Burundian Refugees Find an American Haven John Walburn of the International Organization for Migration talks to Farai Chideya about the recent resettlement of thousands of Burundian refugees to the United States.
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Burundian Refugees Find an American Haven

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Burundian Refugees Find an American Haven

Burundian Refugees Find an American Haven

Burundian Refugees Find an American Haven

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John Walburn of the International Organization for Migration talks to Farai Chideya about the recent resettlement of thousands of Burundian refugees to the United States.

TONY COX, host:

The documentary "God Grew Tired of Us" follows three Sudanese lost boys who fled their homeland during a civil war. They survived for years in refugee camps and were ultimately relocated to the United States. Adjusting to life in modern America wasn't easy and at times a little strange. Here's a clip from the film.

(Soundbite of movie "God Grew Tired of Us")

Unidentified Man #1: No. There you will push.

Unidentified Man #2: You pull that one.

Unidentified Man #3: These are only (unintelligible)...

Unidentified Man #1: No. No. We have two beds.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken) your own beds.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken) your own bed.

Unidentified Man #1: Good.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: We don't share the bed, you share the room with your friend.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: We don't share the bed.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay?

Unidentified Man #3: Okay. This is one of the most important things. This alarm clock, a radio alarm clock.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay? We'll set it up tomorrow.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay. Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: Because as I said, in America, time is money.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

COX: That again was a clip from the documentary "God Grew Tired of Us." Now we have another story of survival and new beginnings. Last week, a group of almost 100 refugees from Burundi began a long journey from East Africa en route to their new life in the United States.

The move came after the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, or UNHCR, asked the United States to help find new homes for more than 8,000 Burundian refugees who fled their country's civil war in the 1970s. John Walburn of the International Organization for Migration is helping prepare the refugees for life in the United States.

NPR's Farai Chideya reached him on his cell phone in Kibondo, Western Tanzania. He explained why it's necessary to help the Burundians make the transition to another country.

Mr. JOHN WALBURN (International Organization for Migration): Most refugees who flee from conflict, for instance, they perhaps are refugees for five years or six years or whatever, or until such time as the conflict is over. Then they can go back home. You can repatriate back home.

Their land is usually there, their homes are still there, if they haven't been destroyed in the war. But they have something to go back to. Now this group of refugees, unfortunately, have nothing. They have nothing to go back to. They fled conflict in 1972, and during the previous time from then till now their land has being taken over. They've got no future. There is nothing for them back in Burundi.

CHIDEYA: Give me a personal story of someone you met, a family, an individual, and what they've been going through.

Mr. WALBURN: I've worked with refugees now for a lot years, and also internally displaced people during wars and things like that. And it's very, very difficult for people who have never been in this situation to understand the opportunities that these people have been given. It's unbelievable. They will get education for their children, which, from an African viewpoint, is of paramount importance. Education of their children is first priority. And so they will get that in America. They will get a totally new life.

Now when you see these people, when this is explained to them at cultural orientation training it's very, very difficult to describe. They are - some are filled with apprehensions, some are filled with awe, some of them, you know, obviously every one of them is elated.

CHIDEYA: Tell us more about the cultural orientation aspect of the work that you're doing.

Mr. WALBURN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I'm not the cultural orientation person. We employ qualified people to do that. It's long been recognized that cultural orientation, those people that get cultural orientation integrate far quicker and far easier than those that don't. So we have teams who - we have special facilities as well, classrooms and teaching aids, television videos - and these people are thought various aspects of life in America: what to expect, how to get your children into school, how to deal with government agencies, how to get a job, how to dial 911 when you have an emergency, how to open a door, how to brush properly. You're really starting them on a whole new concept that they've never ever had to face before.

So this training is of paramount important, like you or I can understand how to flush the toilet. We'd just pull this lever then we flush the toilet. They've never seen a toilet, let alone flush one. And bear in mind that the amount of water that comes out of the system is the equivalent of the amount of water these people get in a day to drink and to wash and everything else. So every time you flush the toilet, you get the same amount of water as what a refugee gets in a day.

CHIDEYA: That is a very profound way of putting things. Tell us about the size or the composition of the families. You're talking about people who may have been refugees for decades. Are these now intergenerational families?

Mr. WALBURN: In African society and especially in the refugee society they're very, very communal people. And of course they've had to be over the years. They've had no choice, really, in some cases. So if you look at a normal family in America, you could be looking at a refugee family, as simple as that.

CHIDEYA: Here in the U.S. we are constantly assimilating not just immigrants but refugees. I, for example, went to Wisconsin, which has a lot of refugee resettlements, and I ended up in a car with a young woman who was Hmong and a young man who was Rwandese, and I was like, wow. You know, I was like this is really interesting. How do you feel that what you do in trying to resettle people also helps heal some of the wounds of the world?

Mr. WALBURN: You know, it's difficult for people who've never worked with refugees or never been with them to fully understand the misery that these people live in. UNHCR and other agencies provide the best that they can to make these people's lives comfortable and to give them some little education, food, et cetera.

But that doesn't take the place of a home or a garden, which they are used to, a little (unintelligible) where they can grow their vegetables and this kind of thing. So when this is all taken away from them, you're taking everything from them. Everything. Nothing.

So when these people are given this opportunity for resettlement, given this opportunity to start again, a new life in a new country, then this is a great sign that there is still some kindness left in the world.

CHIDEYA: Well, John, I just want to thank you so much for sharing your time and experience.

Mr. WALBURN: No problem. Anytime.

COX: That was John Walburn of the International Organization for Migration speaking with NPR's Farai Chideya from Kibondo, western Tanzania, which is near the Burundian border. They discussed the recent resettlement of thousands of Burundian refugees to the United States.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES, a talk about marriage and sex, plus a former gang member's final memories about escaping the lifestyle.

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