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International Students Retell War Torn Past

Five students gathered for a special International Center UN day forum titled "From Camps to Campus" to relate their personal experiences as child refugees in war torn countries from Tibet to Bosnia.

Gyude Moore speaks with panel members Najda, Ojja, Sonam and Partam

The Cosmopolitan Club event centered on the interconnected nature of all people and stories. Although this is not the first UN day forum, it is the first regarding student's refugee experiences. This forum was an opportunity to connect with the human side of such tragedies and take away appreciation and perspective for the struggles of these displaced peoples. Sound bites and isolated quotes often do not capture the humanity (or inhumanity) of political coups, revolutionary wars, and ethnic cleansing that drive refugees to seek shelter in foreign lands. The diversity of the students' stories obliges one to recount these histories individually highlighting a journey that against all odds has brought them from camps to campus.

Nadja Beglerovic, currently a senior psychology major, grew up Sarajevo, Bosnia. The early years after the death of Yugoslavian authoritarian leader Marshall Tito in 1980, seemed bright. Sarajevo hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, and as further splintering on Yugoslavia occurred after the fall of the Iron Curtain, independence seemed imminent. In March 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina were officially recognized by the European Union, but Serbian and Croatian leaders objected to such presumtion, preferring to partition the land among themselves. Ethnic disputes between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims brought tensions to a high point by 1992, and the siege of Sarajevo ensued. Beglerovic was 10 when the unexpected siege completely blockaded her, her family, and the citizens of Sarajevo within a line of Serbian military forces. "It was so far away from what we expected" Beglerovic recounted, that only the death of twelve year old girl at the hands of snipers, communicated the urgency and gravity of the situation. Since Bosnia had no standing military , regular citizens defended themselves with cans of hairspray. Beglerovic specifically noted the irony that the heroic retaliatory force that resisted the siege were criminals released from Bosnian jails.

On May, 19, 1992 the Beglerovic family and 500 others were released through the Serbian defense line to travel to Croatia as refugees. During those two years, she attended school in a designated refugee area on a Croatian island. The atmosphere was not very conducive to learning as Beglerovic noted, "even the teaches were very discriminating" and being a good student did not mean good grades. As the war raged on in Bosnia for another two years Beglerovic stayed in Croatia. "I cannot even imagine what people went through while I was gone. Those were the worst two years." Beglerovic added. Upon returning on the first available bus transportation back to devastated Sarajevo, Beglerovic discovered most of her friends dead or gone to live as refugees elsewhere. "It is very emotional one day you see someone and the next day they are gone. Every family had at least one person killed" Beglerovic commented. Beglerovic has now lived in Berea for over 3 years and will graduate in May, uncertain of exactly where to go.

Ojja Kulusika, a former Sudanese refugee carries his history in the meaning of his name – it means war in his native language. Recent clashes in Sudan between Arab Muslims and Black African Christians have garnered worldwide media attention as the dead and displaced citizens of West Sudan increase. This region, titled Darfur, is populated by a variety of ethnic groups including the Masalit, Fur, Zaghawa, Arabs and others. As resources dwindle due to the spread of desert into arable land, tensions increase. The Arab dominated government in Khartoum simultaneously supports Arab militias while skirting responsibility to secure the rights of the Black Sudanese. A salient illustration of the long term existence of these tensions is Kulusika's relocation to Uganda in 1989. As a black southern Sudanese, from a well off family Kulusika was fortunate to leave early before ethnic tyranny stemming from Khartoum could consume Darfur. The region has now seen 1.45 million displaced and 70,000 dead due to killings and village burnings by the extremist Muslim group, Janjaweed. Although succession is the favored policy of the resources rich south, officials in Khartoum cannot relinquish the resources necessary to sustain the government that operates out of the inhospitable South Sahara desert. This means that government sponsored genocide will likely continue unless stopped by international intervention or the country is torn by civil war. Kulusika nevertheless seemed confident in his nation’s plight, citing recent developments in international intervention efforts. The African Union had proposed increasing its peacekeeping force from two to six thousand and the British are proposing a force of five thousand soldiers with additional aid coming from the US and France. Nevertheless, Kulusika has not been able to return home. After his departure in 1989, he lived primarily in Uganda, moving to Norway for high school. Upon returning to Uganda he applied to Berea and has now resided here since 2001. Kulusika's future is also, unfortunately, uncertain as he embarks upon his new journey to relocate again after graduation in May.

Sonam Tseten told his story of human rights offenses in occupied Tibet. Located in the strategically central plateau between China, India, and the Eurasian steppes to the west, Tibet is geopolitically torn. The breathtaking capital Lhasa was the childhood home of Tseten and his family which had resided there under Chinese occupation since the 1959 invasion. Tseten's brother, a politically outspoken monk, became embroiled in an anti-Chinese demonstration in 1989. Military intervention followed, and Chinese soldiers began firing into the air to silence and intimidate the civilian demonstrators. Tseten's brother, locked in the entanglement, was unexpectedly shot in the head. As Tseten watched the death of his brother at the hand of a Chinese rifle he knew he had to escape to freedom. "My message is not to get your sympathy" Tseten calmly communicated, adding only that "All have desire to be free.

