursal said. “I have a successful job and a nice house a beautiful and wonderful wife and two kids.”

“We [the Moursal family] are raising money so they can build wells for the village.” Moursal said. “This is what drives me to get my Ph.D. and get more money so I can help more people. What keeps me here is that everyone in the village has this hope for me to succeed. You have all these people looking up to you and you don’t want to let them down,” Moursal said.

“Success is easier to come by here in the states,” Moursal said. “There are many opportunities to get a good job and support your family.”

Moursal has had a big advantage coming to the U.S. with an education and a background learning languages. “English is the key to success here in the States,” Moursal said. “If you do not speak English you will be stuck with a low-paying job and not be able to move up.”

Issa Moursal's son, Quintin. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Issa Moursal's son, Quintin. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Moursal has lived in Salt Lake City for 11 years. His continued success is warranted by his determination not to fail. “I still have the scare that reminds me of where I have been and what I have survived,” Moursal said. “I know I can fight through almost anything.”

Adapting to a new home in Salt Lake City

by BRAD TAGGART

Have you ever been in an airport and seen a person or family holding a small white bag that says IOM in blue writing? Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, these bags may seem pretty common. However, the bags tell a surprising story that is both incredible and often very sad.

The International Organization for Migration gives these bags to refugees to carry all of their belongings. The small bag, no bigger then a grocery sack, has plenty of room for this task.

Refugees, whether alone or as a family, come from all over the world. Some countries include Ethiopia, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Cuba, Bhutan, Iran and Iraq. Many have experienced war, poverty or other hardships that make it necessary to begin a new life far from home. Since January 2008, a total of 388 refugees have been resettled in Utah. Another 75 to 100 are expected to arrive by the end of 2008, said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.

“When I arrived here in the States there was a shock that went through my body,” said Regina Barbouza, 42, a refugee from Brazil. “I was scared and felt alone but was happy to be safe.”

Some people arrive not knowing what to expect. Many times the families have lived in refugee camps all of their lives. Barbouza and her three children, David, 11, Angelina, 9, and Jose, 6, lived in a small camp before being resettled in the US. They had no running water. Wooden walls provided some shelter from the elements; the floor was dirt. Barbouza declined to comment on the actual reason for fleeing Brazil, but said if she and her family had stayed, she would most likely not be alive today.

Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office in Salt Lake City, oversees the resettlement process for people who are arriving here for the first time. Many of them are just “fighting for their existence,” Brown said, regarding their state of life.

Brown started working with refugees in Cairo, Egypt. He said he found his “true calling” during the two years he spent there. “It was so crowded [in Cairo] people lived in graveyards. There, I learned the world was not fair,” Brown said. After serving the people of Egypt from 1976 to 1978, he decided he had found his path and began to focus on helping those who could not help themselves.

After a stint in Taichung, Taiwan, teaching English and studying Mandarin, Brown resettled in the US. From 1981 until he accepted his current position with the Department of Workforce Services in May 2008, Brown held a variety of jobs that allowed him to work with Bosnian, Iraqi, Haitian and Cuban refugees.

Six months into his new job, Brown has discovered that helping can be challenging. “With the economy crisis as it is, it has been very difficult to get the support we need,” he said. “We need money. Money for gatherings, clothes, beds, funerals, activities and any other basic needs.”

Brown described a scene of a new refugee family from Karen that is in need of such support. “As you walk in the apartment door of a Karen family, for example, you see shoes left at the door,” he said. “After you take off your shoes they bring the only chair they have for you to sit on. They offer watermelon and bring letters for you to read. Bills, school letters and others all in English.”

The Refugee Services Office helps people understand correspondence, enroll their children in school, find jobs and locate suitable housing.

“If you want support from someone, take that person to visit the refugees in their new home,” Brown said. “Once you see these people and get to know them you will have no problem getting the support you need.” 

The International Organization for Migration continues to safely bring refugees into the country and organizations like the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Services Office help once they arrive in the United States. These organizations persist in the ongoing battle of resettling refugees like Regina Barbouza and her family who need a safe haven and a new start.