Chirango found refuge and hope in education

Abdirahman Chirango shows some of the garments in the clothing section of Tork's Cafe. Photo by Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star.
Abdirahman Chirango shows some of the garments in the clothing section of Tork’s Cafe. Photo by Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star.

Recently I spoke with Abdirahman Chirango, a 29-year-Somali native, about the current situation for refugees in Kenya.

In the article,  I briefly touch upon how as a 6-year-old, Chirango had to flee on foot from his home country of Somalia to the Kenyan border. His village in lower Juba was raided and his mother was killed in front of him and his siblings by four masked men because she refused to be raped. There was nothing they could do but run.

There is much more to his story than what I could include in the article. His is a story about determination and perseverance. Of finding refuge and hope in education.

Chirango and his family walked for about 15 days to get to the Kenyan border. His aunt and uncle carrying his siblings, then 3 and 1 years old, in their arms. Back then he assumed his father was dead (he found out he was still alive many years later, when he was already in the United States).

“It the end only some survived,” he said inside the University of Arizona library, wearing a crisp white shirt, dress pants and pointy shoes. “Some people got tired and couldn’t walk anymore.”

Their feet would swell and even though their mind was telling them to go, he said, they just couldn’t walk.

They were so thirsty some would drink their own urine. In some cases, friends or relatives would offer their urine to another under the promise that they return the favor later on.

From 100 families traveling together, Chirango estimates only 20 made it.

“It was sad,” he said.

Even fathers gave up on their children.

Chirango lived as a refugee for 13 years in Kenya’s two camps, Dadaab and Kakuma, before coming to Tucson, Arizona, in 2005.

When asked about life in the camp, he repeatedly said it was “really, really hard.”

“I had to go to school during the day, then come back home and find ways to provide for me and for my grandma,” he said.

His grandmother used to fetch wood and weave baskets, fans and mats to sell, but Chirango had to assume the responsibility of providing for the family when he was about 12 years old, when his grandma could no longer work.

He would offer his services to other refugees in the camp. At one point he fetched water for a family for an entire month, earning a little more than $1.

Sometimes they would only have boiled beans and corn to eat, but they were lucky, he said, some families didn’t even have that.

“A lot of my peers left the refugee camp to go to neighboring towns in Kenya, but for me, inside my heart I know life is hard, but I can’t just walk away like this,” he said. “For me, I thought, no matter what happens I don’t want to give up my education because it’s the only way out.”

Chirango speaks with immense pride of his accomplishments in school.

He was always No. 1, he said. He might not have had clothes, shoes or books, but he was always No. 1.

Kenya taught him how to be a strong person, he said, to not walk away from his problems, but to instead find long-term solutions.

As a Bantu Somali, he said he was discriminated against by other Somalis. He was beaten until he bled. Forced to sit on the floor. Made to beg to borrow a classmate’s books. Robbed of his awards. Called slave. Dog.

But none of that mattered if he could continue learning to speak English, to write the ABCs.

“I had to learn to adapt,” he said. “If they told me to go and sit down on the floor, I did. If they beat me, I took it like a man.”

When he transferred from primary to secondary school, he had 805 points – 32 more points than the student who had held the previous record.

How does he remember the precise number, so many years later? “It was a very glorious moment in my life,” he said.

Today Chirango is working towards a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Arizona. After that he wants to earn a master’s degree (he still doesn’t know in what, though). All while helping run Tork’s Café and Grocery and, together with his wife, raising four young children.

To say I was impressed by what he has accomplished despite all the challenges he has faced would be an understatement. It definitely gave me something to think about. It was a great reminder of what we can do if we set our minds to it.

Somalis feel Kenyan government’s crackdown on refugees

Abdirahman Chirango recently returned to Kenya for the first time in nearly a decade. He does not see himself visiting again any time soon.

During the month he was in Kenya, there was an explosion in the predominantly Somali neighborhood were he was staying in Nairobi; he was stopped from visiting the refugee camp he called home for 11 years because a car bomb exploded a few days before his planned trip; and he was harassed by police on his way to the airport.

