by Jess Archer
Photographs by Ashley St. Clair
It was June 2016. The cicadas were cranking up the volume, the humidity also creeping up. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were five months away from the presidential election. Everywhere, both in our city and throughout the rest of the nation, change was coming.
With that political backdrop, I sat with an old friend, an Austin native and photographer, Ashley St. Clair, over beers at Radio Coffee & Beer. She and I had recently learned that Texas resettles more refugees than any other state, save for California, according to the Pew Research Center. If that was true, why didn’t we know any refugees? Who were the faces of the refugee story in Austin?
We’d both lived in Austin long enough to know what’s great about it, besides adventurous food trucks and our beloved Barton Springs. Our city leans toward social activism. For the most part, Austinites are forward thinking, receptive to new ideas and people, and energized by the notion that their way is not the only way. With that spirit as the underpinning of our city, we imagined an effort to meet and get to know some of our city’s recently resettled refugees.
With the help of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT), an Austin-based nonprofit, we were introduced to refugees in their ESL classes. From there we began to learn their names, their countries of origin, their distinctive personalities, and their hopes for their new lives in Austin.
Starting in January 2017, with the newly elected president’s travel ban looming, more than two dozen refugees allowed us to interview and photograph them. We were honored, considering how fearful they had become of their futures in America. The result of those interviews and photographs became “Refugee Is Not My Name,” a photo and story series slated for exhibition at the Gallery at Lewis Carnegie on March 22, 2018.
What follows is a selection from this project, which grew out of a politically charged year in America. But ultimately, it isn’t about politics or Washington. It’s a profile of your neighbors, maybe the man in line next to you at H-E-B. It’s a window into the lives of some members of our Austin community and their triumphs, fears, and hopes for a new life in America. The people you will meet are unique; they ask to be seen as individuals, not as a collective, global crisis.
Many have survived the unimaginable, but all will tell you that isn’t their whole story. They share the label “refugee” but not necessarily the same religion, language, or culture. They are from all over the world. One is 18, one 71, the rest in between. One is a musician, the other a statistician. Their kids go to your kids’ schools. They are memorizing the CapMetro bus routes. They are timidly dipping their toes in the Colorado River or quietly sitting under the shade of a mesquite tree at Zilker Park. And they each have a name. Meet some of your newest neighbors.
Lambert looks like a typical American teenager, always on his phone. He streams music, one earbud in almost constantly. But Lambert has lived in America for only a year and nine months. His parents are refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lambert was born and raised in a refugee camp in Tanzania.
It was in the camp that Lambert taught himself to play the piano every week after church service ended. “Something in me just pushed me to learn to play the music from church,” Lambert says.
His resting face is a big grin. “When I’m walking down the streets in Austin, I feel like the owner of this place. It is not hard to make friends when you’re nice.”
“I want to be a musician. But also maybe a doctor. Yes, a musician and doctor,” he says, and then smiles.
While living as a refugee in Malaysia, Pastor Jonathan and his wife, Grace, noticed that many refugee children were not getting an education. So they did something about it: They started a boarding school. At one point in his 10 years as a refugee in Asia, Jonathan and Grace were taking care of 67 children, ages four to 18. They called him “headmaster.” It’s a title that still sticks, even with his own sons. “I try to get my boys to call me ‘Papa,’ but they still call me ‘saya gyi,’ head teacher in Burmese,” Jonathan says. “Mostly, my skills are that I love the children. Community service is what I know.”
“On the airplane coming to Texas, we were scared by so much turbulence, but so hopeful. So excited. We have a Burmese saying, ‘Before I go to heaven, I must go to America.’” Now in Austin, Jonathan leads a small Burmese Christian church. He also sings and plays keyboard for the worship service. “Sometimes I think about my mother’s and father’s voices back in Myanmar, encouraging me, telling me I can do it. It fills my heart to remember their kindness, their faith in me.”
“I want to introduce the people of Myanmar to the people of Austin,” he says. “We are different, but we are one.”
Life has already been taxing for Honeyeh, who was born in Afghanistan and raised under prejudice in Iran. “Afghanistan doesn’t accept me because I was raised in Iran. Iran doesn’t accept me because I am from Afghanistan,” Honeyeh says. Then came an incident that added insult to injury. “In Iran they issued me an ID card with the name Zayneb, but it was not for me,” she says. “It was meant for another girl. But they said, ‘This card is OK. It’s good enough for you.’ Zayneb is not my name; I like my real name, Honeyeh.”
As a refugee, Honeyeh is allowed to come to America for some new opportunities. “I want to get a college education. I want to manage a shipbuilding company. I love ships; I love the water.”
