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Guest Post: Refugees in Texas by Daina Jurika-Owen, Author of Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives

Today I’m pleased to introduce you to a phenomenal woman with an amazing story to tell. Daina Jurika-Owen is the author of the new non-fiction Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories. This post is a great introduction to Daina and her work – and the review of her book, which will be forthcoming shortly. Enjoy!

Refugees in Texas and “Pull Yourself Up By the Bootstraps”

I admire all refugees—for their resilience, ability to learn, and motivation to succeed—but if I had to choose one to represent refugees in Texas, my vote would go to Angela. Why? I think she has that independent spirit that so many Texans have and time and time again has shown a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude. Every time a disaster strikes, she does everything she can to get back on her feet and even take initiative to help others. It happens in every country she goes.

I met Angela from Rwanda fourteen years ago while working at the resettlement agency. We resettled her and her family in Abilene, Texas in the summer of 2004. (I will call her “Angela” because she does not want her name to be disclosed.) She is one of the twenty storytellers in my recently published book, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories. Angela has a family, but she is a career woman who never stops learning. She can take all that life brings her and make the best out of it. This is her story.

Angela starts out with running education programs for rural women in Rwanda. She says:

“For me, my ‘good days’ were from about 1977 until we had to leave our country in 1994. I had all our children in school already then, and it was good for me because I was working with women in those days and was extremely busy. I did a lot of program work. You know, people are not rich in Rwanda, and they are not educated. So, we really had to do something for them, especially for women, in the areas of education and rural development. It was my job, and I loved it. It was the best time for me.”

Then, the ethnic conflict starts where almost a million Tutsis get killed in three short months, which sets the retaliation war against all Hutus in motion. Angela has to flee to Bukavu in Democratic Republic of Congo. At first, there is no help, no supplies, but eventually, refugee camp is set up and people settle in the camp routine.
What does Angela do? Again, she gets involved and finds a way to help others:

“When in a refugee camp, I got busy, too: with some teachers from different schools from our country, we created an education center for young people. We worked with UNICEF and had five hundred students, all young people, and the teachers were volunteers. Our thinking was, ‘When we have peace in Rwanda again, we will all go back home, and at this time, children go to school in Rwanda. So, why should we leave our young people behind?’ We had one hundred volunteer teachers, and we had a high school and elementary school. UNICEF and UNHCR helped us with resources and other things. It was from 1994 until February of 1996. But in February, HCR in Kigali said that people should not have social activities in the camp because these activities would make people stay in Congo, but Rwanda wanted their people back. So, we were not allowed to teach anymore because it was considered a ‘social activity.’”

War spills over from Rwanda to Democratic Republic of Congo, but Angela and her family escapes to Ivory Coast and, again, gets back on her feet. Life is good for about six years in Ivory Coast, but then a war breaks out there, too, leaving Angela and her family in hardship once again.
Angela remembers the events in Congo:

“It was suspicious when the camp management stopped school, but did not close the camp. At that time, we felt something ominous was coming. That’s why my husband and I arranged for two of our daughters to go to Ivory Coast. It was in February of 1996. We had a big family and did not have much money, so we could not go all at once. Our son and another daughter left some months after. Then, my husband and I left as the last ones from our family. It was in September, just one week before the war broke out in Congo, so we were really lucky to get out in time. But after we had left, many people got killed in Congo—among them, many of our good friends.”

Then, a peaceful life in Ivory Coast follows, but it is soon disrupted by a new war:

“On the whole, Ivory Coast was a very good country; people were nice to us, people helped us, and we helped each other. But after six years, a war broke out in Ivory Coast, too. It was not the same war; it was their own. Too many wars! And when a war starts, it seems to never end. But before this war, we had very good jobs in Ivory Coast, and life was good. I was the director of a college, and I did follow-ups on teachers and dealt with students and prepared tests and examinations. I did all kinds of things, and my salary was good. [When the war came,] I was still working but did not get paid anymore. They said, “We get money from the government. Now, the government is at war, so we have no money for you.” But we still continued working. You know, students still came, and we thought that if they saw that nobody was in school, it would be hard on them, heartbreaking. So, all us instructors agreed that we should keep teaching and that maybe next month, some money would come. But when we left for the US [on a refugee program], it was still like that.

