Refugee stories: Blen Hussain and her brilliant family

One in a series of stories about young refugees, immigrants, dreamers

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

On Oct. 28, 2005, Blen Hussain woke up early to commotion; men’s stern voices filled her home. Her father, Kiflu Hussain, told his wife and children, “Don’t worry. I’ll be back in a few hours,” and he left with the men.

He spent the next year locked away in the infamous Kaliti Prison.

A lawyer, activist and journalist, Kiflu published an editorial alleging corruption in a recent election and regime. To say this prison was overcrowded would be a gross understatement, notes Kiflu. He says he’s seen photos in The Economist magazine of so-called “overcrowded” American prisons, remarking that one cannot find a middle-class hotel in Ethiopia so comfortable. And the Kaliti prison indiscriminately mixed violent assailants, murderers, pedophiles, the mentally ill, political prisoners and juveniles.

“It was a concentration camp,” Kiflu says, “minus the gas, only because they had not figured out the technology.”

There was a point he feared for his life, “but it was my family I worried about.”

Blen’s mother, Tizita Bogale, lost her beloved brother, a college student, in Ethiopia’s violent Red Terror in the late 1970s. Brokenhearted, she rejected activism in favor of religion, but in the mid-1990s she fell for an outspoken revolutionary. When her dear husband Kiflu was imprisoned indefinitely, she was left with their young daughters to make ends meet. She wasn’t the only one, Blen recalls. Many men, who in her country tended to be financial breadwinners, were locked up or had fled, so there really was no way for families to help each other — everyone was scrimping.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The first time the girls and Tizita visited their father in prison, he stood among a throng of filthy fellow inmates. Blen’s sister, Sophie, 4, looked at the line of prisoners and, guessing a brawl was to blame for her father’s incarceration, asked, “With whom did you fight?”

Her dad, making sure no one was listening, leaned toward her and whispered, “Meles Zenawi” (the Ethiopian dictator).

“I’ll never forget the day I got out, it was drizzling, we were walking, and Sophie asks, ‘Are you now friends with Meles Zenawi?’ ”

He’d forgotten his quip, but the girls had not.

Shortly after his release, Kiflu wanted to write about the conditions of the prison (he eventually did for, but he was tipped off that the authorities were returning for him. So he fled.

“It was a concentration camp, minus the gas, only because they had not figured out the technology.”

Police came to the home looking for her dad, Blen recalls. Obtaining a warrant, they ransacked the house. Kiflu applied as a political refugee to bring his family to safety. They met him in Uganda and awaited acceptance to Canada or Australia. There, seven years passed.

Blen eventually gave up, unpinning maps of those faraway countries, which hung wistfully on her bedroom wall. Life in Uganda wasn’t so bad, she says. Dad held out hope, though. He’d become acquainted with American professors who were conducting research in Uganda — they hired him as a translator and offered him a job in Dallas. Two years and umpteen interviews, tests and questionnaires later, the family gained acceptance into the U.S. refugee program.

Ever practical, Blen worried about school and rent in America and, even more, that the whole thing was a trick.

The plane ride to Dallas, by way of Brussels and New York City, was “the highest form of excitement in my life, to this day.”

It was happening.

Blen, at 17, could not believe her eyes when she arrived at Lake Highlands High School. It was so big, like a city compared to her previous school. A student guide/mentor made her first day bearable by showing her around. Until teacher Matthew Morris and his AVID class, she knew nothing of GPAs, SATs or college scholarships.

Today she claims a 3.8 GPA. She is involved in a peer leadership/anti-bullying group, and she won the Character Counts Award from the Lake Highlands Exchange Club. French club, Police Athletic League, the Mayor’s Dallas Youth Council and a Young Women in Science and Engineering at University of Texas at Dallas — it’s but a partial list of activities in which Blen takes part.

She is excessively embedded in such pursuits because she wants to broaden her mind and scope of opportunity.

Living a life far better than what her parents experienced in their youths, Blen nonetheless sees imperfection in America and Lake Highlands. She witnesses segregation, mostly self-imposed, at school and around town. She knows things could improve for incoming refugee students who often go along indefinitely without knowing the fundamentals of how education works in America.

Some weekends, she’ll toss on a backpack, hop on a DART train and explore Downtown for hours.

Her dad used to go on long walks when he was home in Ethiopia, which at the time she thought was “weird,” but now she gets it. She already earned a scholarship to Texas Weslyan, a law-focused university in Fort Worth where she might study immigration law.

She appreciates art — something at which her little sister is gifted, she says — and music, literature and writing. And a good debate.

Her father, and his father before him, gave their children the gift of free information.

Kiflu’s father, a pilot, made a point to bring BBC and Voice of America into the home, so his children would hear English and become globally informed.

Kiflu has done the same for his family.

And while he has much to do before he could, say, return to law school or write a book about his experiences, he must work to pay the bills. At times that has meant delivering pizzas. But last month he took a job with Dallas courts interpreting the Amharic language to English. He will work civil, criminal, immigration cases — anywhere he is needed. He hopes to open an interpretation/translation services office near their Lake Highlands apartment soon. Blen’s mother works deep nights in food service at an East Dallas hospital.

Like every member of her family, including, 10th grader Sophie, Blen smiles frequently and exudes charm and wit. Talking about his girls’ futures, the proud father says he has no worries.

“Blen will be maybe a lawyer, maybe Matlock [which Kiflu was watching when we arrived — it’s his favorite show] or a politician and diplomat like Madeleine Albright.”

The family enjoys a communal chuckle, mostly at the Matlock mention, and not because they doubt Blen could be any of the three, in her own right.

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