Settled into new homes, refugees in U.S. say they are working for a better life for all

Mohamed Juma arrived in Aurora, Colorado, in 2013 after spending eight years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Originally from Sudan, Juma now works as a community navigator, investment associate and public speaker. (Robert Kalman for Colorado Newsline)

 

Manasse Matala graduated from high school in Wichita in May, overcoming steep language barriers. Now he hopes to bring confidence to refugees much like himself through motivational speaking. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Manasse Matala, 19, Zimbabwe

By Noah Taborda | Kansas Reflector

Manasse Matala, 19, endeavors each day to ensure he does not waste the educational opportunities available to him in the United States.

Matala and his family resettled in Wichita, Kansas, one of an estimated 3.4 million Zimbabweans who have fled their home country to escape violence and killings. Kansas’s culture came as quite a shock, especially for someone whose English was shaky.

Through his studies, Matala said he overcame many of those language barriers. Still, the lack of fluency did affect his French-speaking family.

“My mom didn’t know how to speak English and it would be very hard for her to communicate or to find something like a job,” he said.

Now, Matala is hoping to bring inspiration and hope to more refugees through, of all things, speaking. He graduated from Southeast High School in May, and while he plans to pursue a degree in pre-medicine, he also wants to be a motivational speaker.

His message is a tried and true one — hard work pays off. Matala channels his own personal experience from things as difficult as overcoming language barriers to learning piano or playing soccer to demonstrate this.

He has also considered physical therapy as a possible career path. Whatever directions he takes, he wants to dispel misconceptions that refugees are a burden on their new country.

“I asked some of my friends about what you think about refugees, and everyone is telling me this bad stuff. I didn’t show my sadness, but it did break my heart a little,” Matala said. “We can’t just come in and start acting without even knowing the culture. We don’t even know what is going on.”

 

Mohamed Juma arrived in Aurora, Colorado, in 2013 after spending eight years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Originally from Sudan, Juma now works as a community navigator, investment associate and public speaker. (Robert Kalman for Colorado Newsline)

Mohamed Juma, 29, Sudan

By Faith Miller | Colorado Newsline

After Mohamed Juma, his seven younger siblings and their parents escaped Sudan during a civil war and humanitarian crisis, they spent eight years waiting in a Kenyan refugee camp. They were finally accepted as U.S. refugees in 2013.

Juma now visits elementary and middle schools to talk to Colorado students. From personal experience, he speaks of the challenges that “refugees and immigrants face when they come to the United States.”

On top of the trauma of war and displacement, Juma’s family faced plenty of challenges. 

When they first arrived in Aurora, Colorado, it was April and snowing — not at all like Kenya. They didn’t speak English, and didn’t know anyone except for Juma’s uncle, who’d arrived from the same refugee camp a couple of months earlier. Making friends was difficult.

“People in the U.S. are not friendly like back where we came from,” Juma reflected. “You cannot go and just knock on somebody’s door.”

But case workers and other refugees in Aurora helped the family with housing, job applications and transportation. 

Juma, now 29, speaks Swahili, Arabic and English, among other languages. He works as a community navigator to help new arrivals feel safe and welcome. As an investment associate, Juma also supports community members who want to start their own businesses.

Juma wants people from the U.S. to understand that immigrants and refugees are human beings, and “not here to, for example, take your jobs.”

“They’re just families trying to help their children to have a better life,” Juma said, adding: “So just forget the hate … let’s just spread love and see how we can learn from each other.”

 

Colorado state Rep. Naquetta Ricks, a Democrat who represents the diverse community of Aurora, fled from Liberia to the U.S. in 1980. Several years later, her family was granted a pathway to citizenship under legislation signed by then-President Ronald Reagan. (Submitted by Rep. Naquetta Ricks to Colorado Newsline)

Naquetta Ricks, 54, Liberia

By Faith Miller | Colorado Newsline

After a firing squad executed her fiance in Liberia’s 1980 military coup, Naquetta Ricks’ mother secured a medical leave of absence from work and fled with her children to Chicago. 

The family moved to Colorado a few months later. Without a lawyer, their attempts to gain asylum status were at first fruitless. Then in 1986, a path to citizenship opened up when then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation granting amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants. 

Today, Ricks represents her Aurora community in the Colorado House of Representatives.

After losing races for the University of Colorado Board of Regents and Aurora City Council, Ricks contemplated staying out of politics — until Donald Trump was elected president, and she noticed increasing negative rhetoric about immigrants.

Last year, 717 refugees, asylees and Special Immigrant Visa holders arrived in Colorado, according to the Colorado Refugee Services Program. Most were originally from Afghanistan, Cuba or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We really need people who are going to talk about the contributions of immigrants,” she said. “They are underrepresented. They are underserved when it comes to politics, and so I think it was important to have some different voices to bring the true reflection of immigrants to the table.”

As a Democratic state representative, Ricks draws on her experience as a business leader — having served as president of the African Chamber of Commerce of Colorado — a refugee, a single mother, small business owner and mortgage broker. She’s passionate about helping community members achieve home ownership. 

But just like adjusting to a new country far from home, winning an election took a lot of work, she adds. 

“It was a seven-year journey,” she said. 

 

Petronille Kabanga, a Phoenix resident, poses for a photo inside her store selling handmade crafts and decorations in north Phoenix on June 18, 2021. Kabanga fled Congo in 2003 and is one of the thousands of refugees who now call Arizona home. (Laura Gómez/Arizona Mirror)

 

Jaime Enrique Ramirez Corredor, 65, looks at news websites from his laptop in a west Phoenix apartment where he lives. He is a refugee from Colombia who was forced to leave because right-wing paramilitary members threatened him. (Laura Gómez/Arizona Mirror)

Nejra Sumic, 34, arrived in Arizona as a refugee from Bosnia in 1995. She now works as national field manager at We Are All America, a national campaign advocating for refugees, people seeking asylum, those with Temporary Protected Status and immigrants. (Laura Gómez/Arizona Mirror)

Nejra Sumic, 34, Bosnia

 

Nga Vương-Sandoval is a Denver resident and an accomplished former refugee who fled war in Việt Nam. (Submitted by Nga Vương-Sandoval)

 

Basma Alawee, a Jacksonville resident, arrived in 2010 in the United States under a Special Immigrant Visa. She is now an organizer with We Are All America, working to empower refugee communities nationally to share their own stories. (Submitted by Basma Alawee)

 

Halima Hamud is a student at Boise State University. Her family fled Somalia and spent two decades in a Kenya refugee camp, where Hamud was born. She arrived in Boise at age 10, as a 4th-grader who couldn’t yet speak English. (Priscilla Grover/Boise State University)

 

Alone and afraid of being followed by a dangerous Colombian group, Arnobia Bernal Ramirez isolated herself from the world when she arrived in Baltimore in 2019. She’s since found community with other refugees through Asylee Women Enterprise. (Hannah Gaskill/Maryland Matters)

 

Alex Mutabazi and his family came to Tennessee to escape the violence in Central Africa. He has started a church to help other refugees. (John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout)

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

MORE FROM AUTHOR
Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

MORE FROM AUTHOR
Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

MORE FROM AUTHOR
Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more. Her resume also includes fellowships from the Association of Health Care Journalists, Idaho Press Club, Idaho Media Initiative and Investigative Reporters and Editors. Dutton also teaches an upper-division journalism course at Boise State University. She resides in Boise with her husband, young daughter and two cats.

MORE FROM AUTHOR
Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill

Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications. Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.

MORE FROM AUTHOR
Dulce Torres
Dulce Torres

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.

MORE FROM AUTHOR