- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - For Americans, the holidays conjure warm memories of traditional foods like eggnog, Christmas cookies or even latkas.

In Sarah Ndakola’s home, Christmas dinner means fufu.

Ndakola grew up eating fufu, a dough-like delicacy, in her native Democratic Republic of Congo. Most often made from cassava plant flour, it’s often served with soup for dipping - and it is as dear and iconic to Ndakola as gingerbread houses are to American children at Christmas.

Talking about it transforms this soft-spoken, composed 30-year-old into a giddy kid again. A grin floods her face and her brown eyes roll as she jokingly collapses on the sofa in her living room, making the same sound comfort food inspires in any language: “Mmmm.”

Fufu isn’t on the Christmas menu just because Ndakola loves it. To her, it’s a memory of better times, when she was an average teenager attending high school.

That was before marauding rebels swept through her hometown, Goma, and killed most of her family and took her prisoner for more than a year. She spent another year as a refugee in Uganda, trying to overcome the trauma of her captivity while seeking asylum abroad for her and her son.

Four years since she and her son came to Salt Lake City as refugees, cassava flour for fufu is hard to come by, but she manages with corn flour because it’s the tradition that counts. It tells her son and her twin one-year-old daughters where they come from - her culture in one bite.

“I tell (my children) that this is my culture and they’d better eat it,” Ndakola said, laughing. “It’s important so people remember home.”

Despite the horror she’s been through, Ndakola sees the current struggle Syrian refugees face seeking safety in Turkey, Europe and the U.S. and knows she’s lucky.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of people in need of aid or relocation is at an all-time high. As of 2014, there were 59.5 million people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide, 20 million of whom are refugees, mostly from Syria. Fifty-one percent of those refugees are younger than 18, the highest number of children refugees in more than 10 years.

Yet many in the U.S. fear that opening the borders to refugees from nations torn by terrorism, like Syria, makes Western countries vulnerable to attack or espionage from religious extremists like ISIS. Earlier this month, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for a ban of all immigration of Muslims into the U.S. in response to recent ISIS-related attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

The current global fear that refugees pose a national security threat is far from new, says Case Western Reserve University history professor Peter Shulman. On the cusp of World War II, Americans once regarded Jewish refugees with the same caution, worrying that Nazi spies could sneak in among the displaced and persecuted.

“We have a tendency to generalize (about migrants and refugees) and let our fears outpace actual risk,” Shulman said. “If we can’t muster even this small gesture of welcoming so miniscule a number - 10,000 in the case of Syria - my prediction is that this is one of those moments historians of the future will point to with shame.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, refugee workers say, if Americans try to understand refugees better and give them what they need most: friendship.

“Right now, what we need is for Americans to know who refugees are and step up,” Utah State Refugee Coordinator Gerald Brown said. “To make that work, the main thing a refugee needs is an American friend, and a mainstream American needs a refugee friend.”

Answered prayers

Jawaher Fadhel spent her first Christmas on U.S. soil in 2012. Her caseworker set Fadhel, her husband and their infant son up in an apartment and disappeared for two weeks on holiday break.

“All he said was ‘Don’t open the door for anyone,’” Fadhel said. “We had just the food in the fridge and we didn’t know anyone.”

It might not have been ideal, but Fadhel says that first Christmas was better than the previous ones she’d spent in a Tunisian refugee camp, waiting for asylum.

Fadhel and Ndakola are some of the 70,000 or so people the U.S. grants refugee status to each year. Brown says that refugee agencies try to resettle families in the same country or region ideally for a more seamless transition. Third-country resettlement, as he calls cases like Fadhel’s, are a last resort.

“Less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled in first world countries,” Brown said. “To make it this far, you’ve got be a survivor, you’ve got to be tough.”

At first glance, one would hardly describe Fadhel as “tough.” Standing at about 5-foot-4, she’s delicate and slender, wearing a long skirt, neat hair wrapped in a scarf with tastefully painted fingernails. She is nearly always beaming.

But spend some time talking to Fadhel about life before America and her strength shows in her resolve to not give in to cynicism or hopelessness - her dark eyes sparkle with warmth and steely wisdom at the same time, as eager to educate as to embrace.

Fadhel and Ndakola both tell their horrific stories with incandescent smiles - defiant gratitude worn plain on their faces where others in their position might easily hang anger, sorrow or uncertainty. They smile even at difficult questions as a sign of their refusal to let the hard parts of their stories define them. It’s too easy, they say, to lie down with grief.

For Ndakola and Fadhel, Christmas is about celebrating the blessings they know many refugees don’t have, but also about giving back to their adopted communities however they can - including sharing their stories.

“So many people here complain about their lives and refugees can help them,” Fadhel said. “If they hear just one refugee’s story, they will thank God because they are safe, they are secure, because they have almost everything here.”

Fadhel was pregnant in the spring of 2011 when NATO began bombing Libya, and while her husband wanted to run, Fadhel was adamant about staying.

“I decided I am not running from death - that will happen here or there,” Fadhel said.

Up to that point, Fadhel’s life story was punctuated with flight from death. As a child, Fadhel and her parents fled war and ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan twice - once in 1992 and again in 2003. They resettled in Libya, where Fadhel grew up, married and attended college to become a microbiologist - the kind of life her parents wanted for her and her siblings.

“My father wanted to take us to a place where he could bring us up properly and we had a great life,” Fadhel said. “Until 2011.”

It wasn’t until Fadhel’s fifth-floor hospital birthing room in Tripoli shook from the bombing that she agreed to run again one last time - first to a refugee camp in Tunisia, where the young family spent a year being interviewed and screened, then to Salt Lake City, where they live now.

