"I Never Realized We Were So Strong": A Course on Women in Diaspora


So began Calixta Gabriel, a 32-year old Kaqchikel woman from the northwest region of Guatemala. Her three brothers were assassinated in the 1980s, her family lands destroyed, and her parents forced into a military-designed "model village." She herself sought refugee in the United States in the 1980s. Calixta Gabriel had been a social worker, catechist and teacher of literacy and Mayan cultural in her village of 13,000 and a coordinator of a Catholic radio program in Kaqchikel, her native language. She was speaking to fifty students in my Ethnic Studies course entitled "Woman as Immigrant" at the University of California, Berkeley.

In this article, I would like to demonstrate how indigenous and ethnic women resettled now in the greater San Francisco Bay Area have impacted the students and shaped our understanding of women reconstructing their lives in exile. Besides tending to lecture and selected readings, students hear women in diaspora share their personal account and most students do field work and research with women newcomers in the community. Throughout the semester, students learn to connect with immigrant women and to understand women in diaspora in the United States. Students also historically situate their own immigrant narratives, their class, gender, ethnicity, and racial formation so they can reconstruct their personal and social identities within the context of contemporary immigration. Many also begin to work as advocates for immigrant/refugee women's rights and services in their communities. Students found each of these exiled women not only continue to deal with intruding memories of genocide and war, loss of their homeland, families and cultural values, but now confront and struggle against poverty, racism, violence and exploitation in the United States.

"You see," Calixta continued, "in March, 1981, you could feel the repression in Guatemala spreading like fire. Teachers and people in the church were the first victims of persecution. The military massacred 50 to 100 people daily. Where I worked in El Quiche, you could see dead bodies every day. My older brother was seized and never returned. I suspected that at any moment they would seize me as they did him because I worked very closely with the people. Many of my friends and catechists were killed. Just between 1980 and 1981 about 100 teachers had been murdered. So, I felt if I stayed where I was and continued the work, I was going to die; any day could be my last."

"But in my seven years in the United States," she added, "I felt so isolated, alienated, morally contaminated. I asked, `God, what is becoming of me in this strange land?' My family had been murdered, and I found myself so alone everyday, confronting the mourning in my soul. The fibers of my being were broken and shadows amassed themselves on my journey. At twenty-eight, I felt like an orphan."

"It's very difficult to understand, out these hardships helped me to grow in my spiritual life. I think it's really very hard to be the kind of martyr that dies. But it's even harder to be a martyr and live. I felt I was in exile in the United States as the people are so inclined toward materialism and individualism. Then I realized, "it's better for me to die struggling with my Indian people in Guatemala than to die morally here.' So after seven years in exile, I returned back to my people in Guatemala, knowing I risked again my own life. But I wanted to return to my people and work spiritually among my people. I am now one of the 5,000 Mayan priests who practice our Mayan spirituality."

As Calixta talked, I looked around the room at the students listening to her; a few were of Native American heritage, others were generations removed from their African and European origins, and still other were recent immigrant students from Ethiopia, Peru, Burma, China, Korea, Japan, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Philippines. I thought of how they mirrored the changing demographics of California where twenty-five percent of its population is born outside the United States. This class, I hoped, would help them understand the massive displacement and movement of peoples in our times, contextualize recent exiled and immigrant women immigrants in their own families.

Domitilia's life story that morning was another voice for these students as they grappled with painful legacies of colonization and with the troubled histories of immigrant and refugee women caught between poverty and repression in their homelands and the cultural dislocation and marginalization they experience in resettling in the United States. Many of the women who settle in the Bay Area are indigenous: Mayans from Central America and tribal Laotians from Asia. Other exiled women are of ethnic minorities, Amharic from Ethiopia, Chinese from Burma and Vietnam, and Jews from Russia and Iran.

I design the course so students locate immigrant/refugee women and learn to identify patterns specific to women's immigration to the United States. Students study contemporary transnational migration, U.S. admission and resettlement policies, and issues pertinent to women crossing borders and constructing their identities in exile. Among such issues are identity and gender transitions, social networks, health, work, employment possibilities out of the experiences of displacement."

Laotian Women:

Many Mien-Lao and Hmong families first located in the East Bay area in the early 1980s. While many Hmong later resettled in the Central Valley, significant populations of the Mien-Lao have remained in our area. Some of the students worked with Mien-Lao women in an East Bay collective, teaching English and survival skills such as opening a checking account, reading specific forms or interviewing for a job. Others interviewed individual Mien-Lao women and came to understand the various ways they reconstruct their lives here. A 16-year old single mother, born in Laos, raised for eleven years in a Thailand refugee camp, now living in federal housing in San Pablo, California, continues to depend on her extended family and government assistance for economic survival. Another woman, Moung Khoun Saetern, wife, mother of three and honors graduate from San Francisco State University, is a counselor with the East Bay Asian Youth Center's gang prevention program and is vice president of the Iu Mien Cultural Association.

