Celebration Brings Stories of Refugees’ Travails to DU Audience

Events organized by the African Community Center draw crowds of local residents curious about the culture and customs of resettled refugees.For the African Community Center, the work of resettling refugees in Denver not only means helping newcomers acclimate to their new life and gain financial independence, it means giving the wider community a chance to meet the refugees and learn about the countries and cultures they represent.

The African Extravaganza, a series of events culminating this evening to celebrate African cultures, is an opportunity for Denver residents to hear refugees’ stories and experience the art, food, music and dance of their home countries.

“Refugees really want to share their culture with Americans because they are really grateful that this country has opened the doors to them and offered them a new life,” said Jennifer Gueddiche, director of the African Community Center. “There is all this talk of the American melting pot, but people want to retain their cultural heritage and the customs they have had since childhood. And that’s one of the great things about our culture — we celebrate that diversity.” 

On Wednesday night hundreds of people filled Davis Auditorium on the University of Denver campus to hear four refugees from different corners of the earth tell their stories of fear, violence and persecution in their homelands and the new lives they are building in Colorado.

In 1988, Aung Kway Toe participated in student protests in Rangoon, which were violently crushed by Burmese government forces. He described one demonstration where students dove into a nearby lake to escape the advancing government forces. Soldiers surrounded the lake, and when the students grew exhausted and tried to reach the shore, Aung said the soldiers held them under the water until they drowned.

Aung fled to Thailand where he lived in a refugee camp with 15,000 other Burmese for over a decade.

“There was some food — rice, fish paste, beans — but it wasn’t enough,” said Aung, who was not legally able to work in Thailand or even leave the refugee camp.

“If I left the camp and entered a Thai community, I would be arrested. If I went back to Burma, I would be shot,” Aung said. “So I decided to try to come to the United States because here I have human rights and the opportunity to live safely.”

Haiffaa Ali of Baghdad came to Colorado filled with ambivalence toward a country that had invaded her own and caused her life to crumble.

“After what I see and hear in my country, America is the last place I wanted to go,” Haiffaa told the audience. “The U.S. invaded my country, and for the first time we hear about Sunni and Shiite and Christian and Muslim. We lived for so many years together; I am very sad for my country — we are all Iraqis.”

She described her depression and desperation when she arrived in Colorado — all the hours she spent crying and hiding from the outside world. But once she enrolled in English classes at Emily Griffith Opportunity School, Haiffaa said her ideas about America and American people began to change.

“I came with very strong hate, and when you have this kind of feeling it makes you sad and weak,” Haiffaa said. “But day by day, after three or four months, I meet more and more American people who reduce my pain, make my sick mind healthy and change my hate to love.”

Outside the auditorium where the refugee speakers held their audience rapt, enlarged portraits of Sudanese villagers lined the hallway. The photographer, Barb Vogel, has been to Sudan several times since 1998. She is connected with different organizations that work to free southern Sudanese people held as slaves in the north. Most of the slaves were captured by militias sponsored by the Sudanese government during two decades of civil war, which pit the largely Arab-Muslim government of Sudan against the mostly black African Sudan People’s Liberation Front.

Some of the shots are joyful — a bare-bottomed baby running in too-big flip flops, a woman’s broad smile peeking out of her brightly colored head scarf, a baby just born to a woman kneeling in the grass. Other shots clearly show the pain and suffering in the faces of displaced and war-weary people.

Vogel says she prefers photographing people as opposed to landscapes.

“Mountains and rivers will always be there, but these people — I know many of them have already died of disease or malnutrition — they are unique,” she said. “They document a society that has been completely altered by war and genocide.”

Vogel’s eyes fill with emotion when she talks about her photos and the Sudanese people she has met on her travels.

“The Sudanese have taught me faith, forgiveness and what is really important in life — family, community and the oneness of all God’s people,” Vogel said. “What they have given me I take through eternity.”

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Kate Bernuth

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