What a real immigrant and refugee brotherhood looks like

Many times people are stripped down to nothing. Their homes, their jobs, their family, even their entire towns get wiped out from under them.

This is what happens to people when they have to endure the painful side-effects of war, ethnic conflict or environmental destruction in the world. They have to deal with the nothingness of life. They have to deal with not knowing where their next home will be and how they will take care of themselves and their children. With little to no money or resources, they are at the mercy of people in neighboring or far-off countries.

But when you are stripped bare, there is always hope. We find that there are people working to make a real difference in the world. You find people who are creating safe havens for immigrants and refugees to feel secure, have a family and a place to BE again.

This is exactly what a few ordinary people (with extraordinary hearts and minds) did on the East end of Colfax in Denver, Colorado. In an extremely impoverished community where thousands of immigrants and refugees settle, several men decided that there needed to be a place – a safe place – for young men who don’t have many other places to go.  This place is called, “Street Fraternity”.

Built almost directly on the city lines that divide Denver and Aurora (and what a difference that makes!), in the basement of a Disabled American  Veterans office, Street Fraternity provides a safe and fun place for young men of all races, ethnicity, religion and income level to make friends, bond, and prepare for a better future.

“For one thing, they are escaping their past,” says Yoal Kidane Ghebremeskel, the program director and a founding member of the organization since mid-2013. They are usually leaving a destructive and painful history, many times – war. Second, they are building a new identity in a totally new environment, he added. Many times, they are doing everything they can just to avoid danger, he said.

“This is a place where young men can get off the streets and away from danger while developing a real sense of brotherhood,” Yoal said eloquently.

There are gangs that hang right around the corner, Yoal added, and there have been instances of trouble for newly migrated youth.

“A gun was pulled out on us once,” Yoal said.  While the police were there, they didn’t do much to help the situation, he explained.

Street Fraternity group picture on the South side of E. Colfax and Yosemite (approx.)

Yoal is a 28 year-old immigrant himself. He immigrated from Eritrea when he was only 12, attending Merrill Middle School and South High School – schools that are known to educate the thousands of new immigrants and refugees in Denver.  He received his B.A. in International Studies from the University of Denver and went on to work as a community activist and organizer for immigrant communities in Denver.

The immigrants and refugee population continues to change in Denver, but it always exists, Yoal added. The newly immigrated (and poorest) people come live in this area (on the East side of Colfax in Aurora) because the rent is affordable.

A decade ago it was Bhutanese and Nepalese in the East Colfax area.  Over the last ten years, it has been East Africans – Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. Now, with war in other parts of Africa, it’s Sudanese and Congolese. (see stats on immigrants and refugees in Denver).

“The ones with money move away and integrate,” Yoal tells me.  They move to better areas than the one off of East Colfax.

But the people who stay in this area have historically had little to no resources, , said Jennifer Herrera, the executive director of Aurora Human Rights Center just a few blocks away at 14th and Dayton.  The AHRC was created just for this reason – “a system to navigate the system,” she said.

Human services offices are far away, in places where people living in this community need to take several buses and several hours to get to, Herrera said in a phone interview.  She added that a great deal- around 40% – of the population in this area of Aurora are Latino.

Map of Denver/Aurora . Lines are just drawn as approximation of area that marks northwest Aurora.

Map of Denver/Aurora . Lines are just drawn as approximation of area that marks northwest Aurora.

But a government program director of Aurora says the area is full of basic human resources.  “There are plenty of resources [for the low-income] community along Colfax,” said Sharon Duwaik, an Aurora government administrator and program specialist in a phone interview.

She confirmed, however, that there are only two homeless shelters, that can bed around 150 people total – an amount that doesn’t compare to the Aurora’s total population of about 325,000.

If it’s not homelessness its joblessness that continues to be the main concern of this community, according to Dave Stalls, Street Fraternity’s executive director. One of the greatest challenges for immigrants and refugees living in this community is English language and literacy skills, which generally leads to unemployment, he said.

Herrera echoed that many of the people come to the Aurora Human Rights Center come for English language education, but the resources are not quite enough to lead families to full employment.

When asked what the men are doing at Street Fraternity, Yoal said, “It’s just what you see here on the wall,” pointing to the pinned-up job postings on the wall .  What we do, ultimately? Its helping these guys get “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

 

Some interesting facts I heard about some of these issues:

Refugees/Displaced People

There are 45m people in the world currently displaced in some way or another (within their country or outside of their country) because of issues like war, conflict, environment, or poverty (United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR 2013 mid-year report).

There are 11.1 m registered refugees living around the world currently. The largest group is Afghanis living in Pakistan – about 2.6m people (UNHCR 2013 mid-year report). The next is Syrians – around 2m.

The United States had the tenth highest number of refugees hosted, after Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Kenya, Turkey, Chad, Ehtiopia and China – all of which are either one of the least developed nations in the world or a developing country.

The top ten hosting nations (most of which are developing nations) host about 55% of the world’s refugees.

Wealth Inequality

There are 85 people in the world with as much wealth as half of the world’s population (about 3.5bn people). (Oxfam)

 

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