In a student interview, Moung explained she fled to Thailand with her family in 1975. At the age of fifteen her family was sponsored to Oakland, California, where she has lived since. "I had never been to school before. I hadn't gone in Laos or in the camp. It was a struggle to begin my education in high school." Thirteen years later, in her work now as a mother and a counselor in the South Asian community, she describes the struggles for Mien youth and women:

For those who came very young from Asia, the disadvantage I see is just the environment they are in. They go to school in a neighborhood with violence. There are a lot of problems with attendance, cutting school, poor academic performance, intergenerational conflicts. Some are trapped in the so-called, not really violence, but their behavior will become violent later. They just drop out of school.

I think they see me as a role model. First, probably because I am a woman and have my own family, and I could bear to make it through school. Many Lao-Mien women have a low self-esteem. It is sad to say back in the old days, women had very little to say in terms of roles. Certain roles are for the men. Over here, some of that is still happening in the community. But it is changing right now. You can see women active in the community as well.

In hearing Moung's interview, the students understood how refugee women are expected to maintain traditions and family, yet help their families in assuming new roles. Moung has expanded this responsibility beyond her family to include the Mien of Oakland. "I want to get my master's degree and continue to be involved in the community, in the issues of gangs and violence in the community. I want to be active in the community on women's issues, for women to be able to go to school. I become more Americanized. I am half and half. I am trying to balance both cultures."

In turn, Zina Markevicius, who interviewed Moung, wrote, "I am glad that Moung was the woman I interviewed because it exposed my ignorance of the plight of Mien refugees and caused me to research the topic." Zina described that she was surprised that research showed the devastating impact the Vietnam War had on Laos, but ignored the country and tribal people. On a personal level Zina wrote, "Moreover, I am grateful that I had an opportunity to establish a relationship with Moung. I discovered many examples for my life; she is a role model for me. I struggle with how to serve my ethnic community, but Moung presents it straightforwardly as dedicating herself in the best way she knows how."

Another student, Sari Yoshioka, daughter of a Japanese immigrant mother, described her work with another Lao-Mien woman resettled in Oakland, California. Sari highlighted her awareness of this woman's "internal exile" in the United States and how this Lao-Mien woman's tribal rights, not functioning in the U.S., her limited English and temporary job status defined her life. Sari then drew connections with the constraints, sacrifices, and isolation of her own immigrant mother:

I have gained new knowledge and insights through my involvement with a Lao-Mien women's collective in East Oakland. Because you encouraged out to participate in programs helping immigrant communities, I was motivated to volunteer there as I thought of my own mother who had and still has problems adjusting to a different way of life. Three times a week I taught English and practical skills to a Lao-Mien woman. Just in the short time of a semester, she was robbed twice, her car was broken into, one of her children had to go to the hospital, she was the victim of mail employment fraud, her husband married another woman, and subsequently she had a nervous breakdown. Because she lacked a support network, skills and confidence to function in her new environment, she was imprisoned in her home, living in "internal exile." Several articles we've read [sic] in the course discuss women's reactions to situations that do not translate the same way as they would in their home country. When the husband committed polygamy, my friend was not protected by her village elders, whose role it is to delegate marital affairs. She claims that if she were in Laos, a judicial body would punish her husband's secretive and deceptive actions. Because their Laotian customs do not include the issuance of a wedding certificate, my friend is not seen to have full spousal rights in the United States and the husband's actions are not punishable by U.S. law. This situation has caused her grief because although she wanted to leave her husband now, she fears the loss of her children's custody. She is certain that the courts would decide in favor of her husband who has a steady job and speaks better English. Through this course, I saw for the first time, the sacrifices and constraints my mother was subject to, how the patriarchal customs of Japan and the isolation she felt as an immigrant in the U.S. connected her (and also me!) to the larger collective identity of women immigrants.

Maya Women

A significant number of Mayan women, of various regions, ethnic groups and languages in Guatemala, have also settled in the greater San Francisco area. Many fled war-torn areas with their husbands and children, but a growing number have immigrated as single employment in their villages or cities, some Mayan mothers left their children with relatives in Guatemala so they could better support them economically from the United States. Constrained by no formal education (or only a few years of formal education), limited English, and often an undocumented status, they find employment working in pasta factories in North Beach, caring for children or the elderly, or cleaning other peoples' homes.

Student Claudia Colindres interviewed Maria Guiterrez, a twenty-eight year old Kanjobal woman, born in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. She fled Guatemala with her husband eight days after her father and grandfather had been killed. She and her husband traveled on foot to the United States through Mexico. But upon arrival in the United States, they were arrested and detained, describing the detention room as "crowded as a can of sardines." Maria never attended school in Guatemala, so she is unable to read or write. Because she speaks no English and only limited Spanish, she does child care and cleans people homes but finds it difficult taking the bus from one house to another because she cannot read the street signs. Maria "visits some close Kanjobal friends but finds it difficult to interact with strangers."

