Dr Don Miller


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Dr. Don Miller has interviewed over 2,000 refugees who escaped from danger in many different countries.  These are their stories as told to Dr. Miller.  The stories are true.  Sometimes the stories of several different individuals or families have been combined into a composite story.  The names have been changed as well as details in the stories to protect identities.  The horror is what these refugees went through in their native countries.  This included ethnic cleansings, starvation, torture, beatings and long periods of incarceration.  In many countries, people went to jail for their beliefs or for making a casual negative comment about the current regime.  The horror included periods of up to 20 years in a refugee camp.  These refugee camps were often dangerous places where you lived, in a tent, in the desert with insufficient food and water.  These refugee camps were often places where diseases and death stalked the residents; the youngest were often at the highest risk.  The camps put people in very harsh circumstances in addition to exposing them to unending boredom.  Some of the refugees waited up to 20 years before finally getting to the United States. 

The hope was that in America you would be free, you would have food to eat and your children could make something of themselves.  Many of the refugees who came to the U.S. worked hard and got a piece of the American dream, a house, a business, a good job.  But many others had been badly damaged by the beatings and horror.  The moment they closed their eyes the nightmares started.  For them, America meant sleepless nights and days spent shaking on the couch and jumping in fear if there was a knock on the door. These were the walking wounded who saw family members murdered in front of them or had spent days or even weeks in a coma after a beating.  They knew they were finished.  Some couldn't remember their own names, let alone work.  Their only hope was for their children.  These children, in their native country, would most likely have never gone beyond elementary school, if that far.  In many refugee families, their children are graduating from college and becoming nurses, engineers and schoolteachers in America.  What follows are survival stories from Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia and China.  As this work progresses, survival stories from several other countries will be added.



My name is Bill.  That is the name I took when I became a United States Citizen.  When I was a child in Cambodia we had to show respect for my parents.  My parents had six children, including myself.  Out of respect for my parents, the children were not allowed to be taller than them.  So if they were sitting down, and we needed to pass by them in the house we would have to get down on our knees and crawl by them. 

My father was a high-ranking officer in the Cambodian army fighting against the Khmer Rouge Communists.  The Communists won and took over Cambodia in 1975.  By the time the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and stopped the slaughter in 1979, the Khmer Rouge had killed two million Cambodians, a third of the population.  My father and three of my teenage brothers were killed right after the Khmer Rouge took over.  Since my father was a high-ranking officer, his family had to be punished so that's why they killed my three brothers.  I have seen the movie, The Killing Fields, and that movie did not even come close to showing the horrors that went on in Cambodia in those four years. 

The Khmer Rouge was eliminating a class of people.  Right away they killed anyone with an education.  They killed anyone who was a high class individual or had money.  They killed the people who had been part of the former regime that had resisted their take-over. 

My mother and I were forced to go to a labor camp growing rice.  My other two brothers were sent to other labor camps.  You could get killed for anything in the labor camps.  You could get killed for not working hard enough or fast enough.  We were forced to work 16 or 18 hours a day.  There was not enough food so we were always weak and could not move very fast.  You could get killed for trying to eat some of the rice you were harvesting, if they saw you do it.  If you were of a light color, wore glasses, didnt work hard enough, said something the Khmer Rouge didnt like, you would be killed.  They killed educated people, doctors and foreigners, such as Vietnamese or Chinese who were living or working in Cambodia.  Sometimes if the Khmer Rouge soldiers were not looking, someone might be lucky enough to catch a rat.  They would bite its head off while it was still alive and any of the people standing around would take a few bites, stuffing the pieces into their mouth and gobbling them down to try to stay alive. 

One time my mother and I were in the fields and the Khmer Rouge got mad because I was working too slow because I was tired.  They decided to beat me to death.  My mother threw her body over mine and took the beating for me.  The Khmer Rouge was impressed with my mother's act of bravery and let her take the beating for me.  Even so, I almost died from the beating.

Large numbers of people would be marched into the camps.  They would be bound, meaning tied with their hands behind their back.  Then hundreds of the bound people would be marched out to the fields.  The next day when our captors were taking us to work in a rice field we would see hundreds of new bodies lying in the fields.  The bodies were left to rot.  Animals, often rats, fed on the bodies.  The stench when getting near the bodies, sometimes for months, was horrible.  This happened often, sometimes every night for a few weeks at a time.  They used bullets to kill people if they had a lot of people to kill.  But to save bullets, they often beat people to death using their rifle butts.  Beating people to death took longer than a single bullet. 

We slept in something like stables, on the ground.  Sometimes we slept on dead grass.  Sometimes when the people in the next little alcove came back to their sleeping place from the fields, the soldiers would come, tie them up and march them out and kill them.  This created a state of terror.  We never knew when they would be coming for us.  We rarely knew why the people were marched out and killed. 

One time there was a family in the next alcove.  Everyone was always starving.  Everyone had gotten thin.  A lot of people just fell over dead from illness or from hunger or other things.  Maybe some just gave up.  In this family, one of their children died.  They didn't tell the Khmer Rouge.  They kept collecting the dead child's ration of rice to feed to their other children.  They cut pieces of his flesh to cook and to feed to their other children.  When these parents looked at the swollen bellies of their surviving children and heard them crying and begging for food they made the decision.  That was to feed the flesh of their dead child to the still living children so that they might survive.  But the Khmer Rouge found out one day about the deception.  They became very angry and tied the hands of all the family, parents and children, and took them to the fields and killed them all. 

