Coming to America

| January 4, 2012 | 0 Comments

Immigrants give back to communities they now call home

From left, Shegitu Kebede and her friend, Frewoina Haile, are African immigrants who are building successful lives in the U.S. Both escaped countries torn by violence. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Jan. 8 is Immigration Sunday in Catholic churches across Minnesota.

The state’s bishops began the tradition in 2009 to educate Catholics about the church’s teaching on immigration and to inform them of current immigration-related issues.

The bishops are asking priests and deacons to speak about immigrants’ rights and the urgent need for an immigration policy that keeps families together, includes a temporary worker program, and provides a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

“On this day,” it says on the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s website, “we are reminded that all human beings — regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, race, creed or status — are ‘coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 3:6). As members of Christ’s body, this means that all people, including the newcomers to our country, are our sisters and brothers.”

Below are the stories of Twin Cities immigrants who spoke with The Catholic Spirit about their paths to the U.S. and what this country means to them.

For homily ideas, educational activities and other immigration-related resources, visit the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s Immigration Sunday website.

Helping refugee women succeed in U.S. promotes healing

She was just 15, but already Shegitu Kebede had lost loved ones, suffered torture and been raped repeatedly.

If she hadn’t found the courage to leave her homeland, she likely would have been one more casualty in the civil war that ripped Ethiopia apart during much of the last half-century.

To escape the violence, Kebede set out with a friend on what she described as an “impossibly dangerous journey.”

“We knew we would die if we stayed in Ethiopia and we were almost sure we would die if we left — dead either way — so we decided we would die trying to escape,” Kebede wrote in a book about her life.

With only the baby growing inside her and the will to survive, Kebede crossed the African landscape in darkness on a path that, unbeknownst to her, would lead her all the way to the United States.

Lost childhood

Kebede grew up in an orphanage with her three brothers, two of whom she lost when they were forced to fight in the war.

At 15, she left the orphanage to marry a man she had met only weeks before because it was too dangerous for a young woman to live alone. But even having a husband wasn’t protection enough from the government officials who raped women at every opportunity, she said.

So, despite being two months pregnant, Kebede set out for the Kenyan border. Because the penalty for trying to escape the country was often death, Kebede traveled at night, making her potential prey for hungry animals. During the day she blended in with the locals as best she could.

When she reached the border, she heard the cries of people being beaten to death by police for protecting refugees.

Kebede managed to cross safely into Kenya, but was later arrested at a checkpoint. She spent three weeks in an overcrowded jail cell before a judge, seeing the young mother’s predicament, gave her a letter of recommendation for the refugee camp in Nairobi. Without that letter, she later learned, she would have been returned to Ethiopia.

“Sometimes I look back and see so many things I could not have done by myself,” she wrote in her book, “Visible Strengths, Hidden Scars.” “I am grateful. I know I was carried in God’s hands through those times.”

After three and a half years in the refugee camp, where she nearly died giving birth to her son by Caesarean section, Kebede found a U.S. sponsor in Fargo, N.D.

Eventually, she moved to the Twin Cities, where she was reunited with her husband from Ethiopia. Once again Kebede became a victim of violence when, she said, her husband turned abusive.

For years, Kebede endured her husband’s vicious attacks because she feared she wouldn’t be able to provide for their two children on her own. Only the thought of her children finding her dead kept her from committing suicide, she said.

Finally, she found the strength to leave her husband, setting out once again on a path to freedom.

Help and healing

From left, Shegitu Kebede and Frewoina Haile work in the kitchen of their Flamingo Restaurant in St. Paul. The two women came to the U.S. from Africa and serve East African fare at their restaurant. Kebede has written a book about her escape from the violence in her native Ethiopia called “Visible Strengths, Hidden Scars.” Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

In 2006, Kebede received the Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service for a cleaning business she started. Going Home, Inc.’s mission was to give refugee women the training and experience they needed to succeed in this country.

She also recruited student volunteers to tutor refugee children.

“My healing process began when I began working with others who went through my experience,” said Kebede, now 44. “Hearing their stories and helping them find solutions was a daily dose of medicine for my recovery and motivated me to do more in my community.”

After her cleaning business succumbed to the struggling economy, Kebede opened a restaurant serving East African fare with her friend Frewoina Haile, an Eritrean refugee whose country had been at war with Kebede’s for close to four decades.

Haile, 47, came to the U.S. in 1986 after spending three years in a Sudanese refugee camp. In the U.S., Haile earned her GED, then a bachelor’s degree in business administration and hospitality management from National American University. She also has a degree in computer programming.