Though Honeyeh can be in America under current laws, her Iranian husband cannot. “It’s terrible to be here in such an important place as Austin and have the most important person in my life be in another place.”
“When I feel stressed about the future, I like to carefully remove the polish color on my nails and redo it,” Honeyeh says, “It relaxes me. It helps me take my mind of my worries.”
“I only know how to fix teeth. In Cuba I spent my entire adult life doing dentistry for $20 a day. Castro took away our chances to learn English. But when my daughter said, at seven years old, that she wanted to be a doctor, I secretly found an American medical professional who taught her English.
“My daughter came to America in 2005 to study medicine. I went six years without seeing her, and I never want to be apart from her that long again. I don’t want to leave America. But the Cuban government will take away my house in two years. Nothing is truly yours in Cuba.
“I am having my second youth in Austin — I love to go country western dancing. I’d like a real pair of cowboy boots.
“When I see the young girls in their dresses and boots, I think, ‘Wow, what would it have been like to be young in Austin?’ I arrived late, but my daughter arrived right on time. I made sure of that.”
“I am the third born in our family of eight. In 1998, after the war with Rwanda began, my family and I fled the Congo. We walked for nearly seven months, till we arrived at the border of Zambia. The great tragedy is that we got separated from my brother and sister during our walk, and we never could find them.
“I am a teacher. Once in the Zambian refugee camp, I taught high school history, music, science, and sociology. It felt very special when I was given the chance to resettle in America. I believe God was with me, to give me the chance to come to America. Now in Austin, I have a good job as an assistant land surveyor. It would feel like home if my parents could come here. It doesn’t have to be Texas, it just has to be in the United States. It is very difficult to be alone.
“People need to know, who is a refugee? And why is he a refugee and what has qualified him for resettlement? Being called a ‘refugee’ [can be] a kind of disease. You can’t feel happy to be called one. And people don’t want to approach you because of this word. Sometimes a refugee gets treated like someone who can’t even hold a pencil.”
A man deplanes in Austin with a head full of musical dreams and only the instruments on his back. It’s a common scene at Austin’s airport. Less typical is that this man is a refugee from war-weary Iraq. “Something in me could not compose in Iraq when my family was not safe,” Basim says. “This is the matter that brought me to America. I needed to find peace.”
A violinist for 19 years in the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and a seasoned film score composer, Basim wants two things from his new life in Austin: “First, I want to find friends, and second, I must find fellow musicians. I cannot practice music in my mind. I must practice it with others.”
Basim has lived in Austin for one year. “I have yet to go out and hear the music and see all that Austin has to offer,” he says. “People tell me Austin is going to be a very good place for me. Music walks with me everywhere I go. It is like water and air to me.”
A highly qualified specialist in aviation engineering, Nabeel has lived in Austin for three years now. He and his wife of 40 years, Inam, recently moved into a duplex.
“We did not suffer the tragedies that most refugees experience,” Nabeel says. “We left full, successful lives in Iraq. When we left Iraq for America, my son drove us to the airport in Baghdad in my own car.” But common to all refugees, Nabeel and Inam were made to feel unsafe in their country. “It is the matter of peace that we came here for,” he says. “When we landed in Austin, I felt like a bird released from a cage.”
The only impasse to that peace? The grandchildren they left behind. “We have three now … two we’ve never even met.”
“You are welcome to my home” is Inam’s most fluid, frequently used English sentence. Once a statistician, and a mother of four grown sons, Inam has always been committed to making her home a refuge. Back in Iraq she redesigned her house, making an apartment for each son and his family so they could have independence but still be close.
Just one of her sons came to America with her and her husband, Nabeel. “Austin is organized, safe,” she says. “Not like my country. We are making a new life here.” Her eagerness to host friends and family in her home is nothing new.
When Simone Flowers began working for Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT) 12 years ago, she called it “a match made in heaven.” Her values aligned beautifully with iACT’s: to cultivate peace and respect through interfaith dialogue, service, and celebration.
Now the group’s Executive Director, Flowers oversees several programs around Central Texas, including one that provides free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to refugees.
Through ESL classes, iACT serves refugees from around the world, whom Flowers describes as “individuals who have experienced the worst in life and have fled for their lives. Each refugee is unique and has a voice.”
For those who want to get involved in helping refugees in Austin, Flowers says, “Refugee care is ongoing. It’s about building relationships with individuals — sharing your resources, your time, and your expertise. Refugees need a network of locals in order for them to thrive in their new home.”
To learn more about iACT and refugees in Austin, visit interfaithtexas.org
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2018