“Lost Boy” refugees from Denver and other cities who went back to Sudan to bolster the multibillion-dollar U.S. effort to nurture Africa’s newest nation are caught in the outbreak of fighting and fleeing.
And University of Colorado graduate Daniel Majok Gai, 33, risked his life helping lead civilians away from gun battles.
Recent beatings of South Asian refugees have prompted Denver police to hand out cellphones to newcomers from abroad. On Dec. 11, a group of men beat and robbed teenage refugees from Bhutan in east Denver, following them from an RTD bus, according to police. Six were beaten, one requiring emergency-room treatment. The attack spread fear among refugees from Bhutan, Burma and elsewhere — who are concentrated in low-rent apartments and have been victims of previous robberies. The hope is that the emergency-only phones, which require no payments, will help refugees reach paramedics and police to prevent future trouble and give a sense of security.
A Denver center that offered counseling and legal help to asylum-seeking immigrants who said they had been tortured in their home countries has closed after losing its federal grant. Now hundreds in Colorado — among the 50,000 who seek asylum in the U.S. each year — must look elsewhere for help. Torture-survivor programs in Atlanta, Jersey City, Chicago, San Diego and Detroit also have had federal funding cut and are struggling to stay open.
Somali refugees who flocked to jobs in U.S. slaughterhouses — including plants in Greeley and Fort Morgan — are moving beyond cutting floors to Main Street. They’ve established shops offering imported items. An unmarked mosque in central Greeley offers a place for Muslim worship. Informal “hawala” money-transfer services help reach relatives stranded in war-torn Somalia and refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. A former burrito restaurant now sells plates of rice, lamb and goat.
Three recent, but apparently unrelated, attacks in the Denver area on newly arrived political refugees from Bhutan have frightened a fragile community. “Before leaving the refugee camp, I was thinking: We have problems. . . . I’ll feel safe in the United States. Now my feeling has changed. I’m not safe in the United States,” said Yadav Rizal, 39, who was robbed of $250, beaten and dragged behind a liquor store in northeast Denver. The attacks aggravate a difficult situation for refugees. The government grants them only $450 a month for eight months to resettle, forcing most to live in rougher areas where police and caseworkers say street crime is more frequent. Those who find work in the anemic economy often ride buses late at night. The Nepali-speaking, Hindu refugees from Bhutan now number about 530 in the Denver area.
A blind immigrant wins his five-year battle to become a citizen.
A five-year fight for citizenship ended with a closed, five-minute swearing-in ceremony Tuesday for Palestinian refugee Zuhair Mahd. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials, known for routinely conducting mass swearing-in ceremonies of new citizens in downtown Denver, excluded the media for the brief presentation of a certificate of naturalization to Mahd. Some of Mahd’s family and friends attended. “It’s over,” Mahd, 35, said on the windy steps outside the USCIS building, waving a U.S. flag. “Someone asked me, ‘Why do you even want to be a citizen after all this?’ In my mind, this is a country with good people that get up every morning to do the right thing — just to be good people. I wanted to be part of that.”
Rights groups are challenging the U.S. position that violence by Mexican drug cartels does not entitle a refugee to haven.
The drug-related violence plaguing Mexico has led to a surge in asylum requests from Mexicans seeking safe haven in the United States. The number of asylum petitions from Mexican citizens increased from 1,331 in 2005 to 2,231 last year. While most are denied because the U.S. does not recognize fear of violence as grounds for automatic admission, the approval rate has grown during that time from 5 percent to 13 percent. At least 68 Mexican asylum cases have been received since October 2007 in Denver’s Immigration Court — more than from any other country — with more than 3,749 cases in courts nationwide, federal records show. Lawyers who represent asylum-seekers point to the approximately 6,000 people killed over the past year in Mexican drug wars and worry that a failure to gran t more requests will lead to more deaths. Among the asylum-seekers: a former Mexican police officer named Jesus, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of repercussions against his family and friends still in Mexico. Three days after drug-cartel gunmen killed his police partner, Jesus resigned from the force. He fled northern Mexico to Denver with his family. They entered the United States legally as tourists. Now Jesus is seeking political asylum. “If I go back,” he said, “I’d be waiting for death.”
Tough rules delay cases Anti-terrorism efforts require stricter proof of persecution, including documents that can “reasonably” be obtained.
Jailed and tortured in Ethiopia, Samuel Tafesa made it to Mexico,
then waded across the Rio Grande into the United States.
Now in Denver, he’s begging for asylum protection, claiming that
Ethiopian police beat him with sticks on the bottoms of his feet
and held his head under water, trying to coerce information about
fellow members of an opposition political party.
“I’m afraid to go back to Ethiopia,” he said. “If I go back,
I’ll be killed.”
