flying refugees

This last week I escorted a group of Somali Bantus and a couple of Sudanese from Nairobi Kenya up to Newark, New Jersey for the International Organization of Migration and the United States Resettlement Program. We were also accompanied on the first half of the trip by 71 Somalis and Ethiopians resettling in the US.

At the beginning I was feeling a bit nervous. First off I really don’t enjoy these flights. I did five in a row in 2003 and got a little burnt out. There could be all sorts of things that go wrong with the adults and the children on the flight, which never seem to happen, but just the thought of “what could happen” causes me large amounts of stress. This in turn makes it a bit difficult to relax and enjoy the ride. The Second being that with all the recent problems associated with flying, I was somewhat concerned that there would be a stupid reaction from somewhere, either other passengers, airline staff or authorities in the airport. I was pleasantly surprised that there were none. The third reason being that I was only supposed to go with 35 people, and when I got to the airport I found out that there were a total of 106. I felt slightly overwhelmed.

In the end I really enjoyed myself. It was stressful at a few points, but not unbearable.

The starting point for the Somali Bantus is in a refugee camp in the northern part of kenya called Kakuma where most of them have been staying since 1993. At least the adults. For the first time for many of them they get on board an old propeller airplane early in the morning and fly an hour and a half south to Nairobi. Nairobi is often the first city any of these people have seen. Prior to this, most of them have stayed in a place with very few concrete or wooden buildings, and none which are more than 2 stories high. In Nairobi they are taken to a departure center. They sit there for about 6 hours, then get on a bus, go to the airport and wait for about 5 more hours before getting on their first international flight headed for the US.

I met up with my group at the departure center. We all got on the bus and went on the airport. The waiting was the worst. There was really no where to sit and wait, so everyone just found a spot on the floor and chilled out. Children running around making loud children noises, chasing after candy they had dropped on the floor and throwing it in their mouths.

I’m a bit shy, so I don’t always make a lot of conversation with people. Most of the time I just sat and watched all the people sitting on the floor and all the other people watching us wandering why we were sitting on the floor.

Finally I started to talk with a few of the people I was sitting with. One man asked me where I was going. He seemed a bit confused with my presence there. I explained to him what i was doing and why I was there and then he started to laugh a bit. He explained to me that he, along with several of his companions, had thought I was one of the refugees as well. They thought I had come Kakuma and were very curious why i was in the camps and why I was resettling in the US.

We finally got on the flight and everything went well. We first flew to Brussels and then switched planes. We spent about four hours in the Brussels airport. Everyone took the time to hit the toilets and wash themselves up just a bit. I enjoyed watching the reactions of other passengers in the airport as they went into the toilets and came back out immediately with very confused looks after having walked into bathrooms filled with strange foreign looking folks cleaning their children in the bathroom sinks.

At one point as we were walking through the airport, some of the mothers I was with noticed a lady pushing a baby in a baby carriage. I have no idea what these ladies were saying, but they were pointing, commenting and finding it very amusing. I am not sure if they found it astonishing, ridiculous or maybe just interesting.

We finally got on our Continental Airlines flight to the US. It was a bit chaotic because they sat us after they let everyone else get on the flight and we took a bit of time to get everyone organized and in their places. The flight attendants were getting a little ancy and clearly frustrated, but I was very impressed that they treated all of us in a very nice, professional manner the whole time.

I was about to sit an old man in a seat that was next some woman from the US. We were trying to get folks seated so we could get the plane airborne, and then I was going to go and move folks around so they would be more comfortable. But before I had a chance to seat the man, she blurted out to me “He can’t sit here! He is going to need some help, and I can’t possibly do that!” She then asked the flight attendant for a different seat away from our group. There is a word that I am thinking of for this lady which starts with a “B” and ends with an “itch”. But I won’t write it here.

Once we arrived in Newark, we all got off the plane, found the representatives from IOM that were meeting us, I said goodbye, and I was finished with my escort. I always finish these trips with a bit of sadness. I say goodbye and have no idea what happens to any of them. Well, I do have small idea. I know they spend a few more hours in the airport, go through the immigration process, then each family is put on a separate flight to one of 40 cities throughout the US where they go to try and start a new life. Sometimes I wish I had an idea of how those lives were turning out. Whether or not they ever actually find themselves living the american dream or only learning to suffer in an alien existance.

I spent one night in Newark, the next day tooling around a small part of Manhattan spending money I didn’t have and then jumping on my return flight to Kenya. I was thinking to go see Lady Liberty, since I have never seen that any of the times I have been in NYC before, but instead i went and checked out the {Apple Store on 5th Avenue – ref apple store}. Something tells me the Statue would have been more impressive.

Now I am just tired. Maybe it is jet-lag, but I think it is mostly pure exhaustion. Spending the majority of three days in the inside of an airplane in economy can really suck the life out of a person.

In other news: the children of the lady working for us to clean our house were kidnapped by this ladies cousin who is a nut-case. will write more about that later