Sometimes she wakes up expecting to see the roof of a tent floating above her. In the Tunisian refugee camp where she spent about a year and a half with her husband and then 3-month-old son, she remembers the tent was a dark green in summer to shield from the desert sun and white in the winter, supposedly to allow the heat of the sun in.

“I dream that I am still in Libya, dreaming of coming here. And then I wake up and I have to tell myself it’s not a dream - I’m here,” Fadhel said. “Even here, at home, when I hear planes, I feel such a scare in my heart. I remember everything we faced in Libya.”

Ndakola also has a harrowing escape story, which she tells with a similarly disarming smile. After a year being held captive by the rebels who killed her family, Ndakola’s captors allowed her to start getting water and go to the market unsupervised. One day, on the road, a friend of her family recognized her.

“He said he thought I was dead and he just cried and hugged me,” Ndakola said. “When I told him what happened to me, he said, ‘Here’s the deal, if you want to survive again, you’d better run.’”

With his help, Ndakola escaped across the Ugandan border to Kampala, and fearing recapture by the rebels, she applied for resettlement to the U.S. and prayed. In 2009, her prayers were answered. Now she and Fadhel both hope to become social workers to give back to their adopted communities.

“In every life, there is a chance,” Ndakola said. “Today was my chance, tomorrow I can help someone else with their chance.”

American friends

Utah Refugee Center executive director Deb Coffey’s office in Salt Lake is the perfect representation of Coffey’s job - bringing order to chaos. It’s a Thursday, just a few weeks until Christmas, and Coffey is juggling donation and outreach efforts for hundreds of refugee families in the Salt Lake area this week. She’s carved a walking space through the bags of donated items she’s preparing for distribution.

Part of the outreach will come later, when she makes a presentation for the Sun Products Corporation, which agreed to donate cleaning kits she’ll give to families who need them. After decades of her career behind her, Coffey’s list of items her refugees need hasn’t changed much - she’s constantly on the hunt for coats, gloves, diapers and other household items.

But Coffey says what her refugees need most isn’t scattered around her office or waiting in a donation bin.

“Just mentoring them, spending time, being their friend - they need that,” Coffey says. “These folks are expected to learn English, integrate into a new society and get a job very quickly. What they need is understanding.”

Kindness is the number one thing refugees respond to and what they need, Coffey says. She holds up her phone as proof of the value of connection. Like clockwork every year, Coffey gets text messages around the holidays or special occasions from refugees she’s helped over the years. They never forget, she says, each one is a gift.

“It’s so profound, I never get over that,” Coffey said. “It makes you realize the level of love we each have to offer.”

Educating people about refugees is a big part of Coffey and Brown’s jobs, the goal being to make everyone see refugees as they do, to provide people with facts and stories that don’t just change their perspective on refugees, but will change their lives.

Both of them have their own versions of those stories; exchanges that dug deep into them and forced them to see the full scope of refugee life - something many Americans don’t get to experience.

For Coffey, it was the trip she took to Ethiopia to visit the birth parents of her two adopted daughters. She still hears the sound of their wailing when Coffey and her husband presented them with a portrait of the girls.

“They were so grateful and so hurt at the same time,” Coffey said. “That trip changed me. It made me see that no matter where we come from, we’re all the same.”

In Brown’s case, it was waking up to the sound of small children rummaging through his garbage while serving in the Peace Corps in 1970s Cairo.

“You don’t see that every morning for two years without it affecting you. It just didn’t seem fair,” Brown said. “I swore that whatever work I wound up doing when I got back to the states, I’d try to make the world a little more fair.”

The world will never be fair, but Coffey and Brown say any small nicety, any show of compassion can improve life immeasurably for both refugees and their American friends. Coffey picks up her phone and grins. One of her Christmas gifts just came early.

Keeping culture alive

At a time of year when most people worry about what to buy or what to cook for their families, Ndakola and Fadhel look forward to a few stolen moments on the phone with the family members they left behind.

Ndakola speaks to her little sister who is living in a refugee camp in Uganda via cellphone whenever she can, but the holidays are hard with her so far away. When asked about them, she seems physically tired - her shoulders slump a little, her eyes drift to the floor and a hand unconsciously sweeps over her mouth or combs through her curly hair absently, her thoughts miles away.

“I think about how everything was good (before the war) because I had some people who were there to support me. That’s what I miss most,” Ndakola said. “Now it’s totally different. I have to do everything on my own.”

Fadhel prays for the day her family will get a good enough Internet connection to use Skype so they can talk for hours.

“International calling cards are so expensive and I can talk for maybe 4 or 5 minutes and that’s nothing when you want to talk to your mother and sisters,” Fadhel said, tears forming in her eyes. “For me that has been that hardest part of this - learning how I can live without my family around me, my biggest support.”

Both want to bring their remaining family over to the U.S. when they become full citizens but until then, they will use Christmas to keep their culture alive for their children through stories, music and their native languages.

“Whenever there is a big event, we listen to our music, we wear our traditional clothes and we speak our language at home. Everything else is provided in America, so we have to bring them their culture,” Fadhel said. “They have to know who they are.”

Although she loves Utah and is so grateful to be here, Ndakola worries that her children will grow up not understanding her culture. In the meantime, there’s fufu on the Christmas dinner table.

“Maybe (my children) don’t know, but I will tell them - their mom is from this place,” Ndakola said. “And this food is from there, too.”


Information from: Deseret News, https://www.deseretnews.com

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