Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997
Coping in a new environment
Fegalo Mitee, one of the leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, fled Nigeria after the execution of Nigerian author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis in November 1995. He and his family now live in Alexandria, Virginia (USA).
It has been one year since we got here. When I first arrived I didn't know anybody – no Nigerian, no black person, no white person. It was very difficult. We have different ways, different expectations, different attitudes. It's interesting, because I thought there were a lot of hazards here, but what you see on television is not the same thing. I was thinking that people are not friendly, but I have seen that everybody is ready to help. A lot of people around this area where we live are immigrants. They have gone through similar problems. My family and I have gone through the initial settling-in period and we are now settling down.
The psychology of coming from a situation where you were the head of a department, a leader of a group of people to a situation where you are virtually nobody is a difficult one. Losing everything in your life, even your personal documents, has a great impact on you.
The Lutheran Social Services representatives took me to a hotel. They asked me to do some work, cleaning toilets, things like that. I couldn't cope. With my master's degree in Digital Systems Communication, I was thinking a developed country like this would need someone in that field, but they wanted a job history to be able to trust someone. Also, in that field you need security clearance, and if you're not a citizen, you cannot get work.
Psychologically, I was not all that prepared, but I had to do it because I have kids – a baby girl and a boy who is nine years old. Luckily for me, I have a lot of self-confidence. It was possible to get a job in a department store called Radio Shack. It is $5 an hour basic pay, but I'm learning. In the next few months I will be ready to take another leap. I'll see what else I can do.
In Nigeria I founded an environmental movement which quickly became very popular. When we started, the government disregarded us. They thought that this tiny group of people could do nothing. When we became successful the government started to get annoyed and tried to stop the movement.
In 1993 the government started arresting people. When they came for me I was able to jump from the upstairs window and run into the bush. My brother couldn't jump so they arrested him. As I made my way to a nearby village I saw the killings. There were Ogonis and even other people from the university being raped and killed in front of other people. It was worse than I could have imagined. I can't talk much about it. I stayed underground for one full year.
At the time they killed Ken I was still underground. I felt that I was still an inspiration to our people and felt I should stay and not run away. They wanted to silence us because what we were saying was right. We wanted to show the world that we don't want to actually use violence, thinking that the world would say, okay, since this is the first non-violent movement in Africa fighting for the environment, they would be able to protect us. It was when they killed Ken and they started looking for us again that we all decided to escape. So I got my wife and children and said we have to go to the next border, we might be better off being alive there than dead here.
I asked my brother to sell our things, give us some money. We disguised ourselves. The border to Benin was very difficult to cross. We sneaked through and then ran and used a vehicle. We then asked a taxi driver to drop us at an embassy, but it was very difficult to get near the embassy area.
Someone suggested we go to UNHCR. It was towards the weekend, I think Friday, and they were trying to close. They told us we were not supposed to come at this time. I told them that we had two little kids, and then they came and took care of us. We slept on the floor at UNHCR. They were very helpful. My youngest child was about five months old. She was very ill. We didn't think she would survive. We went to different embassies stating our position and we were finally accepted by the United States.
UNHCR has done a good job. The only thing you should do in addition is to follow up those you have resettled. Ask how you are after three months, how you are being taken care of. Information is the most important thing in someone's life. And we lacked that. That's why it took us a long time to settle. But we are happy. We are able to talk to a lot of people, someone gave us this table, we took these chairs from the trash and someone gave us the telephone.
A lot of people do not realize what a refugee goes through, psychologically and physically. You lose all your property, including your documents, your expectations, and even people you love. Those who are very close to you are killed by a bullet but you survive. When someone has gone through a terrible experience, it can haunt them all through their lives.
Interview by Eve Weisberg