DEERFIELD — As the nation celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Monday, students at Bement School heard from two refugees, who shared personal stories and shed light on King’s legacy.
“He means a lot to me,” said Adam Abdelrahman, a refugee from western Sudan who resettled in Springfield about three years ago. “Although Martin Luther King Jr. lived in a different time, everything he said matches — as a child refugee, I need peace, I need community. I’m going to follow in his path.”
Abdelrahman, along with Justin Ngendakunna, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who’s been in the U.S. for a year, shared stories of violent beginnings, survival, and a desire for peace, with more than 100 students as part of a presentation on refugees and displaced persons by the Springfield-based Catholic Charities Agency in honor of the national holiday.
“We’re talking about building, creating and becoming fruitful members of King’s beloved community,” said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, the agency’s director, referring to a philosophical vision painted in King’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
Of the roughly 65 million displaced persons in the world, Buckley-Brawner said, “only 21 million are designated as refugees.”
“You know they come with dreams, even if they end up in refugee camps. You can’t keep the human spirit down,” Buckley-Brawner said, drawing from King’s famous speech, “I have a dream.”
As a young child, Abdelrahman fled his village in Darfur, described as “very lovely, green everywhere, peaceful. Suddenly chaos came. You could hear the sound of bullets. Fire here, fire there.”
“I’d never seen blood before. All of my village ran away. I looked for my parents and couldn’t find them,” Abdelrahman said, relating his escape into the jungle, where he met other children that had also become separated from their parents.
At first, they were lost. Then, together, the children found a refugee camp where Abdelrahman was reunited with his parents and brothers, “but lost (his) cousins.”
“The only thing I had was hope that the war was going to end, and that we would go home,” Abdelrahman said. Seven years later, his family secretely traveled to Egypt, eventually gaining passage to America through a United Nations refugee initiative.
Ngendakunna also shared his story of being a refugee from his African home. After fleeing from his home at 7 years old with his family, Ngendakunna spent 15 years in a refugee camp in Burundi, a small nation next to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I miss my family, I miss my friends, but for now I go to school and have a job,” Ngendakunna said about his experience resettling in America.
“There’s no job, there’s nothing to do, it’s hard to find water,” he described about the camp. “The life there was so sad. I had a dream to be a doctor since I was a boy — but I didn’t get that chance after high school.”
Today, both Ngendakunna and Abdelrahman, who’ve had to learn English since resettling, are attending Holyoke Community College, and intend to return to their respective homes after receiving U.S. citizenship, which requires at least five years of residency.
In reference to why the presentation was held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bement’s Head of School Christopher Wilson said its intention was to “build connections across differences,” in order to “be a part of the solution.”
“We have to love each other without looking at race, without looking at color. Whether you’re from Africa or from Asia, we don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow. We have to love peace,” Ngendakunna said.
Buckley-Brawner said her presentation was inspired by a quote from King that reads, “people fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
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