For Tafesa and tens of thousands of other asylum-seekers, sanctuary
in America has become harder to attain. U.S. officials are
subjecting them to increasingly rigorous scrutiny, government
officials and legal experts say.
New anti-terrorism measures require stricter proof of persecution,
including documents that can “reasonably” be obtained.
Tafesa, 22, called back to Ethiopia repeatedly, asking his mother
to get what she can for his lawyer, Michael Litman.
Today’s higher standard of proof makes cases more complex and
prolongs them, with government attorneys sending documents to a
Homeland Security forensics lab for testing.
“We have a tradition, but we want to make sure people seeking
(asylum) have a rightful entitlement,” said Mike Everitt, a unit
chief in the lab near Washington, D.C.
The new measures are contributing to a record immigration-court
backlog – 3,370 cases pending in Denver, a third involving asylum,
federal statistics show. That’s double Denver’s pending caseload
six years ago.
Department of Justice officials said 166,200 cases are pending in
immigration courts nationwide, including 33,194 in Los Angeles,
8,546 in Chicago and 9,455 in Orlando, Fla. In 2000, 125,764 cases
Dana Marks, a sitting judge in California and president of the
National Association of Immigration Judges, said dozens more judges
The system is “unbelievably overburdened,” squeezing judges’
ability to make life-or-death decisions, Marks said.
“Why are we treating the asylum system this way? If we pride
ourselves in America for treating refugees right, why aren’t we
providing resources to ensure they get prompt and fair treatment?”
Now, fewer people are applying for asylum, though the reasons for
the drop aren’t clear.
Some 54,452 applications were received last year in immigration
courts, down from 74,627 in 2002 and 84,904 in 1997, records show.
Adjudicators for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration
Services, who often see asylum-seekers first, received 36,502
applications last year, down from 65,201 in 2002 and 149,000 in
1995, according to a senior USCIS official who spoke on condition
of anonymity, in accordance with agency policy.
In Denver, about one in three cases handled is approved. Asylum
experts say it’s too early to gauge whether the new standards for
proof will change that percentage.
USCIS adjudicators approved 27 percent of cases they handled this
year, down from 43 percent in 2001, according to the senior
official. In immigration courts, stats show 23 percent of
applications processed last year were approved, up from 20 percent
Previously, asylum-seekers often were accepted solely on the basis
of government “country condition” reports and testimony that
judges found to be credible and persuasive.
Today’s higher standards requiring documentation that could
“reasonably” be obtained “change the burden of proof,” the
official said. But “there’s still the allowance” that an
applicant who can’t obtain documents can win asylum if deemed
credible, he said.
“Out of reach for many”
One problem caused by the more frequent demand for documents is
that hiring document and medical experts raises legal costs, said
Regina Germain, legal director at the Rocky Mountain Survivors
Center and author of a legal text on asylum law.
“I fear recent changes … could put asylum out of reach for many
people who flee with little more than the clothes on their backs,”
In Tafesa’s case, an Addis Ababa police document his mother sent
says he was imprisoned for 17 days in 2005 for being a member of
the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party. The document accuses
him of involvement in “illegal demonstrations” and “promoting
unhealthy propaganda and causing conflict of people against
It says he was released from prison on the condition he cease all
political activity and check in weekly, which he failed to do. It
warns: “The police department will track you and your family
The government is vetting those documents. His case is scheduled
for a hearing in May.
Meantime, he works under a temporary permit, washing rental cars at
Denver International Airport for $8.85 an hour that he uses mostly
for legal fees.
His father and brother in Ethiopia have gone missing, and his
6-year-old son, Mathais, is bewildered, Tafesa said before work
“He asks me: ‘Where are you?’ I tell him I’ll be there one day,”
Tafesa said. “What can I do?”
Over the next three weeks, the government plans to bring more than
1,400 refugees from Iraq to Denver and other U.S. cities – opening
doors that have been closed since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
By next year, the number of Iraqi refugees may swell to 12,000,
according to officials at the U.S. Departments of State and
Between 1992 and 2002, the U.S. accepted an average of 2,800 Iraqi
refugees a year. Since then, the annual average has dropped to
The accelerated flow is in response to pressure to ease a worsening
humanitarian crisis, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper
“We want to take care of the people who have helped us, especially
those who might feel under threat,” Cooper said.
United Nations officials last week estimated one in seven Iraqis
have left their homes.
More than 2 million have made it to neighboring countries – the
largest Middle East displacement since the 1948 creation of
The first refugees set to arrive in Denver are Nazar Al Taei, his
wife and their three children. They are scheduled to fly from
Al Taei worked as a translator for the American military. His legs
were injured, leaving him with nerve problems, resettlement-agency
documents show. Fearing for their lives, the family fled to
Before the war in Iraq, Al Taei and his wife worked as
Others slated for resettlement in Denver include a woman with
breast cancer who hasn’t seen her husband since last year and
another who worked as an interpreter and secretary and is suffering
from serious depression and anxiety, the documents show.