On a recent afternoon, Kebede greeted customers at Flamingo Restaurant, tucked behind a Subway franchise on St. Paul’s bustling University Avenue. A customer enjoyed a spicy stew served on top of spongy bread called “injera” as Kebede and Haile darted in and out of the kitchen. Christian music played softly in the background.

This month, Kebede is returning to Ethiopia with several university students from the Twin Cities to start a school for refugees there, a project both she and Haile envisioned together.

“A lot of East African refugees are coming to the Twin Cities,” Kebede said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs and it’s very difficult for those refugees who are coming because the language skill is not there, the work experience is not there. They have been warehoused in the refugee camp for a year to 10 years. So we thought if we can go there and train them and give them a language skill and work skill, they will be better off when they get here.”

A ‘blessed’ life

Kebede, a member of the evangelical Speak the Word International Church in Golden Valley, said that despite the hardship she has experienced in her life, she feels blessed.

“Every single day I thank God,” she said. “I escaped and I’m here in the most powerful, the most peaceful, the most wonderful country. And I have a house, I have a business, I have a car, I have healthy children, I’m healthy. And after all that I went through, I didn’t lose my mind. How can I not thank God? What reason do I have to complain? I’m blessed. I cannot count the blessings that I have.”

Kebede said she believes her life’s purpose is to help other victims of domestic abuse.

“My son got married this summer; my daughter graduated from high school this year,” Kebede said. “Could you imagine if I had killed myself? I could have been missing out on that. My cleaning project, the first year I had 38 women get a job somewhere else. It was in the newspaper. I would not have been able to see that. My youth program won a national award. I would not have been able to see that. I would not have seen my kids graduate from high school, college, get married.

All these things I could have missed. But because God woke me up and I am still alive, I have seen all these blessings, and that trouble came to pass.”

One of the blessings Kebede is most grateful for is her U.S. citizenship. “Oh man, I will never forget [the naturalization ceremony],” she said as a smile lit up her face. “I have my first ‘I voted’ sticker, and I have a picture right by it of when I became a U.S. citizen.”

As she recited the words every immigrant says during the naturalization ceremony, the thought that kept running through her mind was: “Now I belong here.”

“That’s a huge feeling,” she added.

Home at last

Asked what this country means to Kebede, two words immediately come to her mind: “freedom” and “home.”

“You know, most Americans take this country for granted,” Kebede said. “This is the only country on planet Earth that you can be whatever you want to be and dream a dream, and your dream will come true. You can believe whatever you want to believe when it comes to religion or faith, and nobody can make fun of you, nobody can put you in jail for that, nobody shoots you. You have freedom.”

Kebede’s hope is that more Americans will make the effort to get to know immigrants and refugees.

“Right now, America is going through an economic tough time, and when you go through tough times it’s human nature to blame one another,” she said.

“The refugee community went through so many things. We know what it means to lose everything. We have lost our family members. Some Americans right now are losing their family members in the war, so talk to us because we know how that feels. We’ve been there. We have been in a refugee camp and been poor and we know what poverty looks like. We came with nothing. So maybe you lost your job and you don’t know how to get by. Talk to us.

“There is something we can learn from each other instead of pointing a finger and looking at people as if they are the problem,”?she said. “We may have a solution.”

Kebede and Haile are raising funds for their “Women at the Well” school project through their partner organization, the International Institute of Minnesota. For information about volunteering or making a donation, call (651) 917-9332.

Kebede’s book, “Visible Strengths, Hidden Scars,” is available for purchase at Flamingo Restaurant, 490 Syndicate St. N, St. Paul.

Serving at-risk teens

María Keller is a native of Peru who came to the U.S. after marrying her husband, John, who met her while serving as a missionary in her country. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Many immigrants come to the United States seeking work. Others arrive to this country as refugees. Then there are those like María Keller, who leave everything behind for love.

Keller met her husband, John, when he was serving as a missionary in her native Peru. They married in 1990.

A few months later, Keller moved to her husband’s family farm in Stillwater.

At first, life was hard, she said. “It was like being a child again. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t drive. I was very isolated.”

Eventually the couple moved to St. Paul’s West Side, where Keller joined a thriving Latino community. Today they are members of St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis and also occasionally attend Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in St. Paul.

After learning English, Keller graduated from Metro State University in St. Paul, then went on to earn a master’s in social work from the University of Minnesota.

Today, Keller, 50, is a psychotherapist at a school for at-risk teens and immigrants in St. Paul run by Guadalupe Alternative Programs. She also serves as a community faculty member at Metro State and is the mother of three children.

