SOUTH PORTLAND — “Differences between us must not be our sources of conflict. They must be our reasons for unity.”
A famous president, diplomat, or author did not speak those words.
They were spoken by Lydia Bakunda, an 18-year-old refugee from Burundi and student at Southern Maine Community College.
Bakunda’s native language is not English. Yet her words encapsulated the theme of “Sacred Stories of the Challenge and Hope of Immigrants and Refugees,” a reading held Dec. 8 at City Hall.
As part of a final project for their Advanced Speaking and Listening ESL class, nine SMCC students each told a story about their hardships as refugees to a full-capacity audience of 110.
In her opening remarks, their instructor and City Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis quipped that for most people, “Life’s greatest fear is dying. The second is public speaking. And the third is dying while public speaking.”
Little did the audience know that each storyteller had faced all of these fears before the age of 30, most of them on more than one occasion. Here are some of their words:
“I am a war child,” said Abwoch Oryem. For 30 years of his life, war forced him and his family to flee to Uganda, Kenya, Germany and then to the United States in 1995.
“(My father) didn’t leave us when we were young because he didn’t love us,” imparted Imanzi Kamanzi, a refugee from Rwanda. “He left because he had no choice.”
“The government wanted to quiet us, genocide was their answer,” said Sakeena Rashid, a refugee from Darfur.
“Before the war, we had no knowledge, but we had peace,” said Wadah Al Shammari, a refugee from Iraq. “After the war, we have more knowledge, but no peace.”
“I wanted to die because I thought it was the only option,” said Jimmy Kayijamahe, a refugee from Rwanda. After he attained asylum in the U.S., his father was killed in Rwanda and he was unable attend the funeral.
“There was corruption and my father worked against it. (The government) discovered him,” said Frediemae Dacapio, an immigrant from the Philipines. After her father was killed in 1999, her mother raised Dacapio and her siblings.
“(My siblings and I) looked outside and watched soldiers steal everything we had,” said Sine Sakebera, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her father became sick as a result of the Second Congo War and ensuing conflicts. He died in 2010.
“Ever since I was young I saw innocent people killed simply because they were who they did not choose to be,” said Fahad Mukunzi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite these traumatic episodes, each storyteller ended with words of resilience and hope.
Oryem brought out a big smile, sharp wit, and contagious sense of humor. He said he believes the power of education can be the solution to war and discrimination.
Kamanzi said he finds motivation in his studies and making his parents in Rwanda proud.
Dacapio spoke about her joy in motherhood and said she uses her past to guide a meaningful life.
And Sakebera said she believes that when loved ones die, they live forever in your hearts.
Each storyteller is now a member of Color of Community, a nonprofit group comprised of former student refugees who travel across Maine to help eliminate stereotypes, bias and prejudice.
During the invitation to comment, one member of the audience approached the podium to read a quote from poet Maya Angelou: “The greatest agony is bearing an untold story inside you.”
Thanks to those who listened and organized the City Hall reading, nine more people no longer bear that burden.