An apartment off Colorado Boulevard has been furnished and stocked
for the Al Taei family. Local school officials await their
children, said Ferdi Mevlani, director of Ecumenical Refugee and
This Denver group is working on contract to guide about a dozen
Iraqi newcomers this month.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands more Iraqis clamor to get out,
according to U.N. and government officials.
“My family now, they are on the target,” said Omar Al Rahmani,
47, a Baghdad city councilman who translated for U.S. forces and
visited Denver twice on intergovernmental exchanges.
“My daughter’s school is 150 meters from my home. Even that is too
far,” Al Rahmani said in a telephone interview Friday.
“I don’t feel she’s safe, even though the school has four
guards,” Al Rahmani said. “I just want my family to be out in a
secure place. That’s all I want.”
For the U.S., accepting Iraqi refugees presents the major challenge
of screening out possible terrorists, said Paul Rosenzweig, deputy
assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security.
The Bush administration’s plan is to admit 10,000 to 12,000 Iraqis
a year, starting next year, Rosenzweig said.
“We’re doing enhanced background and biometric checks on people
coming out of Iraq to do the best we can to be sure those who are
admitted are deserving refugees, while at the same time screening
out those who might pose problems to us because of connections to
al- Qaeda in Iraq or other terrorist organizations,” he said.
By the end of this month, total Iraqi arrivals for 2007 should
reach 2,000, said Todd Pierce, spokesman for the State Department’s
In the first seven months of 2007, some 190 Iraqi refugees were
United Nations High Commission for Refugees officials are
negotiating with the U.S. to accept as many of the 2 million Iraqi
refugees as possible, U.N. spokeswoman Wendy Young said.
The commission asked U.S. officials to admit 10,110 U.N.- screened
Iraqis this year – nearly three times the 3,586 Iraqis referred to
all other countries.
The fleeing Iraqis all managed to escape to neighboring countries
such as Jordan, where authorities last week closed their borders
because they are swamped with refugees.
“We rely on the United States as a key partner in refugee
resettlement,” Young said.
Inside Iraq, an estimated 2.2 million more uprooted Iraqis face
dwindling options for escape. U.N. officials say 50,000 a month are
fleeing their homes.
Some in Congress still oppose accepting any Iraqi refugees.
“I don’t trust the (government) to vet them correctly,” said U.S.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.
Others, like U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., are pushing to help
more Iraqis out of a volatile situation.
“We’ve created it,” Perlmutter said. ” It’s a tragic situation.
And I don’t think we’ve come to grips with it.”
Perlmutter said he plans to introduce a bill that would admit up to
2,000 Iraqis who worked for U.S. diplomats and contractors in
“People who have assisted the United States should be welcome here
and be able to avoid persecution in Iraq, if that’s what they
choose,” he said.
Denver is seen as an ideal resettlement site because it has robust
agencies to help refugees from around the world, a healthy economy
and the capacity to treat torture victims, said Paul Stein,
coordinator of Colorado’s state refugee program and chairman of a
national advisory panel.
“By not making an effort to resettle more Iraqis, you’d definitely
feed into that notion of hypocrisy and double standards,” Stein
About 41,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. last year among an
estimated 1.8 million legal and illegal immigrants.
Refugees, who are deemed unable to return safely to their home
countries, receive government assistance for 90 days.
Some Colorado leaders advocate resettling many more from Iraq.
“We’re directly affected by what’s happening in Iraq and the rest
of the world. … I’d like to see what tangible we can do to help
fulfill our moral obligations,” said state Rep. Joe Rice, who
served as a civil-affairs soldier in Iraq and hears regularly from
Iraqis wanting out.
But Rice said he’s also deeply conflicted. Many of those fleeing
Iraq “are the very people who are needed to try to stabilize
things, to build a new society there,” he said.
“If all the good people leave, who’s left to build a new
Next entries »
Refugees from Myanmar, formerly barred from the U.S. for opposing the regime there, are settling in Denver. But they need help crossing a wide cultural gap.
Running shoeless and wading neck-deep through jungle rivers to
evade Myanmar’s military dictatorship enraged her.
But sitting in Denver’s jail for seven hours, hearing the sobs of a
cellmate and knowing only of a world where authorities torture and
kill prisoners, refugee Always Ways, 37, doubted that America would
“I just prayed I’d be released,” she said, speaking through an
Her detention – after police found her toddler son roaming as
village children do – illustrates the bewildering cross-cultural
challenge she and other tribal refugees from Myanmar face as they
adapt to an alien U.S. culture that revolves around technology and
After years of rejecting refugees from Myanmar out of concern they
supported terrorists, the U.S. government recently began resettling
thousands in cities nationwide – including about 200 in Denver.
