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‘No Typical Refugee,’ Author and Refugee Expert Says

Danielle VellaA 20-year veteran of refugee rescue work – together with a refugee from South Sudan who has built a new and prosperous life for himself, his wife and his three children in Omaha – stressed a common theme Tuesday night: Stories have the power to move hearts by bringing home the terrible plight faced by refugees ejected and exiled from all they know and love.

Danielle Vella, the keynote speaker at the event held in the Harper Center’s Ahmanson Ballroom, spoke of her new book, Dying to Live: Stories from Refugees on the Road to Freedom, in which she details some of the stories she has come to know as director of reconciliation and social cohesion for the Jesuit Refugee Service.

“There is no typical refugee,” Vella said. “Every story is unique and is different, so the events that lead to that life-changing decision to drop everything and leave, and the events that happen afterward, are never the same. This is one reason why I wrote this book, to show that behind these anonymous and overwhelming statistics of 70 million (refugees) are 70 million individual lives.”

The refugees whose stories Vella relates in her book fled many countries, including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, among others.

“When you are uprooted, you have to leave everything, and even lose the sense, in a way, of who you are and your place in the world,” Vella said, citing the words of Hannah Arendt, a 20th century German Jewish philosopher and political theorist, who expressed a sense of estrangement after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe and arriving in the United States.

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life; we lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world,” Arendt wrote. “We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unfettered expression of feelings. Once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends.”

This sense of loss and isolation is common to modern refugees, too, Vella said, but may be eased by someone listening to their stories with an understanding ear. Refugees, she said, are commonly eager to tell their stories, which can often be harrowing, as a way of dismantling stereotypes.

“More and more there are sweeping stereotypes about who refugees are, about why they leave their countries, about why they turn up here, about the risks they supposedly pose to life as we know it,” Vella said. “And, as stereotypes do, they distort or miss everything that is important to say.

“Refugees welcome the chance to set the record straight, to tell their stories in their own words, about their country, why they left it, about life on the journey and about life at their destination if they have been lucky enough to reach it, which most, I believe, are not.”

One of those refugees, James Bol Chol, who arrived in the United States in 2007 after fleeing his native Sudan, told a story of survival during the wars that plagued Sudan before its partition into North Sudan and South Sudan in 2011. Chol was among the Lost Boys of Sudan, who worked as a translator for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before being relocated to Omaha, where he has built a life of which, he said, many Africans cannot dream. He has a house, three cars between himself, his wife and his three children, and has founded a nonprofit organization named Clothing for the Needy that ships clothes to African nations where he said the poorest can still be seen walking around virtually naked.

“My daughter is in high school now,” he said. “She is a smart kid. When she came here, she spoke zero English. Now she is in 10th grade and will complete high school in three years. These are opportunities that refugees around the world are looking for. They are looking for something for their children, they are looking for a better life where they can go to work and support their families.”

Vella and Chol were introduced by Creighton University President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, who praised the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service and welcomed the participation in the evening’s events of Lutheran Family Services, which helps resettle refugees assigned to the Omaha area.

“The Jesuit Refugee Service has been accompanying and advocating for refugees and forcibly displaced persons around the globe,” he said. “It has been a journey through the tears of the boat people of Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia, the silent march of millions in Africa, the war and destruction in Iraq and Syria, unrest and instability in Colombia and then Venezuela, the gang violence in the northern triangle of Central America and the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean.

“Throughout these 40 years of shared sorrow and shared pain, the road JRS has walked with refugees has also been filled with moments of reconciliation and great joy.”

Fr. Hendrickson said Creighton will continue to partner with JRS and its global mission, even while working with refugees in Omaha.

“This global phenomenon has local connections as we serve with partners like Lutheran Family Services to welcome our newest neighbors who seek shelter and yearn for safety,” he said.


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