The Khmer Rouge were an uneducated people who came down from the mountains to run Cambodia.  They kept raiding Vietnamese villages near the Cambodian border and slaughtering everyone they found.  After four years of murder by the Khmer Rouge the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge fled back to the mountains.  We were freed.  We went back to our home village.  When we got there we found that all of our possessions were gone and someone else was living in our house.  So we moved into someone else's house, someone who had not yet returned to our village.  Of course, so many were killed that we could have been living in the house of someone who would never return.  My two brothers also came back to our village when they were freed from their labor camps.  My brothers had been in different camps; I was the only one with my mom.  But it was still hard, there were no crops, food was scarce.  We had been growing our food before 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took us away.  Nothing had been grown in our fields for four years. 

We knew the Vietnamese had sent the Khmer Rouge back to the Mountains.  But we didn't know if they would come back again.  We left our village and went to Thailand, where we heard there were refugee camps.  We stayed there for two years and finally came to the United States in 1981. 

That was 20 years ago that we came to the United States.  I still have nightmares almost every night, but I have a job and I earn money.  But my mother has not done so well.  She has high blood pressure; she has problems sleeping at night.  She cries a lot, when she watches TV, when she looks at the photo albums.  She has nightmares.  If she hears a sound at night she jumps up thinking the Khmer Rouge are at the door.  She thinks they have come to get her and tie her up and take her to the field to kill her.  She saw this happen hundreds of times in Cambodia.  She is afraid to be left alone.  She gets angry easily.  She argues a lot.  She is not doing well.  She is angry that she is not dead like her husband because if she were, she wouldn't have to suffer any more.  My mother no longer insists that I have to always be at a lower level than her.  So some of the old habits have been changed. 


My name is Khat.  I was 18 when the communists took over Cambodia.  I was placed in a forced labor camp for single people.  I was separated from my family but one of my brothers was sent to the same camp.  I lived with the single women on one side of the camp; my brother lived with the men on the other side of the camp.  We worked almost around the clock with only a few hours of sleep and were given only starvation rations.  I was not allowed to talk to my brother, though we were in the same camp.  But, across the yard, I could see my brother sometimes.  We could look at each other sometimes though we didn't dare to wave or talk.  One day after we had been in the camp for a month, while I was looking at my brother the Khmer Rouge came up to him and beat him to death with their rifles.  I watched him die.  I could do nothing.  Often, people were killed as an example to the others.  I later heard that the Khmer Rouge had discovered that my brother had been a soldier in the Army, fighting against the Khmer Rouge before they took over Cambodia.  A lot of people, when the Khmer Rouge came, burned their army uniforms and tried to hide their past if they had done anything against the Khmer Rouge.  But, the Khmer Rouge would torture people or give people extra rations if they told on someone.  Someone had told that my brother used to be a soldier. 

In the camps the guards would often take the women and force them to have sex.  I was about to be raped by a Khmer Rouge guard when another guard saw what was going on and took pity on me.  I was screaming and trying to fight him off.  He was pulling my clothes off when the other guard came and argued with him and I didn't get raped. 

If I were too sick to work I would be allowed to rest just one day and then forced to go back to work the next day.  People often died of starvation and disease as well as being murdered for no reason.  Besides watching my brother being beaten to death I saw many others murdered in the same way.  I was almost killed once for eating a piece of fruit off a tree.  I was very hungry.  I was caught.  They kicked me a lot and I was unconscious for a long time.  When I woke up finally I was very sore they would not let me eat for the rest of the day.  It was time for the people to eat but they kept me tied up until everyone had eaten then they untied me and let me go back to my sleeping place still very hungry.  I was lucky I was not killed for eating the piece of fruit.  Other times I saw people being killed for what the Khmer Rouge called stealing fruit or other food.  I lived through the four years the Khmer Rouge ran the country.  I was just about to be forced into marriage by the Khmer Rouge, to someone in the camp when the Vietnamese freed the country from the Khmer Rouge.  I went back to my village and found someone and I got married.  But we didn't feel safe and after awhile we managed to get to a refugee camp in Thailand and in a few more years we finally got to the United States.  Almost every night I hear voices saying, Take him away and kill him because he used to be a soldier.  It is my brother.  I don't know if it is a dream or not at the time.  It takes me a long time to remember I am in the United States now and not in Cambodia any more.


My name is Mon.  I was okay before the Communists took over Cambodia.  I was married in 1970.  In 1975 the communists forced us to go to labor camps.  Since we had children we went to a different camp than single people.  There was never enough food.  I used to go beg for food every day from the Khmer Rouge village leaders.  They would always beat me for bothering them.  I still don't know why I went back every day.  Maybe it was because of my children.  Their stomachs were swollen and they cried for food all the time.  Maybe when I would go and get beaten unconscious every day I wouldn't be able to see my dying children.

My friends would come later in the night, when the Khmer Rouge were sleeping, and take me back to where my family slept.  When I walked I was so skinny I was weak.  I had to use a stick to walk.  They would still force me to go out in the fields to work.  When I would pass out and fall down in the fields from lack of food they would take me back to the sleeping area.  At night, the communists would sometimes hide people in your little hut to spy on you.  If you said anything bad about the Khmer Rouge you would be executed.

Three of my children died of starvation in 1977 over a period of a few days.  My wife screamed all day and all night.  I was too weak to scream.  After our children died the Communists sent us to different camps.  I don't know why.  My wife was allowed to take with her our only child who was still alive.  I somehow stayed alive at the new camp.  In 1979 the Vietnamese Communists freed us.  I met my wife on the way back to our village.  She had our son with her.  When we talked to some of the other people who had been set free I found that everyone in my family had died, some of starvation or illness, some of diseases.  My father, mother, a brother and a sister all died.  My wife and I didn't go back to our village.  We went to Thailand to a refugee camp.  It took us more years to finally get to the United States. 

