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'Don't ever forget your dreams': Students at Fargo South recall terror of refugee life

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Osman Osman and Aline Uwase are students at Fargo South High School and have lived in the United States for about two years. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 3
Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 3

FARGO—Chatting with Aline Uwase and Osman Osman in a classroom at Fargo South is much like talking with any other high school students. They speak of classes, grades, dreams, goals, friends and family. Osman wants to be a microbiologist, Aline a lawyer. Osman is glad he has many friends, Aline wishes she had more.

Even their English Language Learners teacher, Leah Juelke, admits that the two refugee students seemed "like any other students" before she learned the stories of how they ended up in Fargo. It is not an uncommon thought for Juelke, who has helped refugee students tell their stories through essays for the past three years.

"There were moments when I was looking at the rough drafts thinking, 'Really, I cannot believe that.' You had these situations that happened to students that you couldn't dream of happening to yourself," Juelke said. "You think, 'They were just sitting in my class the other day, doing poetry, like nothing ever happened' "

Things happened to Aline and Osman, things nobody at South knew about until they wrote their stories.

Aline was a young girl when she saw her father burned alive by soldiers in Africa.

Osman was a teenager when he was kidnapped and tortured for 45 days before escaping.

Their stories are among the 42 included in "Journey to America: Narrative Short Stories," a collection of essays written by refugee students at South and Davies high schools. Juelke and Davies ELL teacher Peggy Pulst use the project as way for students to sharpen their writing skills, while the refugees hope their stories lead to fellow students and community members better understanding them.

Aline had never verbalized to anybody, even family members, her memories of that horrible night when her father was shot and burned during a massacre in a refugee camp in Burundi, Africa.

"It was the right time to do it," she said. "... Writing this story in a paper made me feel relieved and it helped me and helped others know my life and my story. You can't just look at me and know what's going on without knowing my story of my life, where I come from, what I went through. We're all different. We come from different places."

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"My father told us to go outside and find a way to go to the next camp while he was helping those who were wounded. We started running and in a blink of an eye, we heard a gunshot and we all stopped. We looked back and it was my dad. He had been shot. My mother wanted to go back and check on him, but she wasn't strong enough to do so.

"My caring elder sister went back to see if he was still breathing. My sisters and I eventually followed her and luckily, by surprise, we found him breathing. My father started talking to us, then suddenly one of the aggressive soldiers came and pushed us away from my dad. He poured gas on his body and lit him on fire right in front of us as we all cried ... My father's body eventually turned to ash. There was nothing left for us to do but bury the ash."

The excerpt from Aline's story "Finally Over" describes the night of Aug. 13, 2004, in a refugee camp in Burundi called Gatumba. Aline and her family were members of the Banyamulenge tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The tribe had been forced from southern Congo into neighboring Burundi. On the night Aline's father was killed, armed factions made up of Congolese rebels moved into the camp in Burundi and killed 166 refugees and injured and maimed more than 100 others. It is known as the Gatumba Massacre. It's believed the rebels worked with officials from Burundi to carry out the slaughter.

Aline's sister, Esperance, is also a student at South and also wrote about that night.

"One tall man removed a lighter from his pocket and lit my dad's clothes on fire. As my sisters and I were watching, I heard my dad say, 'Don't ever forget your dreams.' My dad said it as he was burning."

The girls also saw two of their cousins shot to death at close range.

Aline, now 17 years old and a sophomore at South, was just a little girl when the massacre happened. Her refugee story continued. After burying her father's remains the next morning, Aline and her family moved to a smaller refugee camp, also lived in Rwanda and eventually went to Kenya to live with an uncle. They spent six years there before being called to an interview to go to the U.S. Aline and her family finally moved to Fargo on March 16, 2015. She went to Sheyenne High School in West Fargo before enrolling at South this school year.

