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A welcome for refugees in the U.S. heartland


A welcome for refugees in the U.S. heartland

Cobi Cogbill wants his kids to grow up respecting people who are different – starting with a family of Congolese refugees resettled in Arkansas.
25 August 2017

Cobi Cogbill grew up in a town so small it doesn’t even have a name. A place where he was one of just 30 students in his high school graduating class, and where cows outnumbered people.

Now 31, Cobi recalls that he and his neighbours back in south-eastern Arkansas shared strikingly similar backgrounds and beliefs. They cherished tradition, he says, and balked at change. They also viewed outsiders with suspicion, so when refugee resettlement began making headlines, some worried that it could pose a security risk to the country.

“It was easier to be against refugees and be scared of them than try to look into who they were,” Cobi says, reflecting on his own views just a few years ago.

Five years ago, Cobi moved to Fayetteville to be with his wife, Leanda, and began to see things differently. Home to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville is the state’s third-largest city, with over 80,000 residents, and has taken in several refugees in recent years.

It was easier to be against refugees and be scared of them than try to look into who they were.

Leanda had been working through her church to welcome some of them, and she convinced Cobi to help out. One of the first refugees he met was Majidi, 36, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after witnessing his father’s murder and being tortured.

Majidi walked for two months to Namibia, then waited 17 years as a refugee before being selected by the U.S. Government for resettlement. He moved to Fayetteville last December, grateful for the chance to restart his life.

They first met when Cobi offered Majidi’s family a ride to a nearby Islamic center for a meet-and-greet with other refugees and local families. They have been friends ever since.

“They opened the door, welcomed us and offered us food,” Cobi says, recalling his first encounter with Majidi’s family. Cobi had just eaten, so he declined the food. “I told them, ‘I’m worried I am going to offend you.’” Majidi’s wife, Rehema, had a similar concern, Cobi remembers. She said “We are worried we are going to offend you.”

Arkansas resettled 90 refugees since January 2012, according to U.S. government figures.

Majidi and his family are settling into their new lives fast. Their two children – Ally, 4, and Khadija, 2 – go to school and day care. Majidi has a job at the university, and he and Rehema are also trying to start a small business.

“My dream is to be independent, be an entrepreneur and help others,” he says.

Now Cobi and Majidi meet up once a week – sometimes on the university’s campus, where Majidi works and Cobi studies engineering. Other times they meet at each other’s homes. Their children play together too.

Cobi says he does his best to explain to friends and neighbors why it is important to welcome the few, vulnerable refugees who are admitted for resettlement in the United States.

Our families are big friends. That is really special and means a lot to us.

“They are trying to integrate with us and make us stronger, and I believe that they are,” he says. “Their dream is the American dream.”

Still, Cobi says many of his friends and family from his hometown struggle to understand. Some, he says, have told him he should “help his own.”

“I would try to talk to them, but it would never fail that they would unfriend me, block me on Facebook. I have lost people I have known for 20 years.”

Cobi says he is happy with the path he has forged. He believes his family benefits from knowing Majidi’s family and other refugees.

“We are teaching our children it’s okay to help other people and to be friends with someone who doesn’t talk like you, look like you or come from the same place, or who doesn’t worship the same way you do.”

“Our families are big friends. That is really special and means a lot to us.”