An ethnic Nepali, Sher Mizer fled the violence of his country, Bhutan, when he was twelve years old. His family ended up in a refugee camp, where a tarp and some bamboo became their home. Mizer yearned for education, and thanks to a scholarship, he was able to study in India. Eighteen years after arriving at the refugee camp, his family came to Colorado. He and two other refugees will tell their stories tomorrow at an event called "Voices of Refugees."
The event is sponsored by the African Community Center, one of Denver's refugee resettlement agencies. It will be held tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the University of Denver's Sturm Hall and will be preceded at 6 p.m. by an exhibit featuring ten refugees photographed with the most important object they brought to Colorado.
We caught up with Erin Martin, the outreach coordinator at the African Community Center, who told us a bit about the three speakers: Mizer of Bhutan, who writes beautiful poetry; Nana Mwajuma, a preschool teacher from the Congo; and Héctor Salazar Gómez, the first Mexican political asylee in Colorado. These are their stories: Sher Mizer, Bhutan
Mizer, Martin says, is one of thousands of ethnic Nepali people who was born and grew up in southern Bhutan. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Bhutanese government began cracking down on the group, requiring that they forsake their roots and adopt the traditional dress, language and religion of Bhutan. The demands led to violence, with ethnic Nepali people imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed.
Mizer's family fled on foot to a refugee camp in Nepal. For eighteen years, they weren't allowed to leave. But Mizer sought an exception. An excellent student, he was granted a college scholarship by the non-governmental organization that ran the school in his camp, and the NGO arranged for him to earn his bachelor's degree in India. "His main thing was that he was just so driven to further his education," Martin says. He scrimped and saved his scholarship money, sometimes forgoing meals to pay for school.
In 2009, he and his family applied to be resettled in a different country. In June 2011, they boarded a plane bound for Colorado. Mizer now works as an interpreter and is committed to helping his community here, Martin says. He also has a love for English and Irish poetry and writes verses of his own, which he'll read tomorrow night.
Nana Mwajuma, Congo Mwajuma still doesn't understand the violence that seized her country, Martin says. Described by the United Nations as "inter-ethnic conflicts," battles between rebel forces and local militias are seared in Mwajuma's memory, since her family, which ran a hotel, was caught in the middle. One day, when Mwajuma was thirteen, the rebels attacked her house when her father wasn't home. Mwajuma was injured and her mother decided it was time to flee.
Mwajuma, her mother and her youngest brother walked for a week, leaving behind her father and three other brothers, who were in another city when the attack happened. They ended up in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where they were provided with a plastic tarp. She and her mother chopped trees and built a house out of wood, bamboo and mud. They spent their days collecting fuel to build fires to cook their meager rations.
In the camp, Nana met her husband. He had family in a different, supposedly better camp in Mozambique. Mwajuma, her husband, her mother and her brother eventually moved there, and Mwajuma began teaching preschool and kindergarten. "She speaks of that with so much joy," Martin says. "That's what gives her happiness in her life."
After eight years, the family was approached by a young man who claimed to be Mwajuma's brother. Martin says Mwajuma didn't recognize him but then remembered that her father always said that all of his children were born with the same knuckles. When Mwajuma looked at the young man's hands, she realized they were related.
In 2010, Mwajuma and her husband were resettled in Colorado. She now works at a hotel near the airport and is learning English. She hopes to one day return to teaching.
Héctor Salazar Gómez, Mexico Gómez is an asylee, not a refugee. In his case, that means he came here on a short-term visa, overstayed that visa and then applied to stay here permanently because he feared persecution in his home country.
Gómez was a journalist in Mexico, Martin says. In 1992, he began working in the press office of the federal government. With the president of Mexico, he traveled all around the country and to foreign countries, as well. Along the way, he witnessed injustice, including government corruption and people living in poverty without running water.
In 2003, he decided to leave the government and become an independent journalist. He returned to his native state of Morelos and began writing about the injustices occurring around him. As a result, he was targeted; he received anonymous death threats and was once kidnapped while riding in a taxi. His two kidnappers drove him an hour away from his home, and then let him out of the car and told him to run. As he took off, he heard one of them loading a gun. He thought he'd be shot in the back.
Gómez survived, and in 2007, he came to the United States on a tourist visa to visit his family for the holidays. While he was gone, the violence in Mexico escalated and he decided it wasn't safe to return. He stayed in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant and was eventually caught and put into deportation proceedings. But he told his story to an immigration lawyer, who decided Gómez had a good case for asylum. A judge agreed, and in September 2011, Gómez found out he'd be allowed to stay. He now hosts a radio show on 1150 AM, on which an immigration lawyer is a regular guest.
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Hear these three refugees tell their stories in person tomorrow night. The event is free.
Note: An original version of this blog post said Gómez entered the country illegally and then applied for asylum to stay here. It has been changed to reflect that he entered the country legally on a short-term tourist visa, overstayed that visa and then applied for asylum.
More from our Immigration archive: "Regis University teaching online courses to refugees in Kenya, Malawi in pilot project."