Archive for Sunday, October 14, 2007

Refugees make new home in K.C.

October 14, 2007


Sadiki Sirivesi sits with his wife, Habonimana, and their year-old son, Baraka, in the Samuel U. Rodgers Community Health Center lobby in Kansas City, Mo. The family of African refugees, shown in August, was waiting for Baraka to receive a physical.

Sadiki Sirivesi sits with his wife, Habonimana, and their year-old son, Baraka, in the Samuel U. Rodgers Community Health Center lobby in Kansas City, Mo. The family of African refugees, shown in August, was waiting for Baraka to receive a physical.

— He has traveled with his wife and infant son for three days from a refugee camp in Tanzania, with stops in Kenya, Switzerland and Chicago.

Along the way, travelers bought him fast food. It did not resemble food he knew, and he would not eat it. Instead, he dropped it in his sack of clothes so as not to hurt their feelings. Now on this muggy July night, his plane arrives in Kansas City.

"Welcome to the U.S.," says Denis Zijadic of the Jewish Vocational Service's refugee resettlement program.

"Thank you," Sadiki Sirivesi says, using one of the few English phrases he knows, carrying his bag filled with wrapped hamburgers. He has trouble keeping his eyes open from jet lag, and his loose-fitting sweat shirt and pants hang on him.

"We will spend time with you," Zijadic says, speaking through his colleague and translator Abdul Bakar. "We will go step by step. All the problems you have had are gone. Now it is time for your new life."

When Sirivesi, 21, sees the red brick Independence Avenue apartment building where he will live, he calls it a castle. He is stunned to see forests in a city and tries to pronounce the word Zijadic uses to describe these woods: "park."

Once inside the apartment, Bakar tells Sirivesi how to use the air conditioner, work the stove and boil water for tea. He shows him the difference between the freezer and the refrigerator.

Now at 2 a.m., Sirivesi is alone with his wife, Habonimana Matrida, 20, and their year-old son. Sirivesi wonders: What will happen to us? Will we survive?

Midwestern sanctuary

He was born in Kibondo Refugee Camp in Tanzania, where his parents fled from Burundi in 1972. He belongs to no country. A refugee still, but far from everything he has ever known.

Kansas City and the Midwest in general have long been a sanctuary for refugees fleeing conflict to start life anew.

Since 1997, Jewish Vocational Service has helped resettle 3,298 refugees from 28 countries. In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, JVS assisted 242 refugees, compared with 138 the previous year.

Catholic Charities' refugee program in Kansas City, Kan., resettled about 170 refugees in the past year, compared with 130 the previous 12 months.

"Kansas City has reasonable housing costs and job availability," said Joy Foster, executive director of Jewish Vocational Service. "They can come here and be successful."

Sirivesi and his family join 17 other Burundis who have resettled here in the past year.

Over the decades, conflict has racked Burundi. In 1972, an estimated 500,000 Hutu and moderate Tutsi died, including Sirivesi's Hutu grandparents. Tutsi extremists assassinated Burundi's first democratically elected Hutu president in 1993. A long civil war followed.

Expectations defied

America is not what he expected. He thought the United States must be a very green place with tall buildings. Everyone walking and smiling in suits and ties with a fresh wind blowing through their hair. He was surprised to see young men in pants falling below their waists and homeless people begging him for money.

As he waits for a Social Security card so he can seek work, Sirivesi attends English as a Second Language classes at the Don Bosco Community Center.

English confounds him. Words are not pronounced as they are written. It seems he must just master it because there are no rules to follow. When people speak, the words come like waves. He tries to grasp the meaning of one before it drowns in other words he doesn't understand.

At night, he listens to local news because the words are simple. He hears traffic outside and it reminds him of the distant calls of hyenas. In the comfort of his apartment, he wonders how he could have lived in the camp for so long and whether he could do it again.

He worries about his parents. He fetched water and cooked with them. He doesn't know how his absence affects them.

Jewish Vocational Service has arranged an interview at Ameristar Casino, which has hired many refugees. He wants a new life and has been practicing his smile and handshake.

In his dreams, he still lives in the camp in a thatched-roof, mud brick house. He speaks with his parents and friends, sees himself working on a farm, cutting the dry ground with a hoe from 7 in the morning to 7 at night for $1. He works so hard that he awakens in his Kansas City apartment sweaty and exhausted.

James Mulford, executive steward at Ameristar, greets Sirivesi with a firm handshake. Sirivesi looks directly at him and smiles and grips his hand.

Mulford likes his attitude and energy. Sees him as a bright young man who will do well. He offers him a job, $8.40 an hour. Sirivesi accepts but has a question.

"Do you have overtime?"

These days Sirivesi works the midnight shift at Ameristar. He cleans whatever needs to be cleaned. He works with people from all over the globe, Vietnamese, Mexicans, Somalis. They don't speak the same language but understand one another because they all came from some other place. He has learned phrases: "Bring the mop," "Bring the broom," and "Wash your hands."

Five weeks after he arrived in Kansas City, Sirivesi sees the benefits of his decision to leave the camp. He can feed his family now and with each passing day he increasingly depends on himself only. When he needs no one to help him navigate the intricacies of American life, he will be fully satisfied.

He expects his son to get an education and do better than he ever will. And his son's children will then do the same, as will their children who follow. They will belong here and know it as their country.

When he gets home from work, Sirivesi turns on the news and listens to the wave of sound for words he understands. He barely notices the drone of traffic and the sounds of the hyenas that fade more and more within the warm breezes outside his window.


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