Following are three brief excerpts from the book This Much I Can Tell You: Stories of Courage and Hope from Refugees in Minnesota. For more information, or to purchase a copy, click here.
Abdul & Dunia: World Citizens, True Minnesotans
Democratic Republic of Congo
Abdul was a journalist and his collaboration with a US documentary about the politics in the Congo endangered his life, and ultimately his family’s, too. The following excerpt comes from his and his wife’s reflections on life in America:
“Well! So, I really—I’m working day and night. I’m so blessed that my wife sees the world the same way as me. And so I think, our kids have all the chances to grow as citizens of the world. Especially now that I am living here. I feel safer in a stranger country! I feel safer in a stranger country! I can’t think of going back. If they are to tell me to go back today, I’ll go like, ‘Hell no!’ You know?” Abdul pauses for a beat. “How’s that? How much do you think I’m still bound to that country? Just because my siblings are there, my family, my family-in-law. But if there was nobody from my surroundings, I would have forgotten about it.” Abdul breathes in, pausing even longer.
Abdul moves on now to talk about his experience on the Refugee Speaker’s Bureau.
“Like I said before, I decided to do it as a way to free all depression and tension I had accumulated as a result of going through these sad experiences. Although at times I remember, a couple times, probably three times or four, I just stopped in the middle of my speech and couldn’t speak anymore. I felt like crying. I felt completely invaded, overwhelmed by sad feelings and stuff. And I stopped. But I think over the course of time I have become more able to freely talk about it, and it’s almost becoming, you know, an old story to some extent. So it’s been helpful for me to talk about that. And of course, I used to talk a lot as a journalist. These are the only way I could express myself.
“And of course, it also helped me evaluate my capacity to communicate in my English. To see if people could actually understand me or not! Every time I spoke, for example, I would ask, ‘Have you been able to understand me?’ And overwhelmingly people would say, ‘Oh, yeah! We can still tell you are not an American native, but your English is still understandable.’ That’s very good for me. It gives me hope. Sometimes I might get back on my career like journalism. I like journalism! I like talking on the radio, man!”
Dunia laughs again at her husband and speaks again. “Maybe one little thing . . . is that another thing I love about America is that, the kind of diversity. Do you say diversity? That kind of diversity that makes, in a certain way, a kind of unity.” Her voice betrays a sense of awe in this idea. “There’s so much people coming from all over the world that makes the nation, and to me it’s a kind of amazing. In my country we are all black with different tribes. But it is difficult to make that kind of united nation, back home. And that’s it here—why? How? It’s kind of amazing for me. That’s what I really like here. It will help me one day go back home and know how to manage people beyond their differences. And to get a better country.”
“And I will build on that,” Abdul says. “It’s not only what I want to preserve. There are of course a lot of good values here, not to talk about opportunities as well. I feel like America is a place where you can undertake your own business; as long as you respect the rules and pay your taxes you are good to go. You can do it. You won’t see anybody trying to get in your way, forcibly. There are so many openings we don’t have back home, of course. You feel free. The opportunities are immense. I would sit any time at my bench to write music, I know there is always going to be lights, power. There is going to be water on the tap. You have a certainty for certain things you don’t have back home or in other parts of the world.
“In general, I think we feel very good and I’m very happy for my kids. Especially they can go to grade school and study. I hope they can evolve very well. I have some smart boys. I want them to push hard and get ahead and become real guys. This is something great. This is something great.”
Krishna: Father, Future US Citizen
“We moved at night. Januka was six, Prakash was four, Shailesh was two, and Renuka was one and a half years old. We did not take anything from our house when we moved, because I carried Prakash and held hands with Januka. Nar Maya carried Shailesh and Renuka. We walked and walked. There were two big forests, and in the forest, there is tiger, lion, elephant. The elephant are so bad in Bhutan; they kill the people.”
One night while walking, Krishna heard the sounds of elephants. Suddenly, the family found themselves in the middle of a herd. “They are all around us. We keep quiet and sit in the middle.”