In the refugee camp we had more children, and more after we came to the United States.  Of the nine children my wife gave birth to, six are still alive.  But when I got back together with my wife in 1979, she said I had changed.  I would get upset easy.  I forgot things a lot.  Now, it is years later and my wife complains that she can't get me to take a shower, that she has to tell me over and over to take a shower.  I tell her, Why do I have to take a bath, there is nothing wrong with me, but she says I smell.  She thinks I am hungry when my stomach is growling.  If she asks if I am hungry, I tell her no, I am not hungry.  I have lost interest in eating.  Nights are hard for me, that's when I think the Khmer Rouge are coming to get me and take me back there again.  I hear banging at the door but when I go to the door no one is there.  Sometimes I try to help by getting the mail.  But a little later when they say, Where is the mail, I have forgotten where I put it.  When people ask me my name I tell them, Daddy of Chay.  Chay was our oldest child.  If they keep asking, No, what was the name your parents gave you, I tell them those names are not important because my wife calls me Daddy of Chay.  I do admit I do not remember things as well as I used to.



My name is Bai.  I was born and raised in Vietnam but my parents came from China.  I was fighting the Communists in Vietnam as a member of the Special Forces; I was attached to a unit close to the Saigon, the capital.  My unit would join other units to defend the capital.  In 1968, a band of 45 communists disguised as Special Forces soldiers in a uniform like mine caught me when the Communists were figuring out how to take Saigon.  They got lost coming into Saigon and beat me to force me to tell them the correct way to the capital.  I gave them the wrong directions so they ran off going the wrong way.  They left me where I was.  I think they didn't kill me because they thought it would make too much noise and draw attention to them.  The Communists took over Vietnam in 1975.  If they had found out that I had been in the Special Forces fighting them for many years I would have been severely punished.  I would have been kept in a P.O.W camp for years.  The Communists called them reeducation camps. 

I told the Communists I had joined the Vietnamese Republic Army just a few days before they took over Saigon and didn't know anything.  So I only had to go to three days of reeducation classes.  Since that beating in 1968, though it was long ago, my memory is bad.  I forget where I put things.  I get headaches and dizzy spells.  I can't cook because I forget that I put something on the stove and it burns.  My wife asks me to do things for her and I tell her I will but if I don't do it immediately I forget then she gets mad.


My name is Tu Thi.  My husband joined the South Vietnamese Republic Army in 1966 when he was 23 years old.  In the service he was injured many times, he lost consciousness many times, once when he rolled over in a jeep.  In the seven years in the P.O.W. camp he was beaten into unconsciousness many times for not working fast enough or because the guards were angry about something.  In the United States the soldiers would go to Vietnam for a year.  Sometimes they would have two tours a year each.  But the Vietnamese soldiers had to fight for years.  My husband fought from 1966 until he was captured in 1975 and put in a P.O.W. camp for seven years. 

When the Communists took over Vietnam in 1975, they came to our house and told us to get out.  I argued with the soldiers and told them this was my house so they hit me in the back of my head with a rifle butt.  I still have a half inch deep little trench along a four inch scar in the back of my head.  My skull was fractured.  I was knocked unconscious.  I woke up in a hospital.  Since my husband was a high-ranking officer he went to the reeducation camps for many years, until 1982.  My children and I went to live with my mother while he was in the P.O.W. camp.  The communists went to all the houses when they took over and demanded all the money and gold.  But my mother had hidden her money and that's how we lived for several years. 

When my husband was finally released from the P.O.W. camp he was not allowed to work on a regular job because he was considered an enemy since he had fought against the communists.  He worked as a taxi-driver but instead of a taxi, he used a motorcycle to take people places.  He didn't like this job so we moved into the jungles.  We built a place to live and we worked on the rubber trees and sold rubber.  Because my children were considered to be the children of a former enemy they had to go to second-rate schools and they would never have been allowed to go to college.  In the U.S., my sons have graduated from college. 

We came to the U.S. on the Orderly Departure Program.  The U.S. brought to America the people who had helped fight the Communists years before.  It was 17 years after the communists took over before we finally came to the U.S.  All the things that happened, losing my house, getting beaten, my husband in the P.O.W. camp for years, keep running through my head.  I've had headaches and memory problems since I woke up in the hospital with my head bleeding from being beaten with the rifle butts.  I'm sick a lot. 

As soon as I fall asleep the nightmares begin.  Sometimes I dream someone is putting a big stone on my chest.  Other times I am in the mountains or the ocean or flying in the heavens with music.  I am frightened by these dreams because the Vietnamese believe that when you die you fly over the mountains and the oceans on your way to heaven.  So when I wake up I am afraid that I am close to dying.  In the middle of the dreams I think I have already died.  I light incense all the time as a way of praying for myself so the gods will protect me so I will not die.


My name is Hung.  I was a fisherman in Vietnam when the communists took over in 1975.  The communists took all my property, my house, and two fishing boats.  I was accused of being a member of the resistance party and I was sent to a reeducation camp for two weeks.  The communists wanted to put me in jail too.  But I had managed to hide enough gold and money to bribe enough people to keep out of jail.  I was very angry with the communists after that and I decided to escape from Vietnam.  But I kept getting caught.  For many years after the Communists took over, when you got caught trying to escape from Vietnam you went to jail for at least two years.  Communist boats patrolled the waters and caught a lot of people in boats trying to escape.  In the seven times I was caught escaping, sometimes I went to jail for a week or two and sometimes I didn't go to jail at all.  This was because either my family or myself were able to pay bribes.  But the seventh time I was caught they told me that if I tried to escape one more time I would be put in jail forever whether I paid a lot of money or not.  But I was tired of Vietnam so I escaped again, and this time, I was successful. 

