Staff Photo by Jake Daniels Ibrahim Ousman finishes his tea in his small apartment before leaving for classes at Chattanooga State on Thursday. Ousman is taking ESOL courses at the college.
Ibrahim Ousman awoke one morning in the west African nation of Senegal and, by bedtime, was more than 4,000 miles away in a small apartment in downtown Chattanooga.
"I didn't know where I was going," said the 31-year-old Darfurian refugee, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter. "I was just told I was going to a state called Tennessee and a city called Chattanooga."
Although Bridge Refugee Services has helped resettle refugees from Sudan -- Africa's largest country by size -- for about seven years in Chattanooga, this is the first time refugees from the country's Darfur region have made the Scenic City their home.
"Africa remains a continent with a lot of problems and a lot of people in need of permanent resettlement, and the reason I chose to ask for Darfurians is because we've resettled 15 to 20 families from Sudan ... and I feel they will be very welcomed by both the Sudanese and local community and they will find a safe and friendly place to live," said Marina Peshterianu, Bridge office coordinator.
Ousman is the second arrival from Darfur, a region of western Sudan where one of the world's worst humanitarian crises is occurring, according to the United Nations.
Since civil war broke out in 2003 in Darfur -- which is about the size of France -- more than 300,000 people have died and more than 2.7 million have been forced out of their homes, the U.N. reports.
Sudan's government said it is fighting a rebellion that began when the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement "took up arms to protest what they saw as economic marginalization of Darfur by Khartoum [Sudan's capital]," according to the U.N. refugee agency.
FY 2011 Refugee Admissions Allocations
* Africa -- 15,000
* East Asia -- 19,000
* Europe and Central Asia -- 2,000
* Latin American/Caribbean -- 5,500
* Near East/South Asia -- 35,500
* Unallocated reserve -- 3,000
Source: Presidential Memorandum
* The Tennessee Office for Refugees provides refugee cash assistance to all eligible clients for up to eight months after their arrival in the United States. Certain conditions must be met, including actively participating in a job search.
* Refugee medical assistance is federally funded short-term insurance provided to refugees who are ineligible for TennCare and Medicaid; lasts up to eight months after arrival.
* Initial medical screenings are offered to refugees and all other eligible clients for up to 90 days after their arrival in the U.S.
* The local resettlement office, together with volunteers or co-sponsors, makes sure housing is ready upon arrival; they also supply help with English classes, transportation and orientation.
* Refugees are in charge of repaying the U.S. government for their travel costs.
Source: Tennessee Office for Refugees, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Ousman's story is not very different from that of other Darfurians.
One day, militias roared into his village of Tukul-Tukul, firing randomly, stealing the animals, burning the homes, raping the women.
By the time the raid ended, his family not only had lost a place to live, it also had lost a son and a daughter, both shot to death.
In 2003, his parents, six of Ousman's siblings -- ages 5 and up -- and Ousman's wife walked for two days, drinking rainwater, with no food or belongings but the clothes they were wearing, until they reached a refugee camp in the neighboring country of Chad.
Ousman didn't join them because he was taken to prison by Sudanese authorities. Like most things that happened in his country, he said he doesn't know the reason.
"People were killed or beaten; I don't know why," he said on a recent afternoon inside the Bridge's office.
Ousman was set free in 2005. It took him 15 days to reach Chad and three more to find his family in a refugee camp. But the limited peace and tranquility they found in Chad didn't last. In late 2007, he had to flee one more time.
Sudanese militias started to "recruit" young boys and men from refugee camps in Chad. Suddenly his neighbors and friends started to disappear.
He was asked to fight. Those who refused were arrested, he said; if you agreed, you were trusted.
He said "yes," but instead of going with the men, he escaped to the capital, N'Djamena. But Chad is not much more stable than Sudan or Darfur, and conflict broke out in the capital.
Ousman got on a bus, not knowing where he was heading. He knew he needed to be in a safe place, even if it meant leaving his family behind. His hope was that, if he could get to safety, he eventually could help them escape, too.
Several days and five countries later, Ousman stopped in Senegal, on the West African coast, where he lived for two years, teaching Arabic to children until his refugee application was processed.
One day, he was asked by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees if he wanted to go to the United States, and he said "yes."
Countries including the United States, Australia and Canada have resettlement programs. Based on family ties, trade skills, professional abilities and language facility, among other factors, the U.N.'s office matches a refugee with a resettlement country.
In Ousman's case, it was the United States, and, after an in-depth interview by a U.S. immigration officer, he was approved for resettlement.
He finds Chattanooga beautiful, he said, but there have been difficulties adjusting to a new life.
"When you move from a hard life to an easy life, that's a challenge," he said.
Being in the United States is a good opportunity for him, he said.
"You can help yourself here," he said. "You can become self-sufficient," which is the goal of the resettlement program.
He already speaks and understands some English, but he still goes to English classes at two locations at least twice a week, always dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt.
While he is optimistic and said he can't wait to start working, his life is incomplete. He only completed elementary school in Darfur and mainly worked on the farm with his father, but amid the chaos he managed to take some English classes and would like to continue his education, perhaps in business, he said, so he can get a good job.
His wife and three small children -- ages 5, 4 and 2 -- are in eastern Chad with his parents in the Gaga Camp, which houses close to 20,000 refugees.
He hasn't seen them in two years and speaking directly with them has been nearly impossible. The only news he gets is secondhand. He last heard for them soon after his arrival in Chattanooga.
"There is no one to help them," he said. "Not even when I was in Senegal."
As a refugee, he can apply for family reunification to bring his family to the U.S. Based on previous experience, Peshterianu said that could take from a year to two.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...