There are some 33 million refugees in the world, 9 million of whom are children. Though their faces are often seen on the news, their stories are rarely heard. Here are four.
Natalie Righton| June 2008 issue
Zanoessi Nimir, 12, a refugee from Darfur, managed to escape when soldiers staged an armed attack on his village. He now lives in a refugee camp in Chad.
“I was with my mother tending goats in the countryside when I saw from a distance that our village was being attacked by soldiers. They shot into the air and set houses on fire. Everyone ran in all directions. I stood watching, paralyzed with fear. I was thinking that my father, brothers and sisters were still in the village. Then everything happened very fast. My mother grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me along. ‘Run! Now!’ she cried.
“My mother told me she had agreed with my father that we would meet up in Chad if a war ever broke out. We walked for three days through the desert. We had practically nothing to eat or drink with us because we left so quickly. The trip was very dangerous. The Sudanese soldiers who had attacked our village didn’t want us to cross the border so they patrolled everywhere. I saw them a couple of times at a distance, passing by in big pickup trucks. We hid behind withered bushes until they were gone. We were lucky that it was very windy; the desert wind caused sandstorms, making it difficult for the soldiers to see us. The sandstorms make you invisible.
“When we arrived at a huge lake in Chad, I found my father, brothers and sisters. I was so happy! A couple of days later, a white man in a white car came and told us he would help us. He said he was the United Nations. He must have been an important man because my father had to tell him exactly what had happened and where we came from. After they had talked for a couple of hours, he believed us and we were allowed in the camp. The man said, ‘Sorry, but there are a lot of poor people who live near the camp and pretend to be refugees. Those poor people want food, drink and a tent too.’ I had never thought of it that way. Who would want to be a refugee?
“We’ve been living in his refugee camp for four years now. I miss my village but other than that, I’m pretty happy here. I’m almost never hungry or thirsty like I used to be. Even my best friend Idris from my village lives here! We play soccer a lot together.”
Lobsang Lungtok (pictured right), 12, crossed the snow-covered mountaintops of the Himalayas with his parents to escape Tibet, where the Chinese persecute Buddhists. He now lives in a monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Lobsang is his monastic name; his family name cannot be retrieved by the Chinese authorities.
“If I think back to my flight to Nepal, three years ago, I still feel scared. There was snow everywhere in the mountains so you couldn’t see the paths. If we weren’t careful, we would have easily fallen into a crevasse. So my parents had two yaks—long-haired Tibetan buffalo—walk in front because they can smell the mountain paths through the snow. We survived the trip by walking in the footprints of the yaks.
“I’ve never been as cold as I was during that trip. I was wearing a yak fur coat and shoes lined with wool, but it didn’t help. The three people who escaped with us got frostbite on their toes and fingers, turning them completely black. My father said I shouldn’t look but I couldn’t help it. I’ll never forget that colour.
“It took six days to reach the border with Nepal, where my mother hid me under the seat of a bus that was going to Kathmandu. She said I had to be quiet until I heard my aunt’s voice calling my name. She was to pick me up in Kathmandu and hide me in a Tibetan monastery. Then my parents gave me a big kiss. It was the last time I saw them. They went back to Tibet because, they explained, they would never find work or a residency permit in Nepal. But I never really fully understood.
“I haven’t seen my parents for three years. I miss them terribly. Still, I’m glad I’m living in Nepal and not in Tibet. Now I can go to school every day and my dream is coming true: I’m a real Tibetan monk. I’m very happy here.”
Fatima Hussein (pictured right), 11, was 7 when American bombs began falling on Baghdad. Her father was shot dead in front of his curtain-fabric store. Then her mother decided to flee with the family to Jordan.
“I used to live in a nice two-level house in Baghdad. We had furniture, a TV and even Internet. I had my own mobile telephone. I had a lot of toys—two bags full! Every day I played outside with my best friends Nina, Seja and Zaha. In Jordan, where we live with my uncle, our house is very small and bare. There are no paintings on the walls and no table, chairs or beds. There is a sofa. We eat sitting on the floor.
“I don’t have many things of my own here because when we fled Iraq we weren’t allowed to take a lot with us. My grandfather in Baghdad promised to take good care of my toys. He says I’ll get everything back when peace is restored in Iraq. Grandpa visits my friends sometimes and says they’re doing just fine. But when I call, I can never get through to them.
“I recently started going to school in Jordan. The children in my class are very nice. And this year I went on my first school trip. We went to an amusement park. I thought the roller coaster was the scariest part. I screamed when we went down. But the teachers who sat behind me screamed even louder. I thought that was really funny.
“Later, when I grow up, I want to be a doctor. That’s a very practical profession, I figure, because if I ever get wounded in a war I can make myself better.”
Louisa Maria Velasquez (pictured with rabbit), 12, fled from her village in the jungle of Colombia, the scene of fighting between rebel groups, paramilitaries and the army. She now lives with her mother and four sisters in a slum area of Barrancabermeja, in the northeast of Colombia. Her father fled into the mountains.
“I grew up in the jungle. I made huts out of banana leaves and played hide-and-seek with my sisters. Now I’m living in a slum area with hundreds of people crowded together. I miss the quiet and climbing trees. Here in the city we’re very poor and I get hungry a lot. You’re not allowed to pick the bananas that grow here like you can in the jungle; you have to pay for them.
“The walls of our house are made of wood and the floor is dirt. There are holes and cracks everywhere. During the rainy season in July it suddenly gets cold and I sit shivering in my bed. The roof leaks. My mother and I put pans everywhere to catch the water. My father often writes me letters and he calls. He says he misses us. I miss him too. When the war is over he will come back home; he promised. I don’t know when that will be.
“But my life isn’t all miserable. I play outside a lot and I have my own hula hoop. When I grow up I want to be a salsa dancer. I practise a lot with my aunt who has a CD player with music. Everyone in my neighbourhood can salsa dance. At night, you hear salsa music coming from lots of houses and you see people dancing. Children practise with their parents or each other. I want to be a salsa dancer. Then I can wear pretty clothes every day.”
These stories and pictures are excerpted from Gevlucht uit Tibet (“escape from Tibet”) by journalist Natalie Righton and photographer Ton Koene, who spent weeks travelling with scores of young refugees on five continents. Righton has worked for years for aid organizations, and Koene studied humanitarian development. The book is scheduled to be published in the Netherlands in June.