There were 70 people in the boat.  We pretended we were going to catch fish but we just kept sailing away.  We were lost on the ocean for 40 days.  There were both Thai and Malaysian pirates robbing the boats of people who tried to escape from Vietnam.  We were robbed four times.  Each time there was less for the pirates to rob so they would beat people to try to find where any other money and jewels had been hidden on the boat.  I was beaten unconscious during each of the four robberies.  The women were raped during the robberies.  The young and pretty girls hid in a stinking part of the boat under the life boats, where there was a smell of stinky dead fish.  The pirates would look in these spots and smell the stink and see the garbage and think no one would be down there.  Two of the women who had been raped committed suicide while they were being raped by biting their tongues.  After finishing raping the women who killed themselves in the middle of the rape, the pirates threw the bodies of the two dead women into the ocean.  We somehow managed to get to the Philippines where I waited in a refugee camp for a few months until I was able to come to the U.S.  I arrived at the refugee camp very sick and I was in the refugee camp hospital for a month because of my injuries from the pirates. 

Now I have headaches all the time.  I always have nightmares about my boats being taken by the communists and about being caught by the communists and taken to jail.  Sometimes the nightmares are about the pirates raping the women and beating me up.  Sometimes I sit in my living room and it seems like I'm on the boat and I see the pirates jumping onto our boat with knives and guns.  I yell and they disappear. 

My wife decided she wanted to escape from Vietnam so two months after I left she decided to escape from Vietnam.  She wasn't able to escape with me because she had to be at home to pretend I had just gone out fishing and I was coming back home that night.  If we were both gone, a lot of people kept watch and would have reported that we were both gone at the same time which would have been suspicious.  Another reason we couldn't escape at the same time was because if I had been caught I would have needed my wife to help.  If the communists were to have kept their promise to keep me in jail forever, my wife would have to be around to take food to me at the jail and pay the jailors so I would get better treatment. 

My wife heard that I had gotten to the refugee camp and then she got on a boat with 20 people.  They were lost on the ocean for two weeks and were rescued by a commercial ship that took her and the others on the boat to the Philippines and she joined me in the refugee camp.  Pirates had not robbed her boat.  But they ran out of food and water and two people on the boat died from lack of food and water and illness. 


My Name is Hang.  I didn't like what the communists were doing to the country so like many others, I decided to escape from Vietnam.  There were twelve people on the boat including the owner of the boat, who also had decided to try to escape with us in 1982.  But a Vietcong police boat was patrolling the waters, looking for people who were trying to escape.  They boarded our boat.  Two of the policemen started piloting our boat back to the shore where we would all be put in prison for trying to escape.  The owner of the boat somehow managed to snatch a gun from one of the Vietcong soldiers and killed both of them and threw their bodies overboard.  The Vietcong had already called in the names of the escapees and a description of the boat they were bringing in.  So the boat owner couldn't try to escape in his own boat because if he were caught again he would be guilty of murder. 

When the captured boat with the Vietcong police didn't get back to shore the communists knew something was wrong.  They found the bodies of the dead Vietcong policemen floating in the water the next day.  Everyone on the boat went in different directions when we got back to shore.  I never heard from any of them again.  I don't know what happened to any of them.  I went back to my home where I had been living with my parents until I tried to escape.  I returned home in the middle of the night.  My parents dug a hole under the floor to hide me.  I lived in that hole for two years.  The communists came to my house every day to search for me.  I would hear their boots every day stomping through the house, looking in closets and looking under everything.  They never thought to pull up the floor to look for me.  If I had been found my parents would have gone to jail for hiding me and I would have been sentenced to life in prison for being on a boat with escapees on which two Vietcong police had been killed. 

The space in the hole was just long enough to sleep in.  I could climb out of the hole by standing on a chair because the hole was just a little taller than me.  In the first three months in the hole I didn't come out at all.  My parents would lower food, water and towels down into the hole so I could clean myself and eat.  After three months my parents would let me come up just for a couple of minutes at a time to use the bathroom and bathe then go back in the hole.  The next time I came out of the hole for more than a few minutes was in 1984.  My parents had arranged for me to escape on another boat, a fishing boat, which would be a little safer.  There were fewer passengers on the fishing boat.  With all the people on the other boat in my first escape attempt, it looked suspicious.  A fishing boat usually has a crew of just two or three.  The trip to Indonesia took a week and we went into a refugee camp there.  I came to the U.S. in 1986 and met and married my husband in 1990. 

It wasn't long after I was married that I started to get sick.  I don't know if living in the dark in a hole for two years had anything to do with it but I wouldn't doubt it.  I am in pain all the time; I hurt all over.  I have nightmares a lot about the first escape, being caught, and the Vietcong police being killed.  Sometimes when I am depressed and alone doing nothing I hear someone call my name and no one is there.  It makes me think that the two Vietcong policemen have come back in spirit form to get me.  My husband has threatened to divorce me because he said I keep him awake at night because I can't sleep and I pace back and forth in the house.  I took a bunch of my pills to try to kill myself because I am ashamed that I am too sick to be a good wife and mother.  But my husband gave me something to make me throw up the pills so I didn't die.  So now he leaves only the pills that I am supposed to take that day and takes the rest with him to work.  So I guess he doesn't want me to kill myself even if he is mad at me sometimes.  My husband has to help the children with their homework because I can't understand it.