I don't like being in the United States because I have no family here, and I believe that people in the States don't have a sense of morals, traditions or respect for life. But I have to make it here somehow.

I never realized all the obstacles a refugee woman has to encounter: loss of one's home, loneliness, isolation because of one's undocumented status, lack of English or educational skills. I have come to understand that refugees know how to survive. Out of their encounters with death, they gathered some type of knowledge and survival skills that we do not have.

Ethnic Minorities

A number of women in the class entered the United States as refugees, either with their families or by themselves. Three were of tribal heritage from Ethiopia; others were of such ethnic minority backgrounds as Afghanistani and Burma-Chinese. Within the class, they began to contextualize and share their own narratives. Each of them was actively involved with her own community in exile; the Afghani student accompanied Afghani exiles to legal, educational or health appointment to translate for them; two Ethiopian women organized an advocacy group for Ethiopian women suffering domestic violence in the Bay Area; another Ethiopian woman counseled men who were high risk for depression in the States; and the Burma-Chinese woman worked through Amnesty International for human rights in her own country.

Lilly Habtemarian, an Ethiopian, wrote her narrative. Her story witnesses not only to the strength of her mother, to the dangers of escape, to the longing for her homeland, but also to the destructive impact of racism on her and her family in the United States:

The ability to remember is truly a precious gift, but at times there are memories that are not bearable enough to be remembered... How can a woman age 30, take her five children, ages 13 to 5, and escape out of a country despite the rules and restrictions of that government? But my mother did. After a plane right to Addis, and a bus ride that made us very sick, we walked for four hours through the woods, following and wise old man. We walked and walked and walked for hours until we reached a safe area the old man chose for us to stay in. There he left us for four days, stationed at a dangerous area in the pouring rain. We all sat closely under one umbrella we had brought with us, surrounding our mother like little chicks. We were overjoyed to see the camel caravan arrive, and were informed that they were delayed because they were being shot at as they ran for their lives. That began our twelve day camel journey through the desert. During the day we set up a camp fire and my mom would make unleavened bread from the flour we brought with us. We would also drink tea with a tough of Areka (alcohol) to make sure we didn't get infected by bacteria... There were battles being fought around us, and we were trying to escape in between. It was very dangerous. At times it was very difficult to endure the traveling in the dark because when we were sleepy it was hard to stay put on the camel. We also had to be very quiet riding during the night. Even the camels were trained to walk without making noise. That helped us, because we had to be extremely careful of being heard by the nearby soldiers or revolutionaries. We then flew to Egypt, months later we received asylum in the United States.

Seven years later, I am still remembering the past. I miss the holidays. I miss Christmas. I miss Easter, the fasting, the praying, the different rituals. I miss so many other things that I can never find here in America. Since we came to California, the longer we stayed the more we were disappointed, the less we felt like we belong, and the more we missed our homeland.

The experience of racism throughout the years has changed each and everyone of us in my family for the worst. Our family was almost destroyed. We were very ambitious, hopeful and energetic, but staying in America for so long, far away from our homeland has completely demoralized us, and has confused and altered our meaning in life. I found America to be a nation of robots and too many useless heroes. Emotions and feelings are least in priority. Money is the god here. Many are filled with the spirit of greed, selfishness, separation, prejudice, and racism. So "advanced," yet so backwards. I don't want to be a part of this second Babylon era. I am a child of God like all first, then I am Lilly. I am not anybody's incompetent, ugly, no good, poor black person. Coming to America for me meant being enslaved to imposed identity and ideologies of others.... Silence[d] by reality I am burning inside with confusion and anger, with pain and anxiety. I am powerless; I am weak, yet strong. I am happy, yet sad; I am hopeless, yet hopeful. What can "I" do? I am only a woman. I am only black. I am only African. How can I be of any use here? Fleeing Ethiopia hasn't become a solution. Is it worth losing a country so beautiful? Do we want to die in a foreign land where we can gain no respect?

While Lilly's narrative illuminated her family's harrowing exit, the racilization, alienation and homesickness they experience in the United States, another student told about her sole flight and exit due to a student massacre and her efforts to support herself alone emotionally and economically in exile. Mee Mee, a Burma-born Chinese woman, now exiled in the United States, was a shy, reticent student in the class. She fled Burma after the 1988 student-led pro-democracy movement at the university where she witnessed many of her classmates massacred. The last day of class she asked if she could tell her story to the students. Fighting back tears, she courageously spoke of her story and of many Burmese Chinese who have become exiled:

Though this was a peaceful demonstration, it was cruelly cracked down by the paramilitary government in September, 1988. All the schools were closed down indefinitely. Thousands of demonstrators were slaughtered. Thousands of students were arrested and tortured. Many students fled into the jungle near the Burma-Thai border where hundreds were infected by malaria and died. Many of my classmates were killed.

