War-scarred children embrace new life

by Rebecca Rosen Lum 
Contra Costa Times

Kate’s smooth brow buckles when she thinks about the soldiers who muscled their way into the house where she lived with her grandmother — plundering belongings, forcing their attentions on her and ordering the two to prepare meals.

“The soldiers make me too sad,” said Kate, who is a member of a discriminated-against ethnic minority group in her native Myanmar. “I don’t like.”

One day Kate, now 16, fled to the home of sympathetic friends in a neighboring town. She learned soon afterward that soldiers killed her grandmother in retaliation.

After a desperate flight through underground channels of Southeast Asia, Kate has found a lasting safety: She now lives with a family in San Jose. “Baba” and “Mama” are the Rev. Ben and Anne Daniel; she has three siblings.

As rain pounds on the roof of Ben Daniel’s church, Kate sits comfortably between her new parents, a delicate girl with shiny black hair and a wide open smile. She has been here little more than a month, but she says this is home.

“Everything OK,” she said. “Not tired. Not scared. I happy.”

Kate is one of a trickle of refugee orphans finding homes with Bay Area families through a special program of Catholic Charities, one of two agencies that contract with the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees to place the children.

In such countries as Liberia, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal, children have been driven out by armed conflict or pressed into service by government militias and rebel groups — as combatants, sex slaves and virtual pack mules.

If an adoption always includes risk and reward, these adoptions offer a double dose of both.

Preparing food is now a source of surprise and delight for Kate. She likes oatmeal with hot sauce. At first, she dissolved in giggles at the sight of Baba popping up a skillet of popcorn on family movie night (Men don’t cook in Myanmar). Now they fix dinner together.

Kate dropped out of school after her fourth year to help her grandmother farm corn and beans. She asked to start school the morning after she arrived: “I want right now,” she said, laughing. She studies music with Anne and says she hopes to become a minister, like Ben.

Kate’s odyssey hardly seems likely for a child, but it is mirrored throughout countries where war and strife have made homelands unlivable. Many have been persecuted for religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation. They have been separated from their parents, or seen them killed. The children escape brutality by guts, wit and luck, walking for miles, hiding in jungles, riding on the backs of sympathetic elders to safety — mainly, in refugee camps.

Ten million refugees have fled their homelands, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. If one includes those who are trapped in their home country, such as in Darfur, that number balloons to as many as 32 million. They can’t go home in many cases because home is no more; their villages have been destroyed.

Tracy Weiss read all she could get her hands on about the conflicts that racked the Eastern coast of Africa after she agreed to adopt three siblings from Monrovia, Liberia.

When she picked them up from the San Jose airport, Sadiki, the eldest and tallest, stood in front, “scanning everyone, looking for danger in every direction.” His sister Maryama tucked in behind him, holding a bag, the U.N. signal for a refugee arrival. Antimana, called “Ansu,” crouched behind his two siblings. They wore donated clothes — Ansu, a 1930s-era man’s suit.

“I said, ‘Hi. I’m your new mom,'” Weiss remembered. “Ansu was the first to break into a grin.”

The trio has been living with Weiss in Los Altos for three years and — Maryama counts on her fingers — six months.

Rebels executed the children’s Mandinga father, as well as Sadiki and Ansu’s mother. The children and Maryama’s mother ran from rebels, living in the bush, moving constantly, sometimes getting separated. They settled for a time in Bo, a village in Sierra Leone. Sadiki — he thinks he was 3 or 4 — made many friends there.

“Then things got bad if you are not a citizen,” said Sadiki, now 18. “We had to find a way to stay alive.”

Sadiki’s earliest memory is of a village in chaos, with people running everywhere to escape the approaching rebels. Alone, he held up his arms in hopes someone would carry him to safety. Someone did.

He thinks the family spent five to seven years on the run.

Chatting one afternoon, Sadiki’s new mother asked him if he had any photos from his earliest years.

“Mom,” he said evenly. “You are running with a whole stack of things on your head. You step and you fall in the river, everything gets ruined.”

They eventually made their way to the Bandajuma refugee camp, where his stepmother died from complications of diabetes.

It took them some time to get used to the idea that they could make the four-block walk through their wooded suburban neighborhood to school without getting mugged, that loud pops were not likely to be gunshots. Weiss had to quickly abort a July Fourth trip to see fireworks in San Francisco when the multiple blasts badly shook the children.

Maryama, 19, delighted Weiss with her cooking, but she had to learn not to turn the burners on the stove full blast. She had only cooked over an open flame in the refugee camp.

While in the camp, all three children watched movies on a projection screen. They were astonished to get to California and see that “Schwarzie,” the star of action films, was its governor.

Maryama hopes to become a nurse and is applying to St. Mary’s College in Moraga and to San Jose State. Sadiki has applied to five colleges and wants to work for the United Nations “when I reach the stage where I look like I can wear a tuxedo.” Ansu dreams of becoming an international soccer star.

In their first school pictures, they scowl with open mistrust at the camera. In their newest photos, they smile fetchingly.

Toasting bagels after school in Weiss’ cozy Los Altos kitchen, the brothers and sister chatter and joke in Mende, their home language. All three wear glittering studs in their ears. Ansu sports a closed-cropped haircut with a pinwheel shaved on the side.

One of the most popular students in his school, the quick-witted Ansu can reduce anyone to howls of laughter, Weiss said. But he made a quiet escape when a visitor arrives to talk about his background.

Maryama, willing to talk, nonetheless keeps strangers at bay.

Did she feel safe in the camp?

“No one is ever safe in a war country,” she said with a straightforward stare.

Weiss mentioned that the children’s aunt has taken in many orphans.

“We don’t have this word, ‘orphan,’ in Africa,” Maryama said, correcting her. “Once you take someone as your children, they are yours.”

Weiss recently bought a van; her new sons are too tall to sit comfortably in her Volvo station wagon.

But for all the adoptive families, time has proved even more critical than space. Weiss cut down to part time, then finally quit her job last year to devote more time to them.

“You can’t just put them in school,” she said. “You have to talk to each teacher. They are teaching a person who is really bright but who has never seen a map.”

After Ansu injured his knee while playing soccer, Weiss brought him to a round of doctors — then haggled with their insurer to approve the required surgery.

For the first few weeks, Anne tutored Kate, who eagerly worked six to 10 hours a day. Ben ruled out her assigned public school, Independence High — the state’s largest public high school. The couple found something more to scale, a small school that serves students who are behind but want to go to college.

“It’s a nurturing place, a safe place,” Anne Daniel said.

While life here brings a sense of safety, negotiating the social minefield of a new culture can prove dicey.

Language is a separator at the outset. Then come the mutual misconceptions of American kids and the newcomers.

The refugee orphans are surprised to see all Americans aren’t wealthy and white. Alternatively, few Americans have had to run for their lives.

“One kid said to me, ‘Did you ever fight a lion?'” Sadiki recalled, howling with laughter. “I said, ‘Yes, two.’”

Many don’t even know where Africa is, Maryama said, and they know much less about the violence that devastated her homeland and scarred her family.

“I can’t be angry at them,” she said. “They don’t know. When they know, they care.”

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Filed under Children and youth, Immigration, Social issues, War

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