Once exiled, now accepted

Immigrants, refugees flourish in Decatur

A refugee is defined as “someone who has been forced to leave a country because of war or race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”

An immigrant is defined as “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the United States admitted 70,000 refugees in 2016.  CNN reports approximately 1.1 million immigrants call the United States home as of 2014.

Georgia is home to both.  Most refugees and immigrants are concentrated in Clarkston, but they can be found throughout the state – including Decatur.

As they navigate their way through school and life, five high school students and one 33-year-old Ethiopian refugee reflect on their lives before America and now.


Fardosa Hassan

Hassan, while spending a majority of her life in America, still remembers the Swahili songs she learned in Kenya. She remembers singing every morning

At 13, an orphaned Sofia Guled fled the Somali Civil War with her neighbors.

Her daughter, sophomore Fardosa Hassan, translated her story.

“There was nothing else to do,” Fardosa said. “[My mom’s] country was falling apart.”

The group landed in Mombasa, Kenya, where they settled in a refugee camp.

At the camp, they were given identity cards with their name and nationality. That card, Fardosa said, was the only way to live.

“If you didn’t have that card, there was no way you could get food,” she said.

Food rations were minimal, though. The United Nations (UN) sent camp owners a set amount of food per month to be distributed among the campers. Because of this, friends could turn into enemies in a matter of days.

“Neighbors, people who lived with you, would sometimes get a gun and try to kill you just for food,” Fardosa said.

Refugees received three gallons of water a week, but once they ran out, it was up to them to find their own.

The closest source was a well half an hour away.

The UN paid for healthcare and medicine, but the headquarters were off camp grounds and an hour’s walk away.

Before the chaos and turmoil in the camp, Guled lived with her grandmother.

Her mother died when she was six. Her brother, Ali, was one.

A friend took Guled to live with her grandmother in Kenya, and Guled’s uncle took Ali to Ethiopia.

When Guled was 10 years old, her grandmother died. She traveled with neighbors, moving from Kenya to Somalia, then back to Kenya again to live in a refugee camp.

Guled’s brother lives in Ethiopia. She has not seen him since her mother’s death.

“She didn’t know who had him,” Fardosa said. “There’s no way of getting to him. It was a hard time for her to even think about her brother.”

While living in the refugee camp, Guled made attempts to contact her brother. She asked around in the refugee camp to see if people knew where her uncle lived and how she could reach him.

She eventually received his phone number and would call to talk with her brother.

“The only way they could communicate was by phone,” Fardosa said. “It wasn’t an everyday thing.”

Not only did Guled reconnect with her brother, but she also met her husband, Mohamed Alawi.

Sofia Guled’s husband, Mohammed Alawi, holds their youngest son in the background.

Alawi was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and unlike Guled, speaks English.

He finished middle school in 1982 and high school in 1984. Alawi did not attend college, but worked for his father’s small business.

In 1986, Alawi married his first wife and had four children. They lived together until the start of the Somali Civil War in 1991, a time Alawi says he doesn’t want to remember because “it was very dangerous,” but he does.

The number of Somali gangs increased during the civil war. Once, on their way home, Alawi and his family were attacked by gang men.

“My dad is killed. My wife, killed. My son, killed,” Alawi said.

At the time of the attack, his mother was visiting his sister’s home.

“At that time, I’m not happy,” he said. “I don’t feel happy. I’m not okay at that time. I’m like crazy.”

Alawi fled to Kenya in 1994.

It took him four years to receive refugee registration in Kenya and arrive at Kakuma refugee camp where Guled was living.

After marrying Alawi in 1999, Guled gave birth to her son Ahmed. A few months later, Ahmed became sick, so Guled took him to a Kenyan hospital. She was expected to provide food and other necessities to him while in the hospital.

One day, Guled walked to the closest well. When she returned, her son was dying.

He died in her lap.

The following year, Fardosa was born in the same refugee camp. Soon after Fardosa’s birth, Alawi moved the family to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

The family’s life in Nairobi was fleeting. Despite the violence within the camp, they returned after struggling to find work in Nairobi as refugees.

