ALL STAR REFUGEES: From an African Nightmare to the American Dream
By Marie Coulanges, Edited by Michael Guarino
My name is Marie Coulanges and I am originally from Haiti. I immigrated here when I was a teenager. Today, I am very active in the Malden community and I always love to be involved in projects that help to bring this diverse community together. Currently, I am on the MATV Board of Directors, where I have served for almost three years. Some time ago, my friend Anne told me about Malden Reads and explained to me a little bit about how it worked. I believed in the idea and the activities piqued my interest so I began to get involved. I participated in activities such as the opening event, helping with exhibits and partaking in movie and book discussions.
The movie All Star Refugees interested me because of the mentioning of Sierra Leone in the description. The people in Sierra Leone were victimized by massive killings. To save themselves, these refugees had to flee from firearms and dangerous streets. The situation is both disturbing and distressing as these people must leave behind all of their belongings and, worse yet; many of them are involuntarily separated from their families. It takes a special kind of courage and bravery for people to flee such a situation in an attempt to save themselves and/or their families. Sadly, many of them will be met by militia on the way and will not make it. Many who do make it will be forever separated from family and friends. The movie portrayed these experiences with startling realism yet it is entirely different to speak about it from perspective of actual experience.
I know some people in Malden who had some terrible experiences in Congo (Africa). The militia came for their father and took him away. After some time, their mother decided to look for him and she vanished as well. The young (minor) children were left to fend for themselves. Through the assistance of a Refugee Organization, they were able to immigrate to America. Their daily existence which includes common freedoms that we take for granted as well as opportunities to enjoy without the threat of militia is considered miraculous compared to prior standards for them.
While in Haiti, my brother Charles was working in accounting for the government. Due to political turmoil, he was kidnapped and put in prison. My father found out through the radio that his son was a prisoner and that there would be a large price tag for his release. My father was able to hire a good lawyer and get a judge to order the release. Charles now lives in America in Melrose and he is an American Citizen. He is very proud of this because to him it means that he never again has to worry about being imprisoned because of political turmoil, opinions or unfortunate situations. This political freedom that we take for granted is a precious commodity when compared to other standards.
I used to work with ESL students at the Salemwood School. One of my students named Friday relayed a disturbing story about his experiences in Liberia. To escape from militia, his family had to walk many days through mud and bushes living only off of whatever wild fruits they could find. As they reached the point of hopelessness, they were fortunate enough to come upon an elderly lady in a hut. At no benefit to herself (and possible risk of militia attacks), this lady fed them and gave them a place and means to regain their strength. They eventually got to the Ivory Coast where they were able to find assistance to immigrate to America.
The Ivory Coast had become somewhat of a safe haven by this juncture but this was not always the case. Years ago when I visited the town of Bouake in the Ivory Coast of Africa I learned of a particularly disturbing occurrence. Apparently, some time prior to my visit, the militia attacked one night while church was in session. The militia broke into the church during the session with no regard or respect for sanctity. I was shown actual bullet holes all over different parts of the church as the pastor and some members of the church described to me in tears where they hid so as to survive this brutal attack. The irony here is that this story was being relayed to me while I was part of a missionary to teach children about love and peace. Despite all of these hardships, it is important to these communities that their children learn about love, peace and to always respect others.
These stories are real examples of experiences similar to those explained in the movie. The All Star Refugees (a reggae band) helped people through such tough times by keeping positive and upbeat and using a gift given to them to entertain the refugees. Small acts such as these gave people hope in a terrible situation. They did this at the risk of their own safety. In situations such as these, groups that come out against the militia will surely be exiled if they are ever discovered. In this case, the protection of the United Nations helped these heroes to help others. A hero is not only someone with extraordinary talent but someone who uses the talent in an extraordinary manner. By this standard, these “All Stars” were the quintessential form of heroes in the toughest of times.
Being born in the USA means never having to live with the fear of militia and the horror they can do. It means never having to contemplate where you work because of political turmoil. It means not having to be afraid of voicing certain views. It means that you can walk the streets everyday and be safe. You have the opportunity to work hard and you can get assistance even when work is not available. Perhaps most importantly it means that you can practice religion or meet in groups without the threat of militia. There is a growing feeling of many that the “American Dream” is dead. Still others would argue that it never lived. Perhaps those who truly feel this way need to feel the disturbing and uncomfortable feeling that the movie can give viewers who have never experienced such hardships. For those of us who have lived the nightmare, we know that the American Dream is real and it continues to live on a daily basis.
Marie Coulanges is a Malden resident. In this article, she reflects on her participation in the Malden Reads film screening of “All Star Refugees.” Marie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was edited by Michael Guarino, a member of the Malden Reads Core Committee.