The family immediately departed on foot for Nepal climbing into the inhospitably harsh Himalayan Mountains of Southern Tibet. The journey proved perilous for many some losing vision due to overexposure. Others simply did not survive. A particular twelve year old girl, Tseten recounted, was lost when a crevasse parted beneath her and swallowed her into the earth. The journey would last an excruciating month and, upon their arrival in Nepal the family realized they would soon need to relocate again to India to attend school. Fifty nine Tibetan refugee schools had been established in North India one of which Tseten attended and graduated. Tseten then applied and was accepted to Berea. Nostalgically reflecting on this arrival he spoke, "On the very first day, I liked Berea College a lot. I will always be proud of [it]."

Afghanistan has been a centerpiece of the United States war on terror in the past three years, placing it among the most well known areas of international conflict. What most of the public is not aware of however, is how this remote mountain nation based upon values of hospitality, self-worth and equality was overtaken by a radical Muslim extremist government. As early as 1747, Afghanistan established an empire under King Ahmad Shah Abdali (Durrani). In the subsequent 3 centuries they invaded India and Persia, and three time prevented British incursion in the Anglo-Afghan wars. The most challenging time was nevertheless yet to come. The Soviets, assisted by the weak indifference of a communist friendly government under Prime Minister Noor Mohammad Taraki, invaded in 1979. The tumultuous decades following Soviet invasion would define most of Berea College student Partam Manalai’s childhood. The invasion brought destruction to many small villages consequently creating eight million refugees by 1984. Five million people left for Pakistan and three million for Iran. Manalai stayed behind in Kabul, the nation’s capital, as the country continued to unravel. The Soviets occupied Afghanistan until 1989, during which time a nationalist Islamic group called the Mujahaddin developed into a formidable force. They defeated the Soviets and consolidated their power in 1992 amidst interference from Iran and Pakistan. Manalai, describing the situation in 1992 said, "We received hundred of rockets" so many that "we made jokes of them. I was not sure if my family would be alive or not". A rocket eventually struck Manalai’s home, but luckily no one was injured in the blast. It was then that Manalai and his family left for Pakistan, among the millions of refugees already displaced. Manalai recounted that he had never been more than nine miles from his home, but this time he traveled some eighty miles each day. Crossing mountainous terrain and security threats due to warring factions Manalai eventually reached Pakistan. Unfortunately, there was no government support for aliens there and Manalai took a job working in a brick mill in the stifling Pakistani heat. The climactic differences between his childhood home and Pakistan were almost unbearable with temperatures reaching 125 degrees Fahrenheit. In the meantime, the infamous Taliban extremist group formed in the wake of instability and captured Kabul in 1996, deposing the Mujahaddin led government. Manalai, not able to return, stayed and finished school in Pakistan. Years later, Manalai’s application to Berea would take him further away from home than ever before. This situation at home is still unstable as the current US-supported government under Hamid Karzai struggles to regain control of remote areas.

The final commentary came from William Gyude Moore, a Political Science major and active member of Oxfam America, an organization that promotes aid and development in the third world. Moore grew up in Liberia, a country carved out by freed American slaves in 1822. The slaves however carried their maltreatment with them and reciprocally imparted it upon the native tribesmen. “The seeds of war were sown” Moore commented about Liberia’s inevitable disintegration. The tension reached its worst in December 1989 when rebel groups staged a coup that plunged the country into civil war. Moore then only eight years old, and his family departed for the Ivory Coast immediately afterward. His hometown was captured the very next day. The trouble had not subsided for the family however. His father, a political dissident, was tracked by the rebel groups during their exodus. Information provided by a child the family knew led the groups to find them and threaten their capture and death. Child soldiers working for the rebels were often not much older than Moore himself. One child solder places a gun in Moore’s stomach asking for permission to shoot Moore dead. “He wanted to kill me” Moore recounted emotionally, but was dissuaded by rebel leaders and departed hypocritically saying “God bless you”. Surviving that harrowing experience the Moore family arrived in the Ivory Coast with no camps to support the flood of refugees out of Liberia. They survived on twenty five cents worth of supplies a day most of which was supplied by the UN. They sold food to pay the rent and Moore squeaked by through high school promising that he would one day work to prevent what happened to him in his childhood. He now will graduate from Berea in May and is already extremely active in International relief organizations. Moore concluded with a plea about the inevitable growth of refugees in the Global South. By 2050, environmental destruction is predicted to create 150 million refugees. "Actions have consequences. We have to confront the root of the problem," Moore instructed. "If there is no justice there can be no peace."

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