My name is Amad.  I was in jail in Iraq for five years total during four different imprisonments.  My first arrest was in 1980.  Sometimes I was in jail for a few months, the last time, just before 1995, I had been in jail for three years.  Iraqi opposition forces got me out of jail in 1995.  They took me to the Kurdish area that was no longer controlled by the Iraqi government.  During the times I was in jail I was always tortured.  I was knocked unconscious many times.  My legs were broken; the nails were pulled off my thumbs.  Saddam's soldiers always wanted me to tell them things, confess to things and tell them who was plotting against them.  Now, years later, I have many problems from the beatings. 

My legs hurt all the time.  The doctors say I have damaged nerves and the bones did not heal back right and it hurts to walk.  Muscles are damaged in my arms; I can't lift anything.  I have pain all over my body.  I worry all the time.  It takes me a long time to go to sleep and when I do nightmares wake me up in a cold sweat after a couple hours.  I have dreams that I was just taken back to jail and I'm being beaten and tortured.  I'm afraid to go back to sleep because the nightmares will start all over again. 


My name is Saad.  I was born in Northern Iraq, in the Kurdish area.  But I ended up in Iran and married to an Iranian girl.  I applied to medical school in Iran; I had the highest admission scores anyone ever had.  The Iranian government decided they wanted my help.  There had been a lot of trouble between Iran and Iraq.  Since I was a Kurd from Iraq, they wanted to spy on other Iraqis, especially the Kurds.  They figured I would know a lot of people and could get information from them for the government.  I told them I couldn't do that so they kicked me out of school and took me to jail.  I was arrested three times.  I spent a year in jail altogether.  They thought they could talk me into the spying.  I was shocked with electricity; they beat me almost every day.  They broke one of my arms. 

They would let me out of jail to think about it then later, arrest me again and put more pressure on me.  One time when I was let out of jail they dropped me off at the beach.  I paid a smuggler to smuggle my wife, my children and myself over the border into Pakistan.  I got a job and we were doing okay in Pakistan till three years later in 1993.  The Iranian government agents tracked me down finally and one night there was a knock on the door and they pushed their way into our house and beat me so there was blood all over.  My wife saw the blood and screamed and they started beating on my wife.  They tore up our house.  My wife was knocked unconscious for 12 hours.  My wife has been too frightened to open the door ever since then whenever anyone knocks.  A month later someone tried to kill our son out in front of our house by running him down with a car.  He was injured and still has problems with one foot.

We realized Pakistan was not safe.  We went to China.  They let us stay for three years but then decided to kick us out.  Pakistan didn't want us back even though we had been given amnesty there the first time.  But I guess they had to let us back in.  We applied for asylum with the U.S. government and we stayed in Pakistan for three years until we were finally allowed to come to the U.S. in 1998.  My wife and I have many problems still.  We have a lot of fear.  But my children are going to college and I'm proud of them.  I know they will make something of themselves. 


My name is Yousif.  Saddam Hussein's army drafted me during the Iran-Iraq War but I didn't go because millions were dying on the battlefield in a stupid war.  The soldiers were poorly equipped in training and equipment.  I tried to take care of my family the best I could by catching and selling fish but the soldiers caught up with me and put me in jail.  They beat me every day, as is the procedure there.  I still have scars on my back where they used electric shocks.  I was put in a swing and spun around with people hitting me with clubs and sticks. 

I guess I was lucky because the Gulf War started and Kuwait was liberated.  There was rebellion all over and the prisoners who were in jail at that time were released.  When I was let out of jail I decided it was time to leave.  My family and I went across the desert to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia.  In America, my family is doing well.  My 18 year-old-daughter has married a nice man.  But after I left Iraq, since they couldn't get me, they killed my father.  A lot of people thought that Saddam was on his way out after Kuwait was liberated and took part in the rebellion.  When Saddam got control again he killed all the people he could who had taken part in the rebellion.  Plenty of people were around to rat out the ones he tried to overthrow Saddam. 

It wasn't long after they killed my father.  We heard that my wife, sisters' house had been bombed and her niece's face had been badly burned.  One of my brothers was ordered at the age of 16 to report to the army to fight in the war against Iran.  He knew he would be killed if he went so he hid out but they found him and put him in jail and tortured him for a year.  He was released at age 17 after he promised he would go in the Army but he knew he would be killed there so someone gave him some money and he escaped to Greece and got to the U.S. years before the rest of us.  Some of my family went to other countries, England and several other countries.  One of my wife's brothers was killed in 1983 because when he was in a battle half the troops with him were killed so he went home.  He was caught and shot as a deserter.  Another one of her brothers was killed after the rebellion failed.  My name was on an assassination list. 

If someone calls my family and tells me who it is, ten minutes later, if they ask me who called, I have already forgotten.  Since the month of beatings my memory is bad and I have headaches all the time. 


My name is Khadim.  I was drafted into the Iraqi army in 1972 at a time when the army was persecuting and killing the Kurdish people.  Though I was an Arab, I did not want to go and kill Kurds, so I ran away.  In Iraq being a draft dodger is a capital crime and you can be shot or hanged when you get caught.  The soldiers caught up with me in 1975 and I was shot in the back twice.  I didn't die but I have a 14-inch scar and two other scars where they opened me up to take out the bullets.  One kidney was destroyed by the bullets and was removed as well as my spleen, colon and part of my small intestine.  Ive lost feeling on the left side of my body all around the area of the wounds.  If I put any weight on that side and try to carry something the whole area bulges out because the muscles are all damaged and don't hold my insides in very good.  I have pain in the abdomen all the time. 