Giving back

Keller, who was raised by a single mother in the fishing port of Chimbote, said she chose to become a social worker because she knows what it’s like to grow up under difficult circumstances.

As a child, Keller lived with her grandmother, mother and five siblings in a two-room cement block house with no plumbing or electricity.

“In Peru, there are no social services at all, so we had a very hard time when we were kids,” she said. “I worked since I was 8 selling things and helping my mom with [her laundry business]. . . . There were days when there was not a lot to eat.”

But she also learned from her mother how to be strong and work hard, she said. “There wasn’t a remote possibility for us to immigrate [to the U.S.], so we did our best in Chimbote. Because we were poor, there was no way to get a visa.”

If she hadn’t met her husband, now executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Keller believes she would be living a very different life in Peru.

“This country gave me opportunities to go to school and to do things that I couldn’t even think about doing in Peru,” she said.

Welcoming immigrants

Every day, Keller said, she works with families who are suffering because of the current immigration system.

“When we come to this country, it’s not easy,” she said. “You’re homesick. And then if we don’t feel welcomed, that’s very hard.

“Most people come to this country to improve their lives or because we got married and we’re coming to live here with our families,” she said. “I think we bring so many good things from our countries — family values, kindness, faith. I know [immigrant] families who work so hard.”

Keller pointed out that the U.S. has a long tradition of welcoming newcomers, and Americans shouldn’t lose sight of that fact regardless of their political beliefs.

“Every human being has the right to be treated with respect, with dignity, and especially if they are coming to this country to work and to improve their lives in a positive way,” she said.

Education transforms life

Pao Lee from Laos spent several years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to the U.S. in 1979. He has earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in computer science and now works for U.S. Bank. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Pao Lee remembers sitting in a grade-school classroom in Laos learning about the history of different countries. When the teacher began talking about the United States, he said, “It clicked in my mind that one of these days, if I have a choice, I’m going to go to America.”

Shortly after that, the Vietnam War ended, the government of Laos collapsed and thousands of Laotians who had fought with the United States in the war became refugees.

It was a dangerous time, especially for military leaders like Lee’s father. So in 1975, the then-13-year-old Lee set off with his parents and seven siblings for a refugee camp in Thailand.

In the camp, Lee convinced his father to apply for U.S. residency. A few years later, his dream of going to America came true. “We were scheduled to leave the camp on March 13, 1979,” he said. “I remember very well the date. That was the end of life in the refugee camp.”

Lee boarded a bus with his family and never looked back.

Finding a church home

In the refugee camp, Lee’s entire family converted to Catholicism. One of the first things he recalls his father doing when they arrived in St. Paul was look for a church.

No one in the family spoke more than a few words of English at the time, so they wandered around their neighborhood until they spotted the green-tipped steeple of St. Agnes.

“That was the beginning of our new life,” Lee said, tearing up.

A few weeks after the family began attending Mass at St. Agnes, there was a knock at their door. They were surprised to see a religious sister standing on their doorstep.

Using gestures, the sister was able to communicate with the family that she was there to help them with whatever needs they had.

Almost every Sunday after that, the sister came to visit Lee’s family, he said. She would help them learn English, drive them to Mass and connect them with resources. She even helped Lee land his first job — for $2.90 an hour — at an Asian market.

Eventually, Lee’s dad found a job at a paper plant in St. Paul, and the children were all excelling in school.

“Our life was getting better every year,” Lee said. “Then true miracles happened.”

Seeing the light

In 1982, when Lee was a high school senior, Father (now Archbishop) Robert Carlson offered him a scholarship to attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where Lee went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

That was when he realized that education was the key to success in America. “I started to see the light,” he said. He realized that if he worked hard and stayed focused, he could achieve whatever he set his mind to.

After graduation, he found a job at Xcel Energy as a computer programmer while simultaneously working on master’s and doctorate degrees in computer science. He completed both degrees in 1997.

Now 49, Lee works as an applications consultant at U.S. Bank. Despite his many achievements, he continues to set ambitious goals for himself.

“After almost 30 years, coming from a person who had nothing to the greatest country in the world, having the highest degree in a field that’s in demand, . . . working for a Fortune 100 company, I consider myself very successful as a refugee,” Lee said. “But as an American, I have a long way to go.”

Lee and his wife, Pa, who met in the refugee camp, have six kids, ages 12 to 24. They belong to St. Vincent de Paul parish in St. Paul, where Lee is active in various ministries.

Although life was difficult for Lee and his family during their first years in this country, he said, he feels blessed to be an American.

“America is a place for people who have big dreams,” he said. “If you have that, if you want to do it, if you’re committed to do it, then you will. That’s my story.”

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