Freedom is as meaningful today as it was in 1776 – especially for those forced from their homeland to taste it.
Take Zainab Al Nomani of Matthews. In 2012, she and her family flew into North Carolina after surviving years of bombs – when many of their friends didn’t – in war-torn Baghdad.
The taste of independence for Thakur Mishra of Charlotte came in 2009 after he, his parents and seven siblings were pushed out of their native Bhutan and forced to live in a refugee camp in Nepal for nearly two decades.
And Neamatullah Fnu of Charlotte got his first nip of freedom just last year. From 2010 to 2014, Fnu worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Appreciative of his work, military officers pushed for special visas so he and his family could resettle here – certain their lives would be in peril as Americans left his country.
They are but three of thousands of legal refugees who have built new lives in the Charlotte region – helped by Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency and Catholic Charities – all victims of war, political upheaval or religious or ethnic persecution.
All came searching for peace.
On this Independence Day 2015, the three remind us how precious freedom is. They bring us closer to the meaning of July 4, 1776, the day the Continental Congress of a fledgling nation approved the Declaration of Independence that cut ties with Great Britain and promised its people a life without fear and oppression.
For Iraqi family, adjusting to peace takes time
Last week, Zainab Al Nomani took her 5-year-old son, Faisal, for a swim lesson. Until 2012, when she and her family settled in North Carolina from Iraq, that simple activity would have been fraught with danger.
She was raised in foreign cities, wherever her Iraqi diplomat father was assigned. In her early teens, he was sent back to Baghdad to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “My father was a part of the government of Saddam Hussein, but he didn’t believe in their doctrines,” Al Nomani said. “Because of that, he wasn’t treated equally. Our life wasn’t easy.”
It got worse after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
By then, she was an engineering student at the University of Baghdad. There she met Samer Al Haddad, and the two began to build a life together that had suddenly turned dangerous. “Bombs exploded all the time,” said Al Nomani, 33. “Whenever we left home, we weren’t sure if we’d make it back safe or not.”
After graduating in 2004, she got a job with a major cellphone company, and two years later, she and Al Haddad married. A wedding ceremony was too dangerous, so they used their wedding money for a honeymoon in Egypt. While there, her parents called and told her that threats were forcing them to leave for Syria.
“We got back, and my family was gone,” Al Nomani said. “Samer and I thought that we’d have a good future in Iraq if we just hung in there. But it kept getting worse and worse.”
She was pregnant in August 2009, when a series of six bombs exploded in central Baghdad, killing 95 people – 62 of them friends of Al Nomani and Al Haddad.
That knew they had to leave. After their son was born in December 2009, they flew to Jordan and applied through the United Nations for resettlement in America. “We ... had to start from zero,” she said. “We didn’t know how long we’d have to stay in Jordan.”
After more than two years, they flew to Durham in July 2012 with the help of a resettlement agency. They lived in a refugee apartment for a few months, then moved to Charlotte.
All we had known was war. We were so used to living in fear. Until we got used to safety, we were scared to go outside. In the U.S., you are safe.
Zainab Al Nomani, refugee from Iraq
Freedom was a slow transition.
“All we had known was war,” Al Nomani said. “We were so used to living in fear. Until we got used to safety, we were scared to go outside. Every loud noise concerned us. But in the U.S., you are safe. You can leave at night and walk your kids. It just took time to get adjusted to peace.”
They fled Iraq for their son.
“We wanted him to grow up like a normal kid free of fears,” she said. “I know what an Iraqi kid goes through. ... We couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to me or my husband and our son having to grow up without his parents.
“Getting here made all our troubles worthwhile.”
Finding freedoms in America a ‘powerful emotion’
Twenty-four years later, the memories linger of the day government troops stormed into Thakur Mishra’s house in remote southern Bhutan and arrested his father.
