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For refugees fleeing for their lives, Lowell is city of hope

Noel Twagiramungu talks about escaping the 1994 genocide in Rwanda during a program that brought refugees from several countries together in Lowell. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

For more than 70 years, survivors of war and genocide have settled in Lowell, bringing with them little more than the hope for a better life.

“They open businesses. They’re raising families. And they carry this incredible history with them,” said Robert Forrant, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “They don’t wear it on their sleeve. Unless it’s a tattoo number from a concentration camp, it’s not that obvious.”

From Jews escaping the Holocaust in the 1940s to Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge in the ’70s to Syrians and others leaving the war-torn Middle East in recent years, refugees have come to seek a better life.

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Forrant moderated a recent program at the Tsongas Industrial History Center about refugees living in the city today. The topic was timely because of the controversy surrounding President Trump’s attempt to ban refugees from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen because he categorizes them as a threat to national security.

“It’s easy for people to scapegoat others, pick out a new group with ties to nations where there are terrorists,” Forrant said.

Sponsored by UMass Lowell, the National Park Service, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the program opened with “Browsing through Birke’s,” a film about Holocaust survivors Nathan and Sally Birke. They came to the city in the 1940s, worked briefly as janitors at a synagogue, and opened and ran Birke’s Department Store while raising four children.

“Nobody knew the back story of Mr. Birke,” Forrant said. “He was an irascible character, just here.”

The movie raises questions about the effects of trauma, including the psychological distances it creates in families and among neighbors.

Nathan Birke with the infamous "No browsing" sign at his Lowell store. Courtesy Szifra Birke

While Nathan Birke rants and raves and insults his customers during the film (he was known for his “no browsing” policy and often kicked casual shoppers out of his store), his wife, Sally, pours coffee, offers pastries, and smooths her husband’s rough edges. Their daughter, Szifra, narrates the film.

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“There were branches of our family tree that were violently snapped off,” said Szifra Birke, who described the movie as a scrapbook for her children and grandchildren.

Forrant set the stage with statistics: More than 66 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons in the world today, with 4.9 million in Syria. About 70,000 Syrians resettled in the United States in 2015; how many will come here in the future is uncertain.

It was unlikely, Forrant said, that customers in Lowell knew the Birkes had lost every member of their families during the Holocaust. That they’d spent several years in Russia during the war, among starving people who were dying in the streets. Or that the couple had lost their first two children when they were infants.

After the film, Forrant asked a panel of three refugees to compare their experiences with those of the Birkes: What did they want their neighbors to know about them? What had they gained — and lost — as newcomers to the city?

Noel Twagiramungu, 50, a visiting professor at UMass Lowell who survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994, said Nathan Birke coped by focusing on the store and his customers. Haunted by the past, Birke stayed grounded in the present by occupying himself with daily business and interacting with customers, a strategy embraced by Rwandan survivors.

“It’s life after death, violence,” Twagiramungu said.

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“When you meet Rwandans, they’re happy, joyful. They will sing. They will dance. To make a life, they need people to talk to, something to do. This is what Mr. Birke did. He had a sense of life. We are learning to make life possible, to enjoy and share wherever you go.”

Rafal Thaher, 23, a business student at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, said she and her parents came from Iraq about five years ago, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs. An older brother, who works for a company that protects US military personnel, remains in Iraq with his family, unable to come here because of the current travel ban.

Szifra Birke, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, speaks with Iraqi refugees (from left) Zahraa El Saidi, Nawal Thyab, and Rafal Thaher. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

“My father brought us here because of the war,” she said. “He told me, ‘Rafal, learn a word of English every day because the language is an ocean. . . . I was sitting in my English class [at Lowell High] and there was no teacher. I didn’t talk, but a student came over to me and said, ‘Rafal, where are you from? When I told him, he said, ‘You’re a terrorist!’

“I started crying and ran to my favorite teacher. She talked to him and he apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know your story.’ ”

Sonith Peou, 64, director of the Asian health program at the Lowell Community Health Center, survived the Cambodian genocide of 1975 to 1979, when close to 1.7 million people died. He and his family first settled in North Dakota, sponsored by a cousin who was living there.

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“We walked through the forest, through land mines, to one camp, then over the border to the UN camp,” he recalled of the escape from Cambodia. “The only thing for us was to be alive. I gained the freedom to raise my family without fear, to grow up and be what they want, go to school. I wanted to be a doctor, but the Khmer Rouge closed the schools when I graduated from high school.”

The day he arrived in America, his cousin met him at the airport with an alarm clock and a bicycle and told him, “You start work tomorrow.”

The job was the overnight shift in a bakery. Sonith also would be attending a vocational school and English classes, and for a long time got very little sleep.

“It was almost like heaven to us,” said Sonith, the father of three adult children.

Sonith moved to Boston in 1985 to be closer to his wife’s family and started working at the Lowell Community Health Center in 2000. He now devotes his life to helping other refugees, including the 8,000 to 10,000 residents who were born in Cambodia.

“These people went through a lot,” Sonith said. “They’re not here of their own choice. They were forced out by war, the government, and they’re here for survival, not to take away anyone’s job. A little bit of help goes a long way for a refugee.”


Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein04@icloud.com.

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