This summer WUNC has been working with six youth reporters as part of the Summer Youth Radio Institute in our American Graduate Project. Akib Khan moved with his family to the U.S. from Dhaka, Bangladesh when he was nine years old. He reports on the Burmese refugee community in Carrboro.
Abdul Hussain and his family came to Carrboro in July. Hussain grew up in Burma. He says when he was 13, the local government made false allegations against him, forcing him to flee his homeland and that this happens to many minorities in Burma. He lived in Malaysia for years before finally being granted asylum in the United States. When he arrived, the first thing he did was look for something familiar—as a Muslim, he wanted to find a mosque.
“For the first 3 days when I came here, I just walked the streets,” Hussain said. “I wanted to find a mosque and meet other Muslims.”
There is no mosque in Carrboro, and Hussain worried that he would not find the solace of his own culture and religion in a new country. But soon after that, he was connected with Salima Bi, another Muslim refugee from Burma.
“Before I came here I felt overwhelmingly anxious and helpless,” Hussain says. “I was afraid of how I would survive here. But, thanks to God, I had assistance from others.”
Bi often helps Hussain and his family, sometimes buying groceries and dropping them off. She’s been living in the United States for eight years, but she knows first-hand the many obstacles new refugee families face. She arrived in Oklahoma City during the frigid winter season. Her caseworker took Bi and her family to their new apartment on a Friday and did not return until the following Monday. Bi, her husband, and their two children had to fend for themselves in a completely foreign place.
“ Oh my god, I’m very upset,” Bi recounts. “Because my middle child is six months old baby, but the heat is not working. Too cold. She get a fever or something, I want to go to the clinic, but I don’t know how to do—I don’t know who can I call. I don’t where can somebody help me. I don’t know nothing, nothing. I’m very, very upset.”
Bi says her experience during those three days is the reason she helps out newly arrived families. She moved to Carrboro six years ago and doesn’t want anyone else to go through the same feelings of loneliness and fear.
“ I am so happy because if I can help something—they maybe need something,” she says. “If nobody helps, they get a feeling. Then I help, they don’t have a feeling, then I am so happy because long time, years ago, I had the same feeling, too.”
Bi volunteers with an organization called Refugee Community Partnership. My brother, Asif Khan, founded the group to strengthen support networks among refugee families in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
“The few refugees who have been living here for a long time, complain that they just don’t have time,” says Khan. “They’re always overwhelmed by the number of phone calls that they receive from various refugees, and at the same time they just can’t turn them down. So what we are doing is we are just working with them to try to just gather them together. Try to find better ways of doing it instead of just doing it in a more one-on-one basis.”
Refugee Community Partnership also offers English language education and legal services. For recent arrivals like Abdul Hussain, such help will be welcome, and he keeps an optimistic outlook on the future that lies ahead.
“I have faced many struggles and hardships in Burma.” Hussain says. “But I have hope now—I know here I will not have to go through or face the struggles that I faced before.”
For Hussain and his family, being able to come to the U.S. is an important part of building a better life. But how their transition happens also matters, and that’s why people like Salima Bi are so important.