"... Everything was extremely difficult for me. Leaving my old friends was the hardest thing for me. The culture, weather, people, and everything else was difficult for me in the United States. ... It was hard to make friends. It wasn't that we didn't know the language, it was lifestyle that was hard to get used to. I never felt isolation in Africa but in America, isolation was like a lifestyle."

The feeling of aloneness has not entirely left Aline. She said making her story public has led to more students approaching her and asking questions. It's helped, too, to play soccer and join the Air Force Junior ROTC.

"People are kind. I'm trying to get close to them. I'm forcing myself," Aline said. "Although I know they don't know me that much, I'm trying to force myself to make friends."

Aline gets A's and B's for grades. She wants to go to college and become a lawyer. She speaks five languages—English, French, Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili and Kinyamulenge.

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"'You will give us $15,000 American dollars, or we will kill you!' the man yelled back. The men came daily to try to make the prisoners call their family members and ask for money. I thought I was going to die in that place. When they came to me, I gave them a random number, so when they called it, no one answered. To punish me because no one answered, they started to electrocute different parts of my body and hit me with a Kalasnikov (gun). To this day, I have problems with my legs because of the brutal beatings from that gun.

"'Electrocute him until he talks!' one man would shout every time. They harshly tortured me for forty five days. I thought my life was going to end. I tried to escape twice, but I was too afraid to go through with it."

Osman's story is titled "The Dark Journey" and in it he recounts being accused as a teenager of being a smuggler by the oppressive government of Eritrea. So Osman fled the small East African nation tucked between Sudan and Ethiopia on the Red Sea to avoid imprisonment for him and his family.

He went to Sudan, where he found work in a restaurant in the city of Kassala. After a few months, Osman and a friend were offered work in a gold mine. It was a trick, Osman wrote. The teenagers had been kidnapped and ended up in a cave with about 20 other people. It was there that Osman and others were beaten and tortured.

He eventually escaped and made his way to Cairo, Egypt, where the refugee organization AMERA International helped him get medical care and a permit to stay in the country. Osman said he spent three months in an Egyptian hospital to help with his physical and emotional healing. He still suffers from memory loss from the electric shocks and his left leg continues to give him problems.

"It's painful. I don't like to remember it," Osman said. "I don't want this memory, but I want people to know it happened. There are evil people in this world."

Osman came to the United States alone in 2015. He is 20 years old and a junior at South, after also attending Sheyenne last year. He speaks five languages: English, Arabic, Tigre, Tigrinya and Bilen. He plays varsity soccer for the Bruins and speaks of his many friends. He is a straight A student and loves science. Osman wants to earn a college degree in microbiology and work in the petroleum field. He also loves farms and the countryside.

Of the day he found out he was moving to Fargo, Osman wrote:

"I felt like a bird flying free in the sky. Finally, I could see the light after a long, dark journey."

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Aline and Osman, all the refugee students, know of the current political atmosphere surrounding them. Donald Trump's presidential campaign and eventual election sparked a heated national debate that has spilled into state and local politics. Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn and Cass County Commissioner Chad Peterson have led a push locally to look into the impact of refugee resettlement.

A bill was introduced into the North Dakota House of Representatives by West Fargo Rep. Christopher Olson that would have allowed for the suspension of refugee resettlement based on a community's "absorptive capacity."

The House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee heard lengthy opposition testimony earlier this month from new Americans. They told of their stories of coming to the United States and the opportunities they've been given. They refuted testimony from people who said most refugees don't work and other negative anecdotes.

Aline was among those who testified in Bismarck. She read her story to the committee. When a legislator tried to cut her short, Aline said she wasn't finished and read the remainder of her essay.

The bill, HB 1427, did not pass as written. Instead, it was amended into a study of refugee resettlement in the state. The amended bill breezed through the House by an 86-5 vote.

"Coming here, I am achieving my dreams," she said. "When we're coming here from wherever we're coming from, we're not coming here to make troubles. We're here to make peace. We're here to achieve our dreams."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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