- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Refugee children accustomed to gunfire and famine were more concerned with making eye contact with hippos and snapping photos of meerkats yesterday at the National Zoo.

Eighteen of Northern Virginia's newest residents youths from Sudan, Bosnia, Liberia and other nations took a "jungle safari," a trip coordinated through Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area and Disney.

"It's good for the kids to see," said Ahmed Abdalla, 33, a social services volunteer who himself was once a refugee from Somalia. "We're just trying to make them happy."

The event appeared to be a publicity stunt with public relations women in tow and skaters from Disney's "Jungle Adventures on Ice" mingling with the youngsters. But parents who tagged along insisted a day at the zoo was just what they and their children needed.

"The crisis in my country doesn't seem to be ending," said Emmanuel Roy Smith, 48, who arrived from Liberia with his 13 children two months ago. "I was traumatized during the war."

Mr. Smith left a West African nation rocked by civil war in the 1990s. In his homeland there is no dependable electricity or running water, and schools lack basic educational materials.

"I love it here," he said. "It's a quiet place. People are friendly."

Mr. Smith, a lawyer, has yet to find a job, insisting "it's not an easy thing getting into the American system."

"I live a safe life," said Anjelina Oneka, 35, who brought four of her six children to the park. "I don't fear like I did in Sudan, with the fighting, the shooting."

More than two years of talks have made little progress in ending a war that has killed 2 million Sudanese in fighting and war-related famines since 1983.

A community health worker in the northeast African nation, Miss Oneka has lived in the United States for a month and also is looking for work. First she said she needs to get her two youngest children, 2 and 5, into day care.

Most of the youths on yesterday's guided tour had trouble communicating due to language barriers and shyness.

"The kids I've been talking with are fun," said skater Amanda Truax, 27, of Hastings, Minn. "I try to interest them even if they don't understand."

Fifth-grader Thomas Smith, 10, said school was more fun than the zoo, then changed his mind.

"I like dogs the best," he said when asked about his favorite animal.

The day began with a short talk and hands-on demonstration by Friends of the National Zoo. Children touched the hair of an elephant and orangutan before setting out to see the animals.

Disney equipped them with toy binoculars and disposable cameras. The children's photographs will be displayed at MCI Center today, where the children can view them while catching the "Jungle Adventures on Ice" show.

The State Department allows a certain number of refugees into the country each year, and Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area helps some of these families learn English and find apartments and jobs.

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