Many students who fled to Bangkok found their passports to nowhere. Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is an opposition leader of the government, has been under house arrest since July 20, 1989. All those martyrs, dead or alive, and all the people in Burma or from Burma who love democracy, freedom and human rights should deserve their wills. I am here praying for them to be released from arrest and from inhumane suffering.

Student Responses

As students listened to these narratives of their classmates, read and discussed about the displacement of women, children and men due to war, they came to understand that the refugee experience requires continual response to change, including the need to cope with traumatic new circumstances. As Susan Martin Forbes writes in Refugee Women, "These women, forced to leave their homes because of violence and persecutions, must cope with new environments, new languages, new social and economic roles, new familial relations, and new problems." In examining refugee and immigrant resettlement in the United States, students also came to understand how the construction of race, immigration documentation, language skills, literacy levels, education and domestic/work abuse all impact a woman's identity, relationships and possibilities here.

Participants in the course came to realize how much these issues touched their daily lives. As one student wrote, "It was surprising to learn that I went to class with women who were refugees from such countries as El Salvador, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Burma. I did not know they were so much part of the fabric of my life."

Students who were refugee women came to understand their own experiences better, how they carry the hidden costs of war in their bodies. Having witnessed a massacre, having lost family members to death squad repression, or having been tortured is an experienced lived throughout a person's lifetime. So when the class discussed post-traumatic stress disorder, Myra from El Salvador understood her own extreme anxiety when her teenage daughter would be five or ten minutes late from school. "I remembered what happened in El Salvador. Children would be disappeared, tortured or murdered. These memories still impact me ten years later here."

Liydia Walling, a Peruvian Indian woman, living in the United States for eight years now, wrote:

Every class I felt that, at some level, we were talking about myself or somebody related to me. I considered this class my lifeline to reality. For years, I have pushed the realities of my people and difficult process and question of identity out of my mind, because every day I am in a survival mode. Though the video "Madres of Plaza de Maya" in Argentine was a painful story, this was so close to home, not only geographically but also because I myself experienced many years of military government when I was growing up in Peru. Exploitation and military repression are topics very much alive in my country today. Not until I took this class did I become aware of the global context and significance that these matters have.

It was not only hearing the narrative of exiled women that transformed students understandings of the refugee woman; the work many of the students performed in the community also fostered a deeper realization. Some students prepared asylum cases for Mayan women with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant; others accompanied women as translators for health or legal appointments; one worked at an Asian women's shelter; three students set up English classes at Casa Esperanza, a safe house for Central American refugees; several students did field work with Mujeres Activas, Mujeres Unidas, an organization in San Francisco founded by refugee and immigrant women to support women struggling with the severe violence and trauma they suffered in their country of origin and to inform, support and better the position of these women here. Some students organized hunger strikes to call attention to the human rights abuses in Haiti; others picketed in front of designer Jessica McClintock's store in San Francisco, protesting the withholding of back pay for twelve immigrant women workers.

This course has also been a pivotal point for students interested in further work in the international community. One student graduated and is now facilitating workshops on mental health in the Communities of Population of Resistance in Ixcan and accompanying returning/visiting Guatemalas living in exile for a year; another woman dedicated six months to research at the Center for Refugee Studies in Oxford, England; another student, fluent in Russian, works in Moscow documenting human rights abuses of political prisoners. Here in the States, other students are completing graduate studies in immigration law, health services, policy studies or advocacy for refugee women.

But perhaps for all of us involved in the course was a transformation of our perspectives. First, students sought ways to understand themselves, their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and to articulate and discover a more powerful sense of selves, their identities, and their communities. Then listening to various narratives, students learned the severe violence and trauma of war, of flight, and of the struggle to reconstruct one's life in exile. But more, in listening to and working with these women, we saw how one's educational background and English skills determine one's placement in the job market and how people suffer real damage in the States as the society around them confines them to demeaning images composed of constrictive racial and legal definitions. But perhaps what we learned most, was the spiritual, cultural and moral strength these women draw from themselves and from their traditions. As one student said, "These women learn how to work with pain. Over and over these women witnessed, `We have to be strong.' I think we now understand women's potentials for survival, change and solidarity in new dimensions."

The words of Calixta Gabriel echo this strength:

I am a refugee. But I am also a witness. I talk for my people. We are a raped people. Thousands have been murdered in Guatemala and thousands are homeless. Yes, I am alone, but I feel the strength of all the widowed women of the world. We must continue forward to restore our culture, our worth and dignity as persons.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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