This latest wave of newcomers who speak no English and need help
with everything from food stamps to riding buses has resettlement
agencies, on contract with the government, scrambling to meld the
traditional and modern. Denver is regarded as comfortable for
refugees based on experience with the Hmong, facilities such as the
Rocky Mountain Survivors Center and a robust economy.
Yet social workers here are hampered by a lack of interpreters who
speak Karen and other tribal languages.
Isolated from one another in scattered low-income housing, refugees
accustomed to cooking with charcoal and fetching water from streams
struggle with taps, electric stoves, and TV images of sex and
They’re told they can receive free food for 90 days, but wait for
weeks as caseworkers try to arrange these benefits. Job interviews
at hotels and casinos often stall on the language barrier. Doctors
facing refugees and their children often aren’t sure what they
One family fell deeply in debt after an auto dealer gave generous
financing for a fully loaded van. Children brace for
misunderstanding at schools. At one, teachers struggled just to
identify a girl awaiting class whom they wrongly assumed spoke
A father working in a foam factory was left brain-damaged after an
“My friend call me: ‘Help me! Help me!’ I go to the machine. The
machine hurt my head,” said Tar Pine, 51, now living in an Arvada
head-injury care facility with a dent in his skull.
Distraught to be raising three kids without him, Tar Pine’s wife,
Dah Doh Moo, 47, recently wrecked the family car. “I saw the red
light, but I didn’t remember to stop.”
Now she nurses a bruised chest, tries to counsel other refugees by
telephone and reminisces of her simpler days fighting Burmese
forces with a U.S.-made M-16 rifle as a member of the Karen National Liberation Army,
“We just protect our Karen people. Never do any terrorism. … We
want Americans to know we are not terror people.”
Her mother, Bheir, 87, waters backyard garden vegetables, telling
stories of “crying every day” in what is now Myanmar during World
War II, when she helped British soldiers fighting Japanese
“I’ve been in trouble my whole life. It got better here in
America,” she said. “But a lot of problems here, too.”
For two decades, ethnic minority refugees from Texas-sized Myanmar
(population 48 million) have been fleeing to escape abuse, forced
labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and death at the
hands of the nation’s Chinese-backed military regime. Myanmar is
the name adopted by the current government, which suspended the
nation’s constitution in 1988, though the U.S. government and the
Karen still refer to the nation as Burma.
Congress last week voted to extend economic sanctions against
Bending post-9/11 laws
Today, hundreds of thousands of Karen and other refugees languish
in crowded camps just across the Myanmar-Thailand border.
International resettlement efforts began in 2005.
But U.S. officials at first rejected these refugees because of
provisions in the post-9/11 USA Patriot and Real ID Acts that deny
resettlement to those who helped armed groups. Myanmar has charged
that the KLNA and another group, which have been battling for
independence for almost 60 years, are responsible for terrorist
acts, including a pair of bus bombings in June that killed 27
A year ago, U.S. officials waived the rules and agreed to resettle
up to 15,000 even if they did support armed groups.
“Few people are suggesting that terrorists might lurk” among
refugees from this region, said Paul Stein, state refugee
coordinator in Colorado.
U.S. security officials “have gone a little bit overboard because
the definition of ‘terrorist group’ is so broad,” said Rachel
O’Hara, director of refugee resettlement and employment for the
U.S. Committee for Refugees, an advocacy group.
U.S. officials “have said the government of Burma is committing
atrocities, and yet we term those who fight that government
terrorists? It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
Bridging cultural chasm
For Always Ways and her five children, one of them a disabled
8-year-old boy, just leaving her apartment is scary.
First she got shaken down in the hall by a big man for money.
Then one day, when she went to talk with other refugees, police
picked up her 3-year-old, Tah Paw Kwa. He’d left the apartment and
was exploring other buildings. The officer handed her a ticket with
a court date Ways couldn’t comprehend. Children wander constantly
in her home village and Thai camps. Why not in Denver?
When she failed to show up in court, police came to arrest her with
handcuffs. Ways panicked, collapsed and was taken to an emergency
room – then jail.
A resettlement caseworker and members of a newly formed Colorado
Burma Roundtable Network negotiated her release.
Ways now laughs at her misunderstanding, embarrassed. The arrival
of her mother and sister last month may free her to study English
at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School.
Such cases consume de facto community leader Rocky Martin, 47, a
Karen-speaking sushi chef who escaped Myanmar a decade ago. He
translates for refugees, warns them about credit cards, escorts
them to emergency rooms and arranges gatherings at a church where
the Karen hold Christian services in downtown Denver.
“In jungle, we scared. … We were raped, tortured and killed
because the government people hate the Karen people,” Martin
“In the jungle, they can kill the Karen people. But they cannot
kill the soul,” he said. “Here in the United States, good place
to live. But we have to take care of our spiritual welfare. We have
to fight for our soul.”