“If you’re not a Kenyan citizen, there’s no way for you to get a job,” Fardosa said. “The places you could go were to a refugee camp or back to your own country, which is in war at that time.”

Though the refugee camp guaranteed a roof over the family’s head, it still proved to be a difficult living situation.

“There was no food,” Alawi said. “No forest.”

After ten years, the camp owners decided they had met their refugee quota.

The family was entered in a lottery for “settlement in the United States,” and in 2007, their names were added to a waiting list.

The admission process required Alawi to be interviewed by Homeland Security. Alawi was told that in a couple of months his family would travel to the U.S.

“After this interview, I was happy,” he said. “I said, ‘thank you, [prophet] Mohammed.’”

Later that year, the International Refugee Committee (IRC) brought them to America.

They travelled from Kenya to London and finally to Clarkston, Ga., where they lived from 2007 to 2012.

For the first four months, the IRC helped the family, giving them a house, food and clothes. They also found a job for Alawi at a chicken factory.

Once Alawi had a job, the IRC stopped providing food and clothes for the family, but still offered to provide legal assistance when it came to citizenship.

While the IRC supported Fardosa’s parents during the transition, the community supplied much needed comfort through the change.

“When I came to the U.S., my neighbors were Ethiopian refugees,” Fardosa said.

Her neighbors, who were a few years older than her, would read books to her and teach her English.

“The family helped me so much,” Fardosa said. “If they were never my neighbors, I don’t think I would’ve mastered English. If it weren’t for them, I think I’d still be struggling with it now.”

In 2012, her family moved to Decatur from Clarkston for better schooling. Fardosa’s mother emphasizes the importance of education and succeeding in school.

“The key to life is education,” Fardosa said.  “Wherever you move, you’ll have a job.”

Fardosa will be the first in her family to graduate high school in the U.S. and attend college. As the eldest child, she hopes to set an example for her siblings.

“I want to graduate high school and college and have a successful career,” she said. “I want that for my siblings, too.”

While Hassan and her sister Munirah Sharif (left of Hassan) are not U.S. citizens, the rest of their six siblings are.

Shadi Abdalla

In Egypt, Abdalla lived in the 4th district of Cairo. He equates districts n Egypt to the cities surrounding Atlanta, like Decatur.

In 2014, junior Shadi Abdalla and his family, immigrated from Cairo, Egypt to Decatur.

Unlike Hassan, Abdalla is not a refugee. His family did not flee persecution.

“My family moved from Egypt for many reasons, honestly,” he said, “but the main reasons were the pursuit of receiving better education and safety.”

Abdalla’s family is not alone. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, a series of uprisings against authoritarian leadership across the Middle East and north Africa, “more than 11 million people have been forced from their homes,” according to Amnesty International.

In Egypt, the authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak ruled for over 30 years.

As a middle school student during the 2011 revolution, Abdalla describes the experience as scary but hopeful because “we’re getting rid of this evil person who’s just making everyone’s lives terrible.”

He remembers the restricted and turbulent life under Mubarak. The ruler released prisoners in an effort to dissuade rebellion against the curfew and to “curb protesting,” Abdalla said.

Mubarak also restricted freedom of speech.

“I remember asking my mom, ‘Why are there a lot of beggars around? Why is everyone running out of business?’ And she would just tell me, ‘don’t ever open your mouth about anything. Even at school. It’ll just get us in bad places,’” he said.

While in grade school, Abdalla knew people didn’t like Mubarak, but “you could not say a single word about him or else you’d get arrested and thrown in jail. Or shot on spot, basically,” he said.

Mubarak’s rule formally ended in February 2011. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2012. For Abdalla, post-Mubarak life was “great.”

“It was a life changing experience to see the switch of the power from one dictator to the first elected president of Egypt,” he said.

That president was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, leader of Egypt from 2012 to 2013.

Despite his short-lived term as president, Morsi left profound impact on Abdalla.

“Life under Morsi was very free,” he said. “When Morsi took control, there was an actual democracy.”

