Refugees are a growing part of life in Iowa, our economy and the fiber of our state.
In the process of meeting and writing about refugees, I find myself filled with gratitude. I am honored by the chance to learn from very special individuals who give back despite having endured so much despair and pain before coming to Iowa.
Dr. Renos Papadopoulos, founder and director of the masters and PhD programs in refugee care, describes something that seems like common sense, yet we usually don’t stop to think about it in terms of new Iowans: “All human beings have needs, these needs are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional and may cover the entire spectrum of human needs, from the basics (safety, food and shelter) to the higher ones in Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, such as the need for love, belonging, status, self-esteem and self-actualization.”
Many of us were fortunate to be born in a family nucleus where most of these needs were met, and in a country that provides safety and a sense of belonging. Others are not as fortunate; they were born in places where there’s violence, hunger, corruption, or war, leaving them with no option but to flee their country, leaving behind all they know and all they love. It is so difficult to imagine the feeling of being forced to leave family, friends, and places that are so familiar — places where important memories were made but may never be seen again.
At times it is hard to hear the painful journey many endured, but at the same time I am in awe of the resilience and determination of these amazing individuals.
Danny’s story is no exception.
Danny left Burundi in East Africa due to a civil war that has lasted decades and that began with the killing of democratically elected president Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993. The war is marked by the ethnic violence which includes fighting between the Tutsi-dominated army and the Hutu rebel groups. It is said the official end to the war came with the election of Pierre Nkurunziza in 2005, yet many are still suffering.
The outcome of this bloody war includes an estimated death toll of more than 300,000 and the displacement of more than 500,000 living in refugee camps and seeking refuge in neighboring countries and all around the world, including the United States.
Danny’s family fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania. Although Danifodi (Danny) Nizigiyim was born in Burundi, he was raised in one of several refugee camps. His parents and six siblings arrived there in 1999. He was only six years old and recalls life in the camp.
“One fresh memory is all the trees surrounding the camp,” Danny said. “There were many wild animals, so people had to guard the camp, otherwise you could get attacked by those animals.”
When they arrived at the refugee camp, there were not many people living there, and as is the rule in their circumstances they were not allowed to leave the camp to seek work. There were no jobs in the camp and refugees relied only on UNICEF’S supply of food, but it wasn’t enough.
Danny recalled how he and his siblings felt hungry most of the time. Back home, before they fled, his family owned land and sold palm oil. While living in the camp, his dad would leave to go work at the fields nearby to make some extra money at the risk of getting caught or being robbed and beaten. After a long wait, relief was in sight.
A May 2007 report from NPR tells the story of a group of nearly 100 Burundian refugees who made the journey from Tanzania to the United States, helped by a request from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) that the U.S. find new homes for more than 8,000 Burundian refugees.
Danny’s family was among those refugees moving to Virginia in 2007.
“I remember that people from the settlement agency picked us up at the airport, taking us to our new apartment and never saw them again,” he said. “There were volunteers from churches helping us for a while. We didn’t know anything about the system, but we had to learn, and learn quickly.”
His younger brother had an accident at the playground and was taken to the hospital. Fortunately it was nothing serious, but since they didn’t know their health insurance situation, the bills from the hospital kept coming and they grew worried because they didn’t have the money to pay for it.
His dad’s first job was in construction and his mother stayed home to take care for their children. For the first two years in Virginia, his dad rode a bicycle to work.
“It was really hard at the beginning,” Danny said. “Everything was different, the people, the food, the schools.”
After graduating from high school, Danny moved to Kentucky where he graduated in 2017 from Sullivan University with a degree in business administration and international business. After graduation, he went back to Virginia with the hopes of securing a good job, but had no luck, so he decided to move back to Kentucky where he met his wife. Danny was working at the airport for a rental car company when a good friend convinced them to move to Des Moines in 2018.
Once in Des Moines, he landed a position as RefugeeRISE coordinator at EMBARC, a nonprofit organization created by refugees to help new refugees successfully settle in Iowa.
“I remember that after graduating from college, all I wanted to do was to make money,” Danny said, “but once I started helping people, my passion for helping others and making a difference in other people’s lives began to grow. I know that my journey as a refugee gives me the advantage of knowing how people feel and what they are going through.”
Another passion for Danny is his company, Danifodi. He designs suits for men and women and donates 5% of his earnings to organizations that help immigrants and refugees.
“I want other refugees to adapt, but more than anything, I want them to succeed in this country,” he said.
Danny is not a citizen yet, but he is in the process of filing his application to become a U.S. citizen and gain the right to vote. As the new dad of a baby boy and a husband, he knows he must do everything he can to provide for his small family and create a better future for his son.
Just in the last few days Danny joined his peers to participate in RefugeeRISE Day at the Capitol in Des Moines.
He spoke to legislators and the governor about the impact EMBARC’s RefugeeRISE has in helping refugees with workforce readiness, training across the state and the contributions refugees make to Iowa. He also shared his story and asked for ongoing education and support of refugees.
Danny’s story and enthusiasm for Iowa, his family, work and for his business continue to renew my outlook that all is possible when we practice our positive energy and compassion.
Thank you, Danny.
By Claudia Thrane