Settled into new homes, refugees in U.S. say they are working for a better life for all

By: - June 21, 2021 5:00 am

The United States took in 11,814 refugees last year. Between October and May, the U.S. admitted 3,250 refugees, according to Department of State data. (Getty Images)

Maryland became home to 763 new refugees in 2019, and one of them was Arnobia Bernal Ramirez, 57.

Bernal Ramirez fled Colombia to Ecuador with her son, who has a cognitive disability, in 2016 after she was exploited and threatened by a local group. Unable to escape the danger, Bernal Ramirez applied for asylum in the U.S.

As a Spanish speaker, she spoke to Maryland Matters through Andrea Sanchez, an intern at Asylee Women Enterprise, a Baltimore organization that helps asylum seekers.

“She did live a bit of a calm life [in Ecuador] for a while, but [the harassers] ended up following her there,” Sanchez said.

Through tears, Bernal Ramirez said she felt alone when she arrived in Baltimore and was constantly paranoid that she and her son would be discovered.

“She was constantly living in fear that one day those people would find her, recognize her and her son on the street and kill [them],” said Sanchez.

Unable to speak English or communicate with her 35-year-old nonverbal son, Andres, Bernal Ramirez hid from the world for months until she connected with Asylee Women Enterprise (AWE), where she found support and a job.

“At first she was very reluctant,” said Sanchez. “She felt as if she wasn’t worthy of getting help or any resources.”

But Bernal Ramirez said crossing the threshold at AWE felt like learning “what it was to live again.”

And while some people can be “hateful,” Bernal Ramirez admires the community she’s found.

“She doesn’t really even think the stereotypes [of immigrants] matter just because of the sheer amount of people that do actually care … and think that immigrants are worthy of being here,” Sanchez said.

 Manasse Matala, 19, Zimbabwe

Manasse Matala
Manasse Matala graduated from high school in Wichita in May, overcoming steep language barriers. Now he hopes to bring confidence to refugees much like himself through motivational speaking. Submitted to Kansas Reflector

By Noah Taborda | Kansas Reflector

Manasse Matala, 19, endeavors each day to ensure he does not waste the educational opportunities available to him in the United States.

Matala and his family resettled in Wichita, one of an estimated 3.4 million Zimbabweans who have fled their home country to escape violence and killings. Kansas’s culture came as quite a shock, especially for someone whose English was shaky.

Through his studies, Matala said he overcame many of those language barriers. Still, the lack of fluency did affect his French-speaking family.

“My mom didn’t know how to speak English and it would be very hard for her to communicate or to find something like a job,” he said.

Now, Matala is hoping to bring inspiration and hope to more refugees through, of all things, speaking. He graduated from Southeast High School in May, and while he plans to pursue a degree in pre-medicine, he also wants to be a motivational speaker.

His message is a tried and true one — hard work pays off. Matala channels his own personal experience from things as difficult as overcoming language barriers to learning piano or playing soccer to demonstrate this.

He has also considered physical therapy as a possible career path. Whatever directions he takes, he wants to dispel misconceptions that refugees are a burden on their new country.

“I asked some of my friends about what you think about refugees, and everyone is telling me this bad stuff. I didn’t show my sadness, but it did break my heart a little,” Matala said. “We can’t just come in and start acting without even knowing the culture. We don’t even know what is going on.”

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