In 2004, Angela and her family get resettled to Abilene, Texas. And with all her education and excellent credentials—though no English—she has to start over again, this time at a dish-washers job in the local university. This I admire most – I never heard her complaining about having “such a lowly job”! The only thing I heard was, “I need this job.” But let Angela herself tell how it felt at that time:

“How was everything here at the start? When I just came to the US, I felt bad. I had to start with a dishwashing job in Hardin-Simmons University (HSU), and I took the bus to get there. It was my first day at work, and it was really hard. But I told myself over and over again, You have to do it, you have to do it, we have to pay the bills, pay the rent, buy food, everything, and we have to have that money. Still, it was very hard. But then, I started to like my job, and I did it very well. I remember that I started at minimum wage, but I worked well, and then after a couple of months, my manager raised my salary a little bit. When I was leaving the job almost a year later, my pay was $7.50 per hour already because the manager noticed that I knew what I was doing. I was responsible for dishwashing, but later, they let me serve students in the dining room, so I started to like it better.

At Hardin-Simmons University, we started at 11:00 a.m. and worked until 2:00 p.m., and then we had a break until 5:00 p.m., and after that, we worked again from 5:00 p.m. till 8:00 p.m. It was called “the split shift.” So, I had several hours between the work hours to work on my English. I would bring my books with me and learn to read and write in English from books, but I could not speak well. So, when I had to say something to my manager, I used to write it on a piece of paper for her. Then, she would read it and respond; that’s how we communicated.

But since my daughter had a job with Abilene State School then, she told me one day to try to apply there. She said, “Mom, just try, and maybe they can hire you for something here with your little English.” So, when I did the interview at State School, I got all the papers right for that, but when they wanted to speak to me, I said, “Oh, no, please don’t ask me. I cannot speak English.” But the interview went alright, and I got hired for the job. Now, it has been almost nine years in State School for me. I like my job; we work with people who are in wheelchairs and who are mentally handicapped, and we do everything for them.”

Angela has always been active in her community—be it in Rwanda, in a refugee camp in Democratic Republic of Congo, or later in Ivory Coast. Now, in Abilene, Texas, Angela is less involved in the general community, but she is active in her ethnic group. She praises life in the US, saying, “I like it here because we are safe, and we are free to do things and to talk, and it feels good to be free. But the most important thing here is safety and security. You know that we had to leave our country, Rwanda, and then we lived in Congo, and then in Ivory Coast. Wherever we went, there was war and fighting, and we were so tired of fighting. It was so stressful. I could not sleep at night because of the war, and I did not know if we would be alive the next day—really, it was an awful feeling. Now, I go to work, I come home, I eat, I sleep quietly. It is very important. I had started college here in Abilene, but I realized that I would reach retirement age in two years. I had to decide whether to continue with school and leave my job or stay on the job and give up school. I decided to keep my job, but I take some classes sometimes, just to keep my mind busy.”

Angela has since become a US citizen, and the family lives in a quiet neighborhood where they have bought a house that has a nice garden. Life has turned out good for Angela. And I can say that she and her family have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps again!

About Daina

I am a former refugee resettlement professional and an academically trained folklorist. Originally from Riga, Latvia, I live in Abilene, Texas, and am a freelance writer, translator and refugee advocate. Angela’s story is one of twenty refugee stories from a variety of cultures in my recent nonfiction book, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories (Amaya Books, 2018), which is a collection of refugee life stories and an introduction to refugee resettlement work. It is available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Ten-Cultures-Twenty-Lives-Refugee/dp/0999398105) and at www.amayabooks.com. In April 2018, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives was recognized with a silver medal in 2018 IPPY Awards.

I have authored several publications on culture, folklore, and proverbs and published a cultural cookbook.

I love diversity and hearing different languages in my office every day. My dream is to live through a hurricane season in Belize rainforests and collect people’s stories there.

All photo credits: Nick Kloster

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