After I recovered from the surgery I was put in the Iraqi Army for 2 years driving a truck.  After 1 years I was seeing a doctor and he said I was in bad shape so I was released from the Army around 1977 with a small pension.  I got married but I didn't work for a long time but around 1980 I felt good enough to do a little electrical work until around 1988 when I got too sick to do even simple work.  In 1991, after the Gulf War, the army was attacking my city, getting Saddam back in power after the rebellion.  Bombs were dropping on houses so we ran off to Saudi Arabia.  We lived in the desert there for three years in a refugee camp until we were allowed to come to the United States. 

The heat and sun in the desert did something to my eyes and I can't see very well now.  They tell me don't worry, I am in the United States and things will be okay but I always worry about what will happen.  People say, look, you have seven children all living with you and going to school learning things and that they will be successful in America because they study hard.  I am trying to believe this but I'm afraid.  Everything hurts all the time.  I wake up with nightmares of bombers coming to drop bombs on my town and snakes of being chased and shot by soldiers and taken to jail.  I sleep very little. 



My name is Fadumo.  I am 70 years old.  I asked for a divorce from my husband in 1977 in Somalia.  The reason was because my husband married another woman.  In Somalia, a man is allowed to have four wives.  However, he must prove that he can support all the wives.  If there is a divorce he must still support his wives or he will be arrested.  His wives each have the right to have their own house; they do not have to share houses with each other.  I did not want to share my husband with another woman and later, maybe even more women, if he could afford it.

I had eight children.  Some of my children had already gotten married by the time of the 1991 Somali uprising.  I was living with my younger children and a brother and sister when the USC soldiers came and robbed our houses.  They killed my brother and sister.  I was in the bathroom with my boys when I heard the gunshots.  When I came out of the bathroom I saw the bodies of my brother and sister lying in the room.  The USC soldiers had written on the wall using my brother and sisters blood.  The blood writing said we should leave the house and we should leave Somalia or we would all be killed.  Then, they started hitting me with rifle butts; they hit me in my head and back.  I ran outside with my children.  I was so scared that I didn't even feel the pain in my back and my head until later.  My head was dripping blood.  I put water on it.  I have had headaches and my memory has been bad ever since. 

One of my sons who was age 15 was visiting my daughter Halimo at the same time the USC were robbing my house.  Some of the USC militia went to my daughter's house too and killed my son.  One of my sons came home and saw the bodies and ran to Kenya.  I went to Ethiopia.  My family was separated.  It took years to finally get to America.  My daughter Halimo already had children by the time of the 1991 uprising.  She, her husband and children came to America in 1995, four years before me.  My husband, his second wife and their 14 children all came to the United States.  My daughter Halimo and one son who was under 21 came to the United States.  My son is married and has children and is working in another state.  I keep asking Halimo why my husband's children from his second marriage could come but most of my children are still in refugee camps in Kenya.  She keeps telling me that his children were under 21 when they came and my children were over 21.  It's not fair.  After awhile I forget the reason she gave me and ask her all over again.

My daughter Halimo came to the United States with her husband and he ran off right after they got here.  One time the welfare people tracked him to New Mexico trying to get child support.  In Somalia a man would never try to get out of taking care of his wife and children.  He would be arrested and all the tribes would put pressure on him to take care of his children.  When Somali men come to America some of them just go bad.  Halimo went back to Somalia to visit.  There is a part of Somalia where our tribe, the Daarood can still go.  If we go to Mogadishu we would be killed because the USC is still in control there.  Halimo met another man in this other part of Somalia, the peaceful part.  She has gone back to see him, she married him since her husband left her; she now has had two of his children.  Halimo's new husband wants to come to the United States but Halimo is afraid that if she brings her new husband over to America he will also leave as soon as he gets here like her other husband did. 


My name is Mohamed.  In 1991 when the USC militia came to my house to rob us and rape the women, they decided to rape my sister.  Though the soldiers had guns, my father and my sister's husband who were also there didn't want to see her dragged into another room to be raped.  They didn't try to grab hold of the soldiers to stop them but they grabbed my sister and tried to keep the soldiers from dragging her out of the room.  I had already been beaten all over when they kept saying, Where is the gold? so I couldn't do anything but lay there bleeding and passing out.  So the soldiers shot all three of them, my sister, father and my brother-in-law.  My father and brother-in-law died immediately but my sister lived.  She still has a bullet in her back and she also came to the United States.

I passed out right after the shots and it was hours later before I woke up.  Our neighbors had come to the house and the dead bodies and my unconscious sister were still there.  The soldiers were angry that they didn't get any money or gold and they didn't want to rape my sister after they thought she was dead.  My sister was in a coma for three days after being shot.  But they took my wife with them and kept her for five days taking turns raping her.  Also, they kept demanding that she tell them where some money was.  They wanted her to lead them to some gold or money.  Somehow after five days she either got away or they let her go.  I had already left by that time because it was too dangerous there.  My wife went to her mother's house to try to recover.  But a month later the USC militia came to her mother's house to rob, rape and kill.  They beat on my wife and demanded money from her and she gave them whatever she had.  Then they went to my mother-in-law who was 75 and started beating her, demanding her money.  While they were busy with my mother-in-law my wife ran out.  My mother-in-law was scared and didn't move fast enough for the soldiers so they shot her.  My wife heard the shot that killed her mother while she was running and then jumping out a window.  After the soldiers left my wife went to her neighbor's for help and they came and buried her mother. 

I had gone to my aunt's house to hide out.  She lived in another area where the USC soldiers hadn't gotten to yet.  It took us 15 months for us to finally get to a Kenya refugee camp. 