After the elephant herd moved past them, the family continued walking to India. “I had some money, but there is place called the Asum where there were men with guns. They asked for the money and I gave it to them.”
After walking for hours and hours, they arrived in India where they joined other Bhutanese families, and local villagers provided the group with some food. “We sit there for five days. [Then] the Indian army came and put us in the truck. They took us and they threw us to the Bengali state. They threw us at night, at 11:00 pm, and we didn’t know any language. We didn’t have any money; they had stolen it, and it is winter season. February. How can the children sleep like this in the road? And when morning time came, at 5:00 am, again the Bengali police came. They took us to the Nepal border and at 9:00 pm they threw us to Nepal.
“There is a long bridge [between] India and Nepal. After we crossed, the Nepal police captured us and asked, ‘Where you are coming from? Why are you coming?’ They all ask that. We have not eaten anything and we all are crying because of our hunger. The Nepal police made a statement and took us to another truck. It is midnight.”
The Nepali police brought them to a temporary camp called Mai. “There was one small house [for everyone] and there was nobody to cook the food. There was not any food to cook. We had no pots to cook. We sit like this that night. It was very cold and the wind blew all night. We sat very quietly there and we cut the night like that.”
Kaw Lah: Goal Setter, Human Being
“I remember one thing: when we ran into the cliffs,” he says. “We ran into the cliffs because the government troops were coming. When military troops came to attack our villages, we had to run away. During that time I was five, maybe six years old. I just knew we were not eating or playing. The old people would say, ‘We have to go,’ and we would go and sleep in the cliffs. We could not study during that time. Some days, the teacher told me, ‘Today you cannot come because the situation is not good.’” As a child, Kaw Lah only understood this: “We were fleeing something.”
Running to the cliffs was frequently necessary at that time, and daily life was not the same there. “The old people told me, ‘Keep quiet. We have to keep silent, because . . .’” he pauses. “You know what piyo means?” he asks. “During that time we called the Burmesepiyo. And when the old people say ‘Piyo is coming!’ We have to keep silence. We were afraid of piyo.” The group would return after a few days.
“When I was five or six years, maybe four or five years old, we moved because of too much military troop activity in my village area. We moved to the taller mountain to find a safe place. But one year later, the military troop activity expanded to there, too.
“During that time, my father was caught—we can say arrested. We didn’t know when he would return . . . we waited and we waited. I was the only child in my family.” Kaw Lah waited with his mother. “The military troops arrest the Karen because they need more porters to carry the food for the military.
“When the Burmese army was attacking it was really hard to explain that we are not the KNU. If we mention we are not KNU, they continue arresting anyway because they need more porters. If people don’t want to go, you have to pay money, but as you know, we are living like . . . ” Kaw Lah stops to explain, “We have not seen money before. Normally, the main career that people do is croppings—growing rice. Most people farm, and sometimes we raise the animals. The piyo do not provide anything for the porter, and they discriminate against the Karen people like animals, so the porters run away.
“My father and his friend tried to run away. The Burma military—the soldiers—tried to arrest them back. And the shooting . . . the target that they shot was my father. All I know is that my father was shot by the piyo.”
Kaw Lah describes what happened after his father’s arrest. “We were waiting. We were waiting, but I didn’t know what is going on. I didn’t quite understand, but maybe the old people didn’t tell me anything. My mother’s face was not well, like she felt sad, something like that, and after one year or two years, she got sick. She passed away after two years from illness, maybe disease. Other people told me she had malaria, attacking the brain or something like that. I don’t quite understand. But I still had my grandma.
“We didn’t want to live in the refugee camps, but we had no choice to stay in Burma. Village after village was attacked. My grandmother and I took a boat. You know the Salween River? Salween River is a big river, and we took a boat across it from Rata to Ee Htu Hta, on the border between Thailand and Burma…”
 The Karen National Union, the mainstream rebel movement fighting for autonomy for the Karen state from Burma (Myanmar).