Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New Life

From a Governmental official in Chad, to impoverished refuge and discrimination in Côte d’Ivoire, to a basement apartment in the Bronx, tracing one Man’s journey...

Every Tuesday and Thursday Nadoum Bour comes to an English language class on the 11th floor of the Chanin building on 42nd and Lexington. He says ‘bonjour’ as he walks past the office, and into the classroom for the adult literacy class. Bour has been in the United States for eight months, he speaks French, a bit of Arabic and a few varieties of Chadian dialect. He does not speak very much English and has difficulty writing; chronic arthritis makes his handwriting shaky and barely legible. But Bour is determined; he attends the literacy classes, always sitting next to the other elder man in the class, Fieke, from Kosovo, who is also a refugee.

Bour is 6’3,” with a strong build and soft facial features. He moves slowly because of chronic back pain, and because he is from Chad, where people do not move with the same haste as New Yorkers. The only time he misses English class is when he has physical therapy, for his arthritis and his eyes. He has endured back pain for many years, since his days on horse and camel back as a government official in the Saharan regions of Chad. Chad is a land-locked country in central Africa, officially the Republic of Chad since its Independence from French colonial power in 1960. However, since 1965 the country has endured civil war between the North and South, countless tried rebel coup d’etats and more recently, the Darfur crisis in Sudan has spilled over the border, creating further unrest.

Bour has not revisited Chad since he and his second wife, Emilie were forced to leave in 1994. Bour had only just been appointed as the Chief Officer of the Douane, customs and taxes, when rebels, who threatened his life and seized his position, removed him. Although he came from a strong family heritage of village leaders, and had worked alongside the French as a customs official since he was 18, he was forced out, and almost killed because the Rebels wanted his desk and title, because they wanted control of the country’s imports and exports.

Chad is considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries. A few of the elements that constitute many of the conflicts we see in Africa are plaguing Chad; growing oil wealth, complex ethnic ties that transcend borders (which were created by colonization), and Presidents that aim to stay in power longer than their constitutions allow, and who will take military action when it doesn’t go to plan. Despite an ever-increasing insurgency Chadian President Idriss Deby has secured his Presidency since 1991, illustrating the long road of conflict that Chad faces.

Bour left his native Chad and his first wife to care for their home while he, Emilie and one of his sons sought refuge in Côte d’Ivoire. They knew someone who worked for the BAD, Banque pour Afrique Development, The African Development Bank normally works with micro finance and training, but somehow they managed to get Bour and Emilie into safety. According to the couple, they faced a great deal of discrimination from the Ivorian people. In the fourteen years that they resided in Abidjan neither of them were able to find substantial work; Emilie, who is 20 years younger than Bour, was able to sell fresh juices and textiles to make money for food.

Emilie, Bour nor his son were ever able to return to Chad, and because of their dire living situation in Côte d’Ivoire they made desperate contact with the one person they knew in the States. Bour’s niece had moved to New York from Paris in her youth, and was able to help them by contacting the International Rescue Committee. The IRC in the U.S. helps refugees, who are fleeing war or persecution by providing immediate aid, including food and shelter. Last August, after 14 years outside of their country, away from and unable to contact their extensive kin, they were resettled in New York City.

“They told us that it would be the most expensive city in America...but they also said it would be the easiest for transport. We wanted to be here because of our niece, she is the only person that we know.” said Emilie. “It’s good. But my English! Ah, I don’t know English.”

Emilie no longer attends the literacy classes at the IRC. She suffers from depression and anxiety, and the hour journey from their home in the Bronx to midtown increases her stress. Emilie only bore one son, who was killed a few years ago and she has suffered greatly since then. Although she knows that she is pre menopausal, she is trying to conceive a child, it is the one thing that she feels like she can create in this new life.

Emilie spends most of the day in their basement apartment in the Bronx. She buys vegetables and foufou (traditional West African staple) flour in bulk, and cooks traditional West African stews for Bour and their son, Pepe. The apartment was found for them by the IRC, a one-bedroom basement apartment, with a small living area in which they built a wall to create another room for Pepe. The exposed piping on the low ceiling echoes and clinks with use, but does not supply enough heat, as it escapes out of the thin paned windows. Emilie explains that the window allows mildew in, and that the superintendent always says he will come, but never does. Sometimes she yells as him, but he doesn’t understand French, and she can’t understand much of his English.

The apartment is cold, and there obviously isn’t enough money to buy more blankets or space heaters. The couple has been financially independent from the IRC for over two months. The resettlement aid is only for the first six months, and then the refugees are supposed to be self-sufficient. They receive food stamps, and Pepe works nine-hour shifts at a factory that produces VHS and electronic products. Bour, in his age and health is unable to work and Emilie doesn’t have sufficient English or confidence to find a job yet.

Emilie is unable to read, like, according to the United Nations Statistics Division – 87% of Chadian women. She is learning the English alphabet from the beginning, which is tiring when you are in your late forties and have not been to school, albeit a few years in primary school. Though Emilie and Bour do their utmost to create a new life here, it isn’t easy.
Emilie looks at Bour lovingly, “He used to write so well, you wouldn’t know that he used to drive around Chad in an issued Land Rover as the boss of the Douane...he has reverted back to being like a child” she said, referring to his how different he has become through the trials of the past 15 years and ability to communicate who he is, and what they need for their new life.

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