The country perched between Tibet and India was in the midst of expelling nearly 100,000 mostly Hindu people of Nepalese origin – about one-sixth of the population – to seven refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. Mishra’s family had been in Bhutan for four generations, yet after the country’s king imposed a “One Nation, One People” policy, they were considered illegal aliens.
“It was ethnic cleansing with the government, ruled by Buddhist elites, forcing Hindus to leave the country,” Mishra, 31, said.
The military jailed his father and dozens of neighbors raising a voice for freedom. They tortured his father and after 91 days released him – only after he agreed to leave Bhutan within a week.
Mishra, his mother and seven siblings set out on foot for the Indian border, where his father met them. India, refusing to grant them asylum, loaded them on trucks and drove them to eastern Nepal and ultimately to the Beldangi refugee camps, where for the next 18 years, Mishra lived in shelters.
At age 14, he began writing for a camp newspaper and advocated for press and speech freedoms in Bhutan.
“I learned about those freedoms in school in the camp,” he said. “I started to feel that the dream of democracy in Bhutan was far from reach until we have media freedom first.”
When Mishra was 18, he and a few friends started the Bhutan Reporter, an Internet newspaper that linked people in Bhutan with news from the refugee camps. His reporting continued when he left the camp in 2005 for Kathmandu – Nepal’s capital – to go to college.
He fielded threatening emails against his family in the camps as he dreamed of moving to America. He got that chance in 2010, flying to New York, where he lived in the Bronx for a year, then moved to Raleigh. In 2011, he moved again to Charlotte.
Usually within two months of their arrival, we help them find work. Once 90 days have ended, these folks are on their own.
Marsha Hirsch, Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency
The freedoms he advocated for in the camp he’s found here.
“It is energizing to practice the freedoms I want for Bhutan,” he said. “I still have hope for Bhutan.”
Last October, Mishra became a U.S. citizen, and weeks later, he voted for the first time.
“Just before I pushed the button, I had all these feelings about how I had to leave my country and live in a refugee camp for 18 years just because my father was advocating for democracy,” he said. “And here I was exercising this elusive democracy without fear of consequences. That’s a powerful emotion.”
For former Afghan interpreter, a safe, bright future
For four years until he brought his family to America last year, Neamatullah Fnu kept his life a secret.
Fnu worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Herat, Afghanistan, first for military doctors in a hospital and then for an Army-sponsored program that helped farmers.
It was dangerous duty.
U.S. troops and their allies leaned heavily on interpreters to help them communicate with locals during operations and provide a gateway to the Afghan culture. Many fought alongside Americans and were marked targets. Many were killed by the Taliban and al-Qaida; many others received constant threats.
“Every day we must be careful to do our job – I didn’t know what would happen to me tomorrow,” said Fnu, 29. “We didn’t know who was anti-government and who was not. So many of our colleagues lost their lives.”
As the Americans left the country and turned security over to the Afghan military, protection for interpreters began to disintegrate.
Nothing happened to Fnu before the drawdown. But as his protectors left, he knew he was more vulnerable to retaliation for helping the Americans.
He was put into a pipeline of about 6,000 applicants, mostly former interpreters, for a Special Immigrant Visa that would allow him to resettle in America. Those visas got hung up as Congress debated issuing more visas than the allotted 3,000 for 2014 and extending the program.
70,000 refugees resettle in U.S. a year
700 resettle in the Charlotte area
Source: Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency
“I was getting concerned,” Fnu said. “Each day got worse and me more worried.”
Finally, in July 2014 he got the special visa for himself, his wife and two children (a son, 7, and daughter, 3) to come to Charlotte.
“I left my dad and mom in Afghanistan, and I brought my wife and children here for a better future,” he said. “I did not know what would happen to me, and I know that my family is safe here.”
He has found a support system in Charlotte of other former interpreters. His parents tell relatives and family friends that Fnu has gone to America to study for their protection.
But Fnu said his family is here to stay.
“We are safe here,” he said. “My children can go to good schools, to college. Their future is bright in America.”