We were on a large truck full of people escaping from Mogadishu going to Kenya.  The USC soldiers were roaming around everywhere, even in the desert.  We were halfway to Kenya when the USC soldiers attacked our truck, spraying bullets into the truck.  My wife's brother was killed.  The truck driver kept going, fast, over rough roads.  The USC soldiers wanted to steal the truck too.  They had already taken everything we had.  The truck was full of people; some fell off when the truck hit big bumps.  A lot of the meager possessions people had managed to take with them fell off the truck.  My wife and I fell off the truck and were knocked out.  I woke up first.  The USC soldiers kept chasing the truck but didn't catch it.  They didn't bother to come back and kill the people who fell off the truck so we were lucky.  Other trucks coming along later picked us up and we got together again with our children when we got to the Kenya border.  It was two days before my wife came out of her coma from the fall.  We were in the refugee camp for five years before we were allowed to come to the United States as refugees. 

I don't remember things very good since all that happened.  People ask me questions and I think Im going to answer but then a second later I can't remember the questions.  That's because all the time I am asking, Why did they kill my dad, why did they shoot my sister, why did they kill my brother-in-law?  If I close my eyes, I see the bodies, I think about the five days my wife was raped.  I try to help my wife.  She sends me to the store to get something.  But by the time I get there, even if I kept saying what she wanted over and over, I forgot what I was supposed to get.  So now she goes to the store with me because she realizes I am never going to remember.  I can at least carry some of the groceries home. 


My name is Omar.  I had a business in Somalia where I sold perfume and creams for women.  One night after I had left the store the USC rebels broke into my store and stole everything.  I didn't go back to my store but some people saw it and it was trashed, just some junk and broken bottles on the floor.  So there was no use going back to my store the next day.  We were trying to figure out what to do when some of our own neighbors who belonged to a different tribe than us broke into our house with rifles.  They beat me; hit me on the head with rifle butts.  I was knocked out for two hours.  I was in shock, I couldn't believe that my own neighbors came and robbed us and beat us.  When I woke up I heard gunshots outside.  I thought more people were coming to rob us out and I was right.  I jumped out a window and ran. 

There were still busses running in part of the town.  I got on a bus and went to another city 60 miles away, a city where the USC soldiers had not yet pillaged.  The trip took 24 hours to go just 60 miles because the bus driver was scared too, they were taking back roads and trying to avoid being seen.  They took the long way around to get there.  The phones were still working and I called my wife when we got to the other city.  She said that after I ran off, two more groups of robbers had come to the house.  If I hadn't run off they would have killed me.  They'll kill men faster than women.  They had pushed my wife around, they threatened her, and they pushed my mother-in-law and broke her leg.  My wife looked through the house but could find little to give to the next two groups of robbers.  They took everything, the furniture, the dishes, they carried it all away in trucks.  Most of our possessions had been stolen by my neighbors in the first robbery.  My wife managed to get away with the children and joined me in the other city a week after I had escaped. 

The things that happened in Mogadishu never leave me.  I wake up sweating at night, dreaming of the beatings and the robberies.  I read the Koran and try to calm myself down.  I sleep very little.  Sometimes fear keeps me awake all night.  I go to the Mosque a lot to pray, I spend several hours a day there trying to get these thoughts out of my mind.  They read the Koran for several hours a day out loud with a microphone.  Sometimes the thoughts and bad memories will go away for a while as I am listening to the Koran.  There are about 30 books to the Koran, each 100 pages long. 


My name is Amina.  When we were robbed by the U.S.C. (United Somali Congress) soldiers in 1991 I was hit near my left eyebrow and still have a scar there.  They killed my brother's wife and demanded money.  We left Mogadishu right after the robbers left.  In Marka, near Mogadishu, we got on a boat with 400 people and went to Kenya.  It took six days on the boat to get there.  But we had to wait at the border for two years before Kenya would let us into a refugee camp.  The U.N. fed us while we lived in a temporary camp on the border.  We kept worrying that the tribe who robbed and killed so many people would come after us but maybe being close to the border protected us.  Maybe the Kenya army would get nervous if they saw a bunch of people on their border trying to kill people.  But we found out later that being in the refugee camps did not guarantee safety.

My husband had 12 brothers and some of them had already gone to other countries.  So while we were in the refugee camp they would send him money.  He would sneak out of the refugee camp to go buy food in the town.  He often had to bribe policemen in the Kenya refugee camp to even get back into the camp with the food.  The U.N. rations were not always very good and it was hard to get enough to feed our children.  We thought we were safe in the refugee camp but sometimes at night, when the U.N. guards weren't on duty, the U.S.C. soldiers came with guns and would sneak into the refugee camp in Kenya.  They slit the back of our tent and snuck in demanding money and they even dug into the dirt floor of our refugee tent looking for money or gold.  So the U.S.C. soldiers follow the Daarood tribe into the refugee camp to rob and kill them.  They would take people at gunpoint into the woods, raping the women and killing others. 

We have been in the United States for a few years now.  Someone asked me if I had any friends and I said no.  But my daughter says that I have friends who come by to see me but I don't remember any friends coming to see me.  My daughter says that I can't remember the names of people who I've known for years even when they are sitting in front of me.  I admit that since that beating in 1991 my memory has gotten very bad.  My daughter also complains to me about poor Ikar.  She comes to our house a lot and I ask her how is her mother.  Ikar says, My mother is dead!  I tell her that can't be because I just saw her a few days ago.  But she keeps telling me over and over her mother is dead and I guess she finally convinces me.  But if she comes the next day again it seems I have forgotten all this and the first thing I do is ask her, How is your mother?


