Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Dinner with my refugee students

I enjoyed a Koosharee dinner (a popular vegetarian meal of rice, pasta, lentils, fried onions) with two of my students Monday night: Hani, a 20 year-old Eritrean, and Mohamed, a 30 year old Sudanese. Both are refugees. You wouldn’t know it from talking to them. Hani speaks with an American accent. He says “yeah” instead of “yes.” He is wearing a dark Tupac shirt. He is more comfortable speaking English with his sister at home rather than Tagrinya, the language of Eritrea. A resident of Cairo for 10 months now, he spent two years in Khartoum, Sudan. His father remains in Saudi Arabia and his mother lives in Eritrea. She visited him in Cairo just five months ago. Hani speaks very fluently and is one of the best students in class. He should be studying at a University. Unfortunately, he says he “does nothing” the rest of the week. I do not ask him too many personal questions, but it seems that he has no job. He is taking French classes now, but does not really enjoy them. His Chinese neighbor in Eritrea used to teach him a few Chinese words and phrases, so he asked me for a few words tonight. After I explain to him that Chinese verbs do not conjugate, he said, “Maybe I should learn Chinese instead of French.”

Mohamed is a gentle man. He wears glasses and has a scholar look about him. He stands out from the rest of the students by sitting in the front row and always volunteers to speak. Mohamed follows American politics. Both he and Hani are Barack Obama supporters. Mohamed even knows about Senator Bob Dole. He grows pessimistic when I ask him about his future plans after St. Andrews, where he takes English classes. “What can I do when I leave here? All we get is a certificate, a piece of paper that says we took a class here.” He is currently applying for asylum to Australia. In 2004, he left the Sudan, where he faced religious persecution from the Islamic Government. His father disappeared and two of his sisters were kidnapped by the Janjaweed Militia in Darfur. He has never heard from them since. Mohamed received protection from a local church. After spending some time with them, he eventually converted to Christianity, which led to more troubles for him. Security men detained him and accused him of subversion. They beat him repeatedly and tortured him night and day. He was deprived of food, water and sleep. They tied him up and hanged him upside down from a ceiling fan. When he was released, he fled the country.

While Hani will stay in Cairo for the foreseeable future, Mohamed is trying to leave for greener pastures. I wish him well. Australia would do well to accept this refugee, whom I’m confident will make great contributions to their country down under.

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