Egyptians could practice free speech, Abdalla said,  and “any type of protest was allowed. Violence was not used against anti-Morsi protesters.”

While Abdalla most closely aligns himself with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, he does not agree with everything they believe.

“We, my parents and most Egyptians, don’t want this super Islamic state, but we don’t want to be controlled by the government,” he said. “But you either had totalitarian governments or you had the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic parties that would promote democracy, promote equality.”

For most Egyptians, democracy ruled over dictatorship.

“The Muslim Brotherhood really promoted equality for all religions and had actual education reforms,” Abdalla said. “In the year they had control, they fixed a lot of things. They provided a lot of jobs and they even helped jumpstart a lot of companies to help the economy.”

In 2014, following a military coup, Abdel el-Sisi assumed power, and Morsi was sentenced to death. Life in Egypt under el-Sisi was “worse than under Mubarak,” Abdalla said.

In Cairo, protests broke out and Abdalla fell victim to the violence.

“One day I was walking with my friends, and all of a sudden these protests start. Police always try to break up [protests, but] they don’t use the most orthodox ways,” he said. “So, about ten minutes later, [my friends and I] were just chilling and the police started shooting shotgun shells towards the crowd and a shotgun bullet hit me in my back. It didn’t do much harm, but it still hit me.”

The shooting was the final straw but not the only promise that drew the Abdalla family to America.

“My mom was getting a lot of job offers from the military since she’s a U.S. citizen,” he said. “But I guess when my parents saw the chance, they just said, ‘well, we might as well get out of this crap hole while we can.’”

His parents, he said, feared for his safety and education. Despite attending private school, Abdalla felt the effects of Sisi’s “education reforms.”

“[The reforms] actually made education worse,” he said. “It was basically just taking money out of the education budget.”

After deciding that America offered “better safety, better education, better everything,” Abdalla and his family moved to Georgia.

While at first exciting and novel, leaving Egypt proved difficult as Abdalla neared the last two weeks in his homeland. He would come to realize he missed the community most.

“I was already homesick,” he said. “In Egypt, neighbors were like family members and everyone was so connected. Anywhere you go someone would treat you like family and it’s so easy to make a friend who really cares about you. You can make a best friend in two days.”

For Abdalla, the biggest culture shock was the lack of kinship among Americans.

“To be honest, and I’m sorry if this is offensive, Americans are a little self-centered,” he said. “Egyptians are so selfless. How do they manage?”

After the initial shock wore off, though, he came to love America, and particularly Decatur.

“Life is great now,” he said. “The main thing I love is the small community. It kind of reminds me of Egypt, where I know my classmates. There are also a lot more things available like safe biking routes, parks, lakes for fishing.”

Abdalla’s love for Egypt remains strong, but he is no longer homesick. He has found a new home.


Sifan Tolosa

Tolosa and her brother learned Amharic quickly growing up in Ethiopia, according to Tolosa.

Sophomore Sifan Tolosa is not a refugee. At 7 years old, her family won Ethiopia’s Diversity Visa lottery, which allowed them to move to the U.S for free.

“I would consider myself foreign because I come from a different place, but I didn’t [live in a refugee camp],” she said.

Tolosa’s family left Ethiopia in search of better education and safety. Though Ethiopia was not at war, conflicts between the Oromo and Amhara tribes in the country raged on. Tolosa’s immediate family identifies more as Oromo, but they have family who are Amharic.

One incident Tolosa says she’ll never forget.

“Students from the university left school early, which they should not have,” she said.

Tolosa’s uncle attended the university and was one of the students who left early. She had just returned home from school when her uncle, who only spoke Oromo, made it to her house.

“Everyone from the university who left early came to our house because they thought it was a safer place to stay, but the policemen were attacking them,” she said.

The police followed the students and entered the fence around her home.

Tolosa’s mother returned home to be threatened by police. She had to tell them that she had children so that they would not hurt her.

“I was standing behind the door because I was really scared,” Tolosa said. “My mom was telling us to come from behind the door so she could prove she actually has kids.”