My name is Anisa.  When the U.S.C. robbers came to our house in 1991 they demanded money and gold.  My husband told them we didn't have any money or gold.  They pointed a gun at the head of our three year old and said, If you don't give us money and gold, we will kill your son.  My husband begged and begged them to not kill our son.  Some of them were tearing our house apart while others terrorized us.  When they didn't find anything they shot our three-year old son in the head and then said, "We will kill your other two children if you don't tell us where you hid your money and gold".  They went back and forth between myself and my husband beating and hitting us.  Some neighbors heard the shots and figured out that we were being robbed.  They got weapons and started heading for our house. 

The robbers were on the lookout and became aware that someone was coming to help us so they ran off.  I was in so much shock I didn't talk for five days after that while we were running off to the refugee camp in Nairobi.  I started talking again in the refugee camp.  We arrived at the refugee camp with two children.  We had two more children in the refugee camp and three more since we came to the U.S. in 1997. We had four more children in the U.S.  We live with our eight children.  People tell me I should be happy that we are in America and have a nice big family but I can't forget our dead baby.  But I can't remember anything else.  My husband used to give me a check for the rent but when the landlord came to ask for the rent I told him I didn't have the rent because my husband didn't give it to me.  So now my husband pays the landlord the rent directly.  He will not let me pick up the children from school because I have a problem keeping track of time and I would forget when I was supposed to go get them.  The school would call me up and say, "Where are you, you were supposed to come pick up your children".  So now my cousin picks up my children after school. 


My name is Mohammed.  I heard gunshots on the streets.  I had a store next to my house that was broken into by the USC militia.  All the money was taken out of the register and all the goods were taken out of the store.  Then they broke into my house.  I had heard these things were happening.  I heard they often killed the men first off, unless you were very old.  But if you were a man and tried to protect anyone, even a daughter being raped, you were for sure killed.  So was I a coward when I ran up to the roof when they broke into my house?  They pushed and shoved my wife around demanding money and shot and killed my 19 year-old daughter when she tried to protect my wife.  In the dark, I accidentally fell off the roof; it was a long way down.  The USC militia thought I had escaped but I had fallen into a small space between two walls.  I landed on my knee, which somehow got pushed up into my chest on the fall.  I did severe damage to my stomach; I ruptured my appendix.  In the fall, I also hit my head and I was unconscious for several hours.  When I woke up and climbed out the survivors in my family and I went to a refugee camp in Kenya.  On the way I managed to see a doctor who repaired my intestines the best he could.  I still have an eight-inch scar on my stomach. 



My name is Yee.  I was born in China in 1938.  I studied hard and when I was age 22 I became a teacher, which I loved.  But I only taught for a few years, it was around 1967 or 1968 when there was the Cultural Revolution in China.  People like myself who had worked hard to get an education so we could teach others fell into disfavor.  I was taken by crowds of screaming people and paraded through the streets.  I was kicked, pushed and beaten.  My hair was pulled, I was pushed and my head was bounced off of a wall.  I was knocked down and I became unconscious.  I don't know how long I was knocked out.  My daughter was age seven at that time and remembers me, her mother, being up on a stage with a big sign on me saying that I was a bad person.

I was sent out to the countryside to work on a farm.  My husband was sent somewhere else out in the country to work doing hard labor.  My children had to be left in the city and my mother raised my two children for the ten years I was gone.  In 1978 my husband and I were finally allowed to return to town and I was reunited with my children.  I went through what people in the U.S. call brain washing.  But the Chinese look at this as reeducation or rehabilitation.  If you admit, Yes, I was wrong, I was bad, then you get off easier.  I confessed to being a bad person for being educated and as a reward I was allowed to teach some classes out in the fields instead of working full time in the fields.  This might not make sense, to have to confess that I was bad for getting an education, then after confessing, being allowed to use my education to teach others.  The people who would not confess, who would say, No, I am not a bad person for being educated, were sent to jail.  It was a strange time in China.

I finally managed to get to the United States.  But the beatings and the years in the work camps have left me frightened.  Sometimes, if I am not nervous, I can tell my address but if I am nervous, I start to shake.  I get frightened very easily.  I can fill out a form asking things like my address and phone number if I am at home.  If I am at someone's office, I can't remember anything.  You can ask me to count ten things but if I am nervous I will count wrong, even though I was a schoolteacher.  My husband yells at me to stand right by the stove when I cook or I'll forget and burn the food.  I yell at him and tell him I don't forget anything even though I know I do.  I've had headaches ever since I was beaten and paraded through the streets.  And maybe my brain doesn't work as good as it did before.  I don't like to go out.  I saw a doctor and he was typing on his computer.  I was sure he was connected to the Internet and that in a minute someone would come into his office, tie my hands and take me away.  I have nightmares of being paraded through the streets in China with my hands tied. 


My name is Zhoa.  I came to the United States in 1979.  My husband came to the U.S. in his late teens during the United States depression of the 1930s.  He worked hard and saved up some money and came back to China shortly after World War II.  I met my husband then and we got married.  In a short time I had a son.  My husband returned to the United States and was going to have my son and I join him in the United States in a short time.  But the country turned Communist and it took 30 years before my son and I were able to join my husband in the United States.  So my son was already in his thirties before he finally met his father face to face.  That was 20 years ago.  So now we have been married for over 50 years.  We were together the first four and the last twenty years.  People in the United States have movies about love.  But they don't know about a love so strong that it will survive a separation of 30 years. 


In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote in "The New Colossus," "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me.  I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door."  These words are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  Now, over a century later, these words ring more true than ever for the survivors whose stories are told in "Safe at Last: Refugees in America," their new adopted land. 






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We escaped the killing but the soldiers almost caught us in the desert. Somalia 1991


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