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Tampa refugee children express their new lives

TAMPA — Lorenzo Diaz is 12. He lives in Tampa with his parents. When he left his native Cuba two years ago, he left behind his grandparents and his friends. He misses them. "And my house," Lorenzo says. Tuesday, he doted over a drawing on a poster board: the skylines of Miami and Havana, separated only by a thin patch of blue water. This artwork meant something to him. "We can be closer some day and be together," the boy explained.

Lorenzo put finishing touches on his poster and an accompanying essay this week. So did 11 other students, all participants in a contest for young refugees. They had emigrated from Sudan, Burma, Vietnam and Cameroon.

Winning posters will go on display June 19 in a celebration of World Refugee Day at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The Refugee Youth and Family Program, run by Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services in Clearwater, works with 700 children and teenagers from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, helping them and their families get used to new lives.

"Back in our own village, we had to sell groceries in the market to survive," HaZeMaBe, 17, from Burma wrote in her essay, with help from a translator.

On her poster, she drew a large tree. She glued pictures of family and friends to the limbs. HaZe- MaBe lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for 11 years before she came to the United States 18 months ago.

"We never had the opportunity to go to school," she wrote. "We never had a bed or sofas to sleep on. Here we can go to school, which makes me very happy. … Here we don't have to carry water for miles, and we don't get sick as much."

Yet there is a wistfulness over lives lost.

Khang Thach, 12, moved from Vietnam 18 months ago.

"Behind my house, they had a river. You could swim there," he said.

On one end of his poster sits his house in Vietnam, twin lines depicting the river. "There you could go outside after school and go to the park," he said.

In front of his Vietnam house, birds smile and flowers bloom.

He draws a few dollar signs next to that house, but more dollar signs next to his American house. "Here you just stay in the house," he said. "I like here, but I like my home country, too."

English came hard. He misses his friends. But at Pierce Middle School, he has a new best friend, a Cuban boy who explains words in English he doesn't understand.

A new student just arrived to his school from Vietnam.

"I explain to him what my teachers say," he said.

Across the room, 14-year-old Adriana Borrego of Cuba lifted her feet so someone could put paint on them. Then she stepped onto her poster, leaving footprints behind.

Though Adriana and her mother flew to Florida two years ago, the footprints represent the journey of many refugees and asylum seekers, she said.

In a top corner of the poster, she colored in a large yellow circle peeking out over a mountain ridge. "The sun is to give them light," she said, "to give them a good way."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at or (813) 661-2441.

Tampa refugee children express their new lives 06/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2009 11:22am]
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