“Now in Kenya you can’t tell who is bad and who is good. I was always on guard,” said the 29-year-old business co-owner and political science student at the University of Arizona.

Chirango arrived in Tucson in 2005 after spending 13 years as a refugee in Kenya. He was born in neighboring Somalia, but had to flee when he was 6 years old after his village was raided. His mother was shot dead in front of him and his siblings because she refused to let militiamen rape her.

While in Kenya earlier this year, Chirango said he was afraid of being framed as an extremist or getting caught in the middle of a police raid and sent back to Somalia, even though he is now a U.S. citizen.

“The Kenyan government is not looking at IDs anymore,” he said. “If you are Somali you are coming along.”

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Nogales mural a symbol of unity on a border that continues to galvanize artists

Itzel Vizcarra squatted close to the wall, which has 32 metal panels drilled to it depicting scenes of an idealized village life.

Not many in her family have the talent of her great-uncle Alberto Morackis — one of the original painters of the mural — but Itzel definitely has the patience and interest.

The 10-year-old carefully colored in the green landscape, but despite her precision, she got bright green paint on her pink pants and pink polished fingernails. As she painted, cars rushed by on the busy thoroughfare near the border in Nogales, Sonora.

About two dozen people from both sides of the border got together Saturday to resurrect the mural “Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla,” or “Life and Dreams of the Perla Ravine.”

The mural, most commonly known as “El Mural de Taniperla,” was first painted in 1998 on the wall of a community center in Taniperla, Chiapas, by Tzetzal Indians. It showed women doing laundry, people bathing by the river, holding meetings. It showed their lives and dreams after declaring themselves an autonomous Zapatista revolutionary town.

The Mexican army destroyed it a day after it was completed.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

ACLU demands halt to alleged harassment of checkpoint monitors in Arivaca

Arivaca resident Jack Driscoll, right, holds a sign with Sarah Stock of No More Deaths with other residents and activists during a protest march to the Tucson Border Patrol Sector Headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Residents protested the Border Patrol’s checkpoint on Arivaca Road, calling for its removal. Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

A group of Arivaca residents are not giving up on their efforts to have a Border Patrol checkpoint removed from their community.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter Wednesday to Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Manuel Padilla to “immediately cease interfering with lawful protest and monitoring of the Arivaca Road checkpoint and respect the civil rights of all residents and motorists at Border Patrol checkpoints.”

The ACLU is ready to sue if the agency does not allow residents to exercise their First Amendment rights, said James Lyall, the organization’s attorney in Tucson.

Since Feb. 26, groups of at least three people have showed up to the checkpoint 25 miles north of the border with a sign that reads: “checkpoint monitoring to deter abuse and gather data” and a video camera.

But the residents said agents immediately harassed them and ordered them to stand far from the checkpoint, where they can’t see or hear anything.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

More children crossing border using dangerous Arizona corridor

The Border Patrol fears many Central Americans may not appreciate the dangers of Arizona’s desert. “I am not afraid,” said Isaac Fernández, a 15-year-old from Honduras, pausing on his trip north last week in Nogales, Sonora. Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star

The Southwest border has seen a surge in children and juveniles trying to cross into the United States without their parents — and officials fear this summer could be the most dangerous for them yet.

Border Patrol apprehensions of unaccompanied juveniles nationwide more than doubled from 16,000 in 2011 to almost 39,000 in fiscal year 2013 — and the government expects the number to hit 60,000 this year. The Tucson Sector saw a 54 percent increase in the same two-year span, from nearly 5,900 to just over 9,000.

Most of unaccompanied minors are from Mexico and Central America. Some are fleeing violence in their home countries, others want to come to work and many are trying to reunite with parents they haven’t seen in years.

The Border Patrol is particularly worried about a spike in the number of kids, both alone and accompanied by parents, from Guatemala — more juveniles from that country were apprehended in the first six months of this fiscal year than in all of last year. Worse yet, they are coming through one of the deadliest parts of the border.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.