By Kayla Crowder
On one of the first warm days of the season, more than 30 people came to Lincoln, Nebraska’s Asian Community and Cultural Center for a “lunch and learn” event, to hear stories from three brave refugee women.
The event, called Women’s Voices, was the first event sponsored by the Center’s Young Women’s Leadership Council to “highlight important women leaders in the community” from different ethnic groups, according to Kelsey Lee, the group’s leader who introduced the day’s speakers: Starry Htoo (Karen), Laila Khoudeida (Yazidi) and Khamisa Abdulla (Sudanese, Nuba Mountains).
Starry Htoo came to the U.S. in 2007 from Burma, which has been embroiled in an internal civil war since 1948.
Starry Htoo said women have no rights in Burma. Women were raped and tortured and never felt safe from Burmese soldiers, she said through Has Eh Moo, an interpreter.
Starry Htoo told the story of two missionary teachers in Burma who were captured, raped and killed by Burmese soldiers. Starry Htoo said hundreds of people attended their funeral after they were found in the forest and the military denied involvement.
Starry Htoo’s own story of survival is one of bravery.
Her village was attacked in 1980.
“One night bullets fell like the rainfall (on our village),” Starry Htoo said. “I tried to save my children one at a time.
“There was no one who could help me at that time,” Starry Htoo said. A group of Burmese soldiers came to her and threatened her, but they didn’t do anything to her. Starry Htoo said that she believed God saved her from the soldiers.
Starry Htoo fled her country and found a refugee camp where “women’s lives were better,” as there were education opportunities for women.
“I believe there are a lot of things going on in Burma,” Starry Htoo said, but she chose just a few stories to share with the audience. “I would like to thank the U.S. government and organizations that help to improve lives.”
The safety and education opportunities in refugee camps benefits many refugees, as Starry Htoo can attest, but sometimes it’s not enough for some, especially women according to Laila Khoudeida.
Khoudeida doesn’t know her real age, but thinks she may be 20 years old.
Born and raised in a refugee camp in Syria, Khoudeida said that her father would always say, “If I could only speak the language, I could change the world.”
Khoudeida came to the U.S. eight years ago and recently graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a degree in social work.
“Helping people is my passion,” Khoudeida said.
Khoudeida has taken up her father’s challenge as she works and stands up for women’s rights and for her Yazidi community in Nebraska.
“(The refugee) women’s issue is huge,” Khoudeida said. “They experience so much trauma.”
Khoudeida said she knows what women are going through. She also said that the biggest concern for women in a refugee situation is psychological help, as suicide rates are on the rise.
Khoudeida said that she had been in contact with two Yazidi sisters in Iraq, with whom she had lost contact for a while. One sister told Khoudeida that another sister had been sold to an ISIS man.
“Not being able to do anything is hard,” Khoudeida said about the situation.
“The whole world being silent makes me want to do more,” Khoudeida said.
Education is an access point into culture assimilation for refugees, and for Khoudeida it was a step toward helping others. For Khamisa Abdulla, education was key to helping her children and herself toward better lives.
Abdulla came to the U.S. at the end of 2003 with her seven children from the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, Sudan.
Civil wars have raged across Sudan since its independence in 1956. The Nuba Mountain area was subject to bombings and attacks on civilians. In 2002, people living in the Nuba Mountains were faced with starvation.
Abdulla said her husband was an air traffic controller and was asked to direct a plane to bomb the Nuba Mountains. He refused and was caught by the government. Abdulla didn’t say exactly what happened to her husband.
Abdulla said after her husband was caught, she sold her house and bribed her way to Egypt, with her children in tow.
When the family arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, they were very happy, but communication was a problem.
Abdulla told a story about how she would send her children to the grocery store to buy salt, but they didn’t know the name for it and came home empty handed time after time.
Eventually, they met a Sudanese man in the grocery store who helped them find it. They were used to salt being course and brown and coming in a bag, not white and in a can.
This situation was a catalyst for Abdulla and her family to learn English and get an education even if it meant she had to work two jobs.
Abdulla graduated from Wesleyan with a degree in psychology, and all of her children are attending or have graduated from college.
“A lot of kids from Sudan get in trouble living in America,” Abdulla said.
Disciplining children in the U.S. is stricter than in Sudan, Abdulla said. Here, you get in trouble for “beating” or spanking your children.
Lee said she and the young women she works with were very happy with how the event went and that they were able to help share the experiences of the presenters.
The event received very positive feedback from audience members, Lee said. Those she spoke with said they enjoyed the event and learned a lot, especially about refugee issues that they hadn’t known about before.
Lee said the presenters were chosen based on their leadership roles within their respective communities.
Abdulla and Starry Htoo have also been involved with the Asian Center.
“She (Abdulla) has done so much work for the Sudanese community,” Lee said. “She’s done a lot of impactful work with women and domestic violence.”
Lee said that Starry Htoo is seen as a leader among the Karen community and that the young people she works with call her grandma.
Lee said she hopes the Young Women’s Leadership Council will do similar events in the future to bring forth women’s issues from different cultures.
Lee said it’s possible the group may do something in August to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Women’s Strike for Equality that occurred in 1970s New York City.