Refugees Run—To Help Other Refugees

Melinda Tuhus PhotoDominic Kabulu (pictured) arrived in New Haven from the Democratic Republic of Congo last fall, via five years in a refugee camp in Zambia. On Sunday, he was one of 500 who ran up and down East Rock in a 5 K race to support the agency that has supported him: Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services.

Run for Refugees is in its third year , always on the morning of Superbowl Sunday. It’s the brainchild of IRIS Executive Director Chris George (pictured revving up the crowd before the starting gun). George said he was relieved the massive snowstorm to hit the mid-Atlantic over the weekend didn’t migrate up the coast to Connecticut.

The first year, 300 runners took to the course; last year, 400, and this year, 500 (including a few walkers). George estimated that the event raised $8,000 for IRIS’s work, “including English language instruction, rental assistance during refugees’ first six months while they look for work, and legal services for immigrants, including Haitians living in Connecticut.”

The energy and excitement were palpable as runners gathered in the Wilbur Cross High School gym, taking temporary refuge from wind chill in the low teens. They were encouraged to show their Superbowl team spirit, so Mark Kidd of East Rock painted his face to honor the New Orleans Saints. The native of South Africa said he directs a research lab at Yale, and encourages his team of internationals to run together. He was joined on Sunday by colleagues from Norway, Austria and France. He said, even though they didn’t flee for their lives, they understand some of what it’s like to be displaced from one’s home.

So does Richard Zbrozek (pictured). He was standing next to the Congolese contingent, and said he came over to chat with them in French. His parents were Polish refugees.

“During the war they were taken as forced labor from Poland to France. And I was born in France and had never been to Poland, so I consider myself French,” he explained. “We immigrated here when I was 10 years old. It was very difficult to adapt to the ways in America.”

So he wanted to make other new arrivals feel at home. “America truly is the beacon of hope, but it’s a struggle. You have to get accepted; you have to change your culture and tweak yourself to become an American. Once you become an American, you’re proud of it,” said Zbrozek,” who lives in Berlin (Connecticut).

That was the general feeling among the throngs who gathered at the starting line, placing hands over hearts for the singing of the national anthem. That was followed by the Rocky anthem,  a tune guaranteed to make even a couch potato want to lace up his or her running shoes and sprint down Orange Street and up Farnham to a point most of the way up East Rock, then turn around and return to the starting point to complete the 5K race.

The winner was Michael Page of New Haven (pictured), with a time of 16:20. He said he ran in college but hung up his running shoes while attending law school. After he graduated last year, he took it up again. He said the course was tough, because it was steep and cold, but the weather didn’t deter him from wearing shorts and a shirt advertising his dad’s new business in Fargo, which he claims is the biggest pool hall in North America.

In addition to enjoying a run in his own backyard, Page said, “I support the cause.” He clerks for federal Judge Guido Calabresi, for whom he’s doing research on political asylum cases. “That’s what brought me here,” he said. “It’s been eye-opening about how the system works.”

And how does it work? he was asked. “Not always well,” he said. 

It worked out well for Kabulu (pictured at the top of the story).

An estimated five million people have died in Congo in the past 10 years from war, illness and starvation. Some of Kabulu’s relatives were among them. His brother-in-law was accused of plotting against the president, and killed. Kabulu said he fled from ethnic persecution with a sister and two nieces to Zambia, where he learned English in the five years he spent there. Because he was able to establish that returning to Congo would likely subject him to additional persecution, he was granted refugee status in the U.S.

Back in Congo, he was a factory mechanic. Now Kabulu, 33, lives in the Hill neighborhood with two other Congolese refugees. “With help from IRIS,” he said, he got a job working in a mattress factory in Shelton.

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