Tolosa was five. She is still scared of the police.

Occurrences like this are ones Tolosa’s family hoped to escape by moving to the U.S.

Her parents compared moving to “living in the sky with the government,” Tolosa said. The reality, though, was much different.

“I came here and thought it was worse because I didn’t know anybody,” she said.

Language barriers isolated her. She knew how to speak Oromo and Amharic, but not English.

On her first day of school in the U.S., she memorized her bus number. She was told to tell her teacher bus “route four” after school but didn’t understand, so Tolosa told her bus number to the first adult she saw.

“I kept saying ‘Route four,’ and [the adult] was like ‘Yeah, that’s the bus you just came with,’” she said.

At the end of the day, Tolosa had forgotten to listen for her bus number. She was the last student in the class.

Her teacher escorted her to office, where Tolosa revealed a slip of paper her father gave her. On the paper was his phone number.

“I showed it to her, and she was like ‘Yeah, what is that?’” Tolosa said. “I was like ‘call, call,’” motioning a phone.

Tolosa also began to point at the teacher’s pocket, which held a cell phone, but the teacher did not give her the phone.

“She probably thought I was going to take it, but I didn’t want her phone,” Tolosa said. “I just wanted my dad and to go home.”

Eventually, her father picked her up and explained to the teacher what she was trying to communicate. The teacher told Tolosa’s father that she didn’t understand because his daughter couldn’t speak English.

“Honestly, I thought my acting skills were pretty accurate,” Tolosa said.

To learn and develop her English, she took ESOL classes from first to third grade. During her second semester of eighth grade, Tolosa transferred to Renfroe.

“I was pretty angry at my parents because I didn’t want to leave [my old school],” she said.

Tolosa soon found her peers at Renfroe to be “accepting and very generous.”

Since leaving Ethiopia, the conflict between Oromo and Amhara tribes has subsided, according to Tolosa.

Now, there are border clashes with Eritrea, a small country north of Ethiopia. Eritrea’s government wants Ethiopian land and believes the “Oromo people shouldn’t have land at all.”

“It’s weird how they’re trying to attack us because we own most of the land,” Tolosa said, “so it’s pretty much impossible for them to take it. This has been going on for hundreds of years, but it’s gotten worse recently.”

Though violence in Ethiopia continues, the Tolosas life in the U.S. has only begun. They were recently awarded U.S. citizenship.

“A refugee to me is someone who came here through struggles,” she said. “I feel like, even though we filled out the DV and were accepted here, we came here. It was a much easier path for us than a refugee has to go through. They may have to go through camps and rejection, not all the time but most times they do.”


Faiza Haji

Haji believes people should be educated on the refugee crisis because people “can’t just make claims on something they don’t know about. [Education] is important to me because someone is making an assumption about you. They don’t know you and they’re doing it based on stuff they’ve heard in the media.”

Junior Faiza Haji grew up in Dadaab, Kenya, home of the world’s largest refugee camp. She came to the U.S. in Nov. 2005.

Before Haji was born, her parents moved to Kenya to escape the Somali Civil War. Tribal tension in Somalia remained high, and the country was unsafe.

Since she lived briefly in the camp at a young age, Haji’s memories are foggy. Her memories of arriving in the U.S. are clearer.

An American agency assisted in bringing Haji’s family and other refugees to the U.S.

“The reason why we moved was because we thought America had better opportunities,” she said. “Just to live the American dream.”

Like Hassan, Haji lived in Clarkston before moving to Decatur. She moved to Decatur in 2010.

“I was blessed to come to an area where it’s diverse,” she said. “I’ve never been in an environment where everyone is so welcomed.”

Despite her status as a refugee, she doesn’t feel excluded.

“Here, there’s so much emphasis on being from a different country or having different ideologies or just different beliefs from the norm,” she said.

Hajis embraces this attention.

“I like coming from somewhere,” she said. “I love having a culture. I love having a different perspective than some people do. I love being Somali. I love being Kenyan. I love having a different language, something that I can hold close.”

Though Haji’s background differs from many Decatur students, she has not felt discriminated against.

