James Conteh remembers the morning rebel soldiers breached his hometown and slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women and children.

He and his sister were walking to school when they heard rapid AK-47 shots sounding in the distance.

“My sister and I looked at each other, and we started running home,” Conteh said.

Conteh, now a senior studying health psychology, grew up in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone until he and his family found a way to leave — until he and his family found refuge in the U.S.

Conteh said the Sierra Leonean Civil War was one of many events that ultimately led him and his family to find refuge in America.

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Courtesy Photo (Lana Rose Strathearn)

Courtesy Photo (Lana Rose Strathearn)

Conteh is only one example of the thousands of people throughout the world who have found refuge from the danger they faced in their native lands.

“A refugee is a person who is forced to leave his or her country and is unable to return because of persecution or fear of being killed or a lack of freedom,” said Zeze Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho (CSI) Refugee Center.

Rwasama said a person could be forced to leave their country for many reasons, but especially war, genocide, torture and overwhelming circumstances of discrimination.

“I was raised by my stepfather,” Conteh said. “He registered us right away through the refugee program that was coming up.”

Conteh said despite his stepfather’s efforts to keep him safe, he grew up his whole life around war.
Conteh said he spent 10 years going through the UNICEF and UNHCR programs in Sierra Leone before he and his family were chosen for resettlement in Chicago, Illinois.

Rwasama said many refugees are willing to leave everything they have in their native countries because they have faced such severe violations of their human rights there.

“Not only do refugees leave behind all their belongings, land and property, but they also leave behind their parents, children, friends and other family members suffering from serious atrocities,” Rwasama said.

Conteh said that despite the shortage of food and supplies during the war, he was happy to have his family alive and together during their emigration from Sierra Leone.

Conteh said they could have gone to London or Switzerland, but he and his family had been interviewed by a lady from Chicago, so they were chosen to go to America.

“We came to the States on June 26, 2005,” Conteh said. “That is when we got to Chicago, and a day later, we called people and told them we were here in America.”

Conteh said the Episcopal Church helped pay for the plane tickets and sponsored them upon their arrival in the U.S.

“They picked us up from the airport, and as we were driving through Chicago, it was super bright even though it was midnight,” Conteh said. “Driving through the city, I thought it was daytime.”

Rwasama said as refugees come to the U.S., they are assigned to refugee centers all over the country that take on the responsibility of providing assistance and guidance to the refugees as they begin their new lives.

“They sponsored us to stay in this house for three months so we could get on our feet,” Conteh said. “There was school we had to register for, and my parents had to find a job, so they basically helped my mom and dad build up a résumé so that they could apply for a job.”

Refugee centers prepare refugees for life in a new culture and teach them everything they will need to know about their new home, according to the CSI Refugee Center.

Rwasama said these resettlement services include temporary cash assistance, medical assistance, housing, job placement, cultural orientation, English Language Training, transportation to and from appointments as well as employment sites and referrals to resources within the community.

“Our goal is to help refugees reach self-sufficiency and fully integrate into our society in a very short period of time,” Rwasama said.

Although Conteh said he was not yet familiar with organizations like Rexburg for Refugees or BYU-I Was a Stranger, he said he wanted to give some advice to those desiring to help.

“Listen to everyone’s story because everyone is telling their story every single day,” Conteh said. “You can’t really judge people for where they came from or what they are going through in their life because everyone has a story and the only real thing you can ever do that will bless another person’s life is to listen to them.”

Conteh said all people can watch out for one another by listening to them and making sure everyone is in a safe place.

“We need to watch out for every single person in this world — not only refugees, but every single person because we all have our own struggle,” Conteh said. “It all comes down to the person who really listens, who is willing to offer help, and I think that’s what everyone needs.”