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What refugees taught me about living during uncertain times

A journalist who writes about immigration and social justice issues reflects on what she’s learned while covering the plight of refugees

Masuma Ishaq Ali, with her daughter Tabassum, is one of the Afghan families who already live in Rhode Island, who was at a meeting at the Refugee Dream Center to prepare for welcoming those being evacuated from Afghanistan.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

They know what it’s like to lose their homes, jobs, country, and in many cases, loved ones. The refugees I’ve interviewed, over the past 18 months, are from troubled countries like Iraq, Burundi, Liberia and Angola. They now call Rhode Island home.

It’s a unique perspective on living in crisis. One that can help us adapt to the uncertainty we face, as the latest variant of COVID-19 surfaces. And a chance to understand closed borders, loss of income, separation from family — and overburdened health care — has been a way of life for many displaced around the world.

I heard stories of deep loss, hope and survival. Some memories too painful to retell, which they undoubtedly kept private. Several refugees recounted the violence they escaped or the decades residing in makeshift tents. Many living at the mercy of the host country and goodwill organizations such as the UN Refugee Agency.

Families raised generations in emergency shelters, on lockdown, struggling for their basic necessities. They suffered through widespread disease, bloodshed and political turmoil in their home countries — fleeing to a neighboring one. And survived to tell their stories.


I left each interview wondering, “What coping skills did they develop and what can we learn from it?”

What I found was they fought — not just for themselves — but for future generations. Many getting through each day by simply carrying on their cultural, and family, traditions. It gave them a sense of belonging. A feeling of community. It was the only way they knew how to lead a more meaningful life.

When I spoke with mother and son, Ada Uzia Boaz and Chance Boas, they told me living in a Tanzanian refugee camp was a daily struggle for food rations and clean water. But there was also a lot to cherish.


“I miss the interaction with the elders. They are really beautiful people. The whole village loved me. It’s very rare people recognize you for just being a human being,” said Boas.

Boaz raised her six children including the youngest, Chance, between Katumba and Mtabila refugee camps in Tanzania. She fled civil war in her home country of Burundi in 1972. Boaz lived in encampment for 36 years before resettling in Rhode Island.

She celebrated milestones for school graduations, births and marriages. She did it not only to benefit her family, but also for those children living in tight quarters alongside her. It was a community they purposely built.

Master Sergeant Nathan Nagbe-Lathrobe of the Rhode Island National Guard, stateless for 10 years, after fleeing civil war in his home country of Liberia, said he misses the gift of time. A chance to slow down and get to know others.

When I spoke to Leah Byogo, through a Swahili translator, I learned she was scheduled to fly to the US, as a refugee, in February 2020. When the pandemic hit, it put everything in jeopardy.

Problems with water, sanitation and hygiene, in her Tanzanian refugee camp, were especially difficult for a pregnant woman like Byogo.

After 22 years living in such horrific conditions, when Byogo got the chance to relocate to a foreign country — although at the riskiest of times — she left. She did it, like Boaz, to build a better life for future generations.

Byogo told me when she gave birth to her youngest at a hospital in Providence, the nurses treated her like a queen. It was vast difference from the lack of prenatal care she was accustomed to. Her only wish was that all her children had the opportunity to be born in America.


I heard stories of the horrible conditions in which the Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh.

More than one million Rohingya stay in overcrowded, unsanitary settlement camps. Having suffered persecution for being minority Muslim in their home country of Myanmar, they fled for neighboring Bangladesh.

I interviewed nonprofit health care workers who provide, under the leadership of Brown University professor Dr. Ruhul Abid, free clinics to the Rohingya. They told me about how past oppression caused the Rohingya to mistrust authority. So much so, that out of fear, many refused to seek medical treatment.

As I reported on the Rohingya crisis, a major fire erupted in the camps causing thousands to be displaced once again.

“How much more could one stand?” I thought.

When the US Capitol attack happened on Jan. 6, it was a painful reminder to Isabel Kayembe who was traumatized by crossing the border from Angola to seek refuge in Namibia.

Ziyadah Elias from Iraq also suddenly felt insecure when the rioting happened. She said it brought back bad memories of the constant fear of violence she lived through.

These are stories from our everyday neighbors.

Each account is an example of establishing normalcy, and dignity, amid unthinkable suffering. Accomplished, in great part, by supporting one another.


As Afghan families resettle among us in Rhode Island, share your personal experiences with them. And listen to theirs. It will help us form a strong community. For future generations, they will learn how we coped during the worst global health crisis of our times. And discover that with uncertainty comes strength.

Alli-Michelle Conti writes on social justice issues with a focus on immigration. Follow her on Twitter at @conti_alli.