“I haven’t ever been looked at a certain way or treated differently because of my religion, culture or ethnicity, and I really appreciate that,” she said.

Haji is grateful to live in Decatur. Some of her friends moved to “places where you could obviously see racial and ethnic tensions.”

“What I like about Decatur is that the people here want to learn about different places,” she said. “They want to broaden their perspectives and understand different people.”

She acknowledges this acceptance and interest may be limited to Decatur but hopes for greater strides towards equality and “awareness of the situation.”

“I would really like this country to embrace diversity and immigration,” she said. “There’s just so much tension in America about immigration. I don’t understand because this country’s supposed to be built on immigration and just diversity.

“Like everyone that lives here isn’t just one people. It’s a variety of people who’ve made up this society and country, so I don’t understand why one person can say who or who cannot enter the country. I don’t think that’s fair at all.”

She also believes people should not be denied access based on religion, specifically Islam.

“To me, I think a lot of people are scared of Muslims, and not only because of recent controversial stuff that’s happened,” she said. “I would just like to clear up the fact that Muslims are not terrorists.”

Because of the prejudices Haji experiences based on her religion, she hopes to stay open-minded by exploring cultures and ethnicities apart from her own.


Sulti Tola

Tola thanks the American government for providing security in his new life. “America is a beautiful country. [America has] good laws and good rules. I like so much in America,” he said.

“My name is Sulti Tola and I came to America in 2013. I am a refugee from Ethiopia.”

At 16, Tola crossed the Ethiopian border into Kenya, where he would spend 13 years in a refugee camp.

“I left Ethiopia because of politicians and the government,” he said. “My tribe was fighting with the government.”

While Tola “loved” Kenya, he knew he couldn’t stay forever. As a refugee, he was under the United Nations Higher Committee for Refugees (UNHCR).

Because of the ongoing conflict between his tribe and the government, Tola was unable to return home, and the UNHCR resettled him in Clarkston.

Before he arrived, though, he attended an orientation on American culture. There he learned “what you do when you get to America and that you have to respect the rules.”

For this reason, Tola found assimilating into the American way easy.

“When I came to America, everything was not new to me because I learned it over there in Kenya,” he said. “Once I came here, I got a job, so now I work.”

Tola also enrolled in Georgia Piedmont Technical College.

His teacher is Pat Kuzela, who has worked with refugees as an English as a Second Language teacher for 15 years.

“What I’ve learned from working with refugees is that they’re different from American students,” she said. “They’re extremely grateful to have a classroom, and they’re grateful for every experience.”

Her first time teaching refugees was as a substitute in Clarkston.

“As the kids were leaving, they put their hand over their heart and said ‘thank you, teacher’” Kuzela said. “It was transformative. I was hooked.”

Kuzela teaches refugees with varying levels of education. Some have no education “due to years of warfare” while others have up to the doctorate level.

Most refugees have exposure to English as their second language because “at some point in history, their country was colonized by the British,” Kuzela said.

“But their English is what we call ‘archaic English,’” she said. “Their English is frozen in time from the colonial days.”

Kuzela’s class helps students improve their English. Students attend class for a mandatory 60 hours.

Following instruction, they take an oral exam called the BEST+ test. Questions increase in complexity as the student progresses.

“The student has to understand the questions asked, and their response must make sense,” Kuzela said. “For example, they could say ‘When I was young, I enjoyed school. How about you? When the students can answer the questions sufficiently, they get scored. Their exit score allows them to move on.”

Along with basic language education, Kuzela teaches life skills groups where refugees learn to go grocery shopping, set up bank accounts and live independently.

She believes Americans have always wanted to help refugees, but “fear mongering politicians” have worked to change that stance.

“The thing about immigration is that it’s always served the purpose to provide work for non-Americans, the work Americans won’t do,” she said. “If it weren’t for [some politicians], we might still be neutral towards refugees.”

Kuzela’s attitude towards refugees won’t change, and she hopes Americans can accept again.

For now, three out of 70,000 refugees and two out of 1.1 million immigrants are home. n