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Rhode Island’s refugee communities react to rioting at the US Capitol

After fleeing civil war in their homelands, last week’s insurgence by pro-Trump rioters was a painful reminder of the political unrest they had left behind

Armed National Guard troops at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.
Armed National Guard troops at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.Jason Andrew/NYT

PROVIDENCE — Fleeing civil war in Angola, Isabel Kayembe crossed the border into Namibia to seek refuge. As pro-Trump rioters breached the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., last week, Kayembe was flooded with terrifying flashbacks.

“It was so traumatizing because it was like reliving what happened in my country,” Kayembe, 45, said. “It never crossed my mind, as a refugee, this could happen here in the United States. Because this is the place we call the safest in the world.  It’s the country that makes sure people are safe.”

When the rioting broke out as lawmakers worked to count the state-certified electoral votes, “I think immigrants were feeling so afraid of what can happen next,” said Kayembe.

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For many immigrants and refugees who left their home countries to seek peace and democracy in America, last week’s attack on Congress was a painful reminder of the political unrest they left behind.

In 2015, Kayembe arrived in Rhode Island with her husband, their three children, and her brother. She spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Namibia. She said crossing the border from Angola to Namibia was very dangerous.

“You had to fight for your life,” she said.

Angolans seeking asylum in Namibia would often pass, as Kayembe did, at an unofficial crossing point in order to avoid military controls. She connected that traumatic experience with the tension between rioters and Capitol Police. She said it was similar in that “anything can happen.”

Friends in the refugee camp in Namibia who watched the news unfold on TV were worried. They texted asking if she and her family were secure.

“I wish the US can be viewed as a safe place like before,” she said. “We are really thankful for the United States, it’s the only country that takes in the most immigrants and refugees. If safety changes here, they may close it off to those who are suffering, and fighting, to get an opportunity like mine.”

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Chance Boas, 31, a Providence resident, grew up in a Burundian refugee camp in Tanzania. His family fled from Burundi to Tanzania due to civil war. Boas, his mother, and three brothers were granted asylum in the US in 2008. Growing up, his family didn’t talk much about the horrific events they witnessed. It was an unspoken rule. But he has learned a lot from history and, now, the recent turmoil in Washington.

“It was a great wake up call for people to see what the president says, does matter. It was sad to see but a lot of people saw it coming. The division has been going on and what happened at the Capitol was the boiling point,” said Boas.

As he watched the coverage of Americans storming the Capitol, he likened it to rioters in Burundi.

“It was disturbing to see it happening in modern US history. You just can’t easily take over the United States Capitol. It reminded me of when, in Burundi, the national radio was taken over by those attempting a coup. This is something you don’t anticipate happening in a democracy like the US.”

Boas has been an active participant at protests both locally and nationally. He found lack of police presence at the January 6 attack in Washington troubling.

“I’ve been to a couple of protests for Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March in D.C., and you had more of a police presence than what was at the Capitol,” he said. “Any event where there’s a protest, you have security presence, and at this one it didn’t seem like there was any provided.”

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Boas is optimistic that things can change for the better. “Maybe something good will come of this,” he said. “But the US politics are at a low point.”

Providence City Council member Nirva LaFortune, an outspoken immigration advocate, tweeted about her family’s personal journey and how recent events have impacted immigrant communities in Rhode Island.

“34 years ago, my dad left Haiti to escape political unrest and raise his family in a democracy. A place where he can cast a vote for a president without fear,” she tweeted. “This week’s events go against everything immigrants like my dad value and have sacrificed to live in this country.”

Ziyadah Elias, 45, is from, Erbil, in Northern Iraq.  Due to the constant fear of violence, Elias, and her two sisters, fled to America in 2011, first settling in Washington, D.C. She now lives in Cranston.

“We are lucky to be here. The country where we are free. We are not afraid of violence or attacks. We have security. And what happened recently at the Capitol, for us to watch, it was shocking,” she said. “It was sad and we pray it will never happen again. Because everyone considers the land of America one of freedom, civility and of democracy. It’s an example to the whole world.”

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Like Kayembe, Elias said when the Capitol building was breached, it brought back bad memories.

“It reminded us how our mother country was unsafe and insecure. We came from an unsafe country to the safest country in the world and hopefully nothing will happen again,” said Elias.

She said she believes those families of the victims at the Capitol “should be compensated” and “those who participated in this attack held responsible.”