2012-03-16 / Front Page

Burundi people educate on culture, war

By Kristy Wagner Staff Writer


Burundian dancers entertain the crowd of people who participated in the Burundian cultural event at the United Methodist Church in Cape Elizabeth on Sunday. The event was a joint effort between the church in Cape Elizabeth and the Hope Gate Way United Methodist Church in Portland. (Kristy Wagner photo) Burundian dancers entertain the crowd of people who participated in the Burundian cultural event at the United Methodist Church in Cape Elizabeth on Sunday. The event was a joint effort between the church in Cape Elizabeth and the Hope Gate Way United Methodist Church in Portland. (Kristy Wagner photo) Pastor Elizabeth Bean of the Hope Gate Way United Methodist Church stood before a nearly filled United Methodist Church in Cape Elizabeth on Sunday to welcome everyone and to pay special tribute to the newest members of the church, the people of Burundi, Africa.

The Cape Elizabeth United Methodist Church held a cultural event on Sunday in honor of the Burundi people, who seek political asylum from their country in Africa, which has endured extensive devastation from a destructive government and civil war. The Hope Gate Way United Methodist Church of Portland began its involvement with the Burundi people when they met Norbert, whose last name could not be released for safety reasons.


Burundian dancers dressed in the colors of their country’s flag perform at a cultural event at the United Methodist Church in Cape Elizabeth. The event celebrated Burundian culture and educated people on the civil war and oppression the people in Burundi endure on a daily basis. (Kristy Wagner photo) Burundian dancers dressed in the colors of their country’s flag perform at a cultural event at the United Methodist Church in Cape Elizabeth. The event celebrated Burundian culture and educated people on the civil war and oppression the people in Burundi endure on a daily basis. (Kristy Wagner photo) “It’s mostly young men. Some of them have wives and children back in Burundi. We met Norbert first back in September,” said Allen Ewing-Merrill, pastor at Hope Gate Way.

Word of mouth spread through the Portland-based Burundi population and Merrill said the church in Portland now has 10-15 Burundi attendees on an average Sunday.

Merrill said the Burundi people did not enter the country as refugees so they could not receive refugee services, such as help with housing, food, clothing, social security, and job interviews, among many other refugee services provided by the state of Maine.

“The Burundi are not refugees, they are asylum seekers,” Merrill said.

The Burundi fled the country they love after they spoke out or acted against their severely oppressive and controlling government. They left Burundi to save their lives and the lives of their family members. Merrill said most are here on tourist visas and they must apply for political asylum within one year of their arrival.

Sunday’s cultural event was meant to highlight the culture of Burundi and its people, but also to educate church members and friends about how much the Burundians suffer at the hands of their government.

“(Hope Gate Way) helps them with security deposits to get them out of shelters and into apartments and we also help out with legal assistance,” Merrill said. “We try to widen the circle of awareness and support.”

The legal assistance needed usually includes the services of asylum attorneys.

Part of the reason for Sunday’s cultural celebration was so the two churches could recognize the ways in which the Burundi have enhanced the church communities.

Judith Hill, a member of the Cape Elizabeth United Methodist Church, met a Burundian man at the church’s Martin Luther King Day event in January.

“He was wearing this beautiful beaded bracelet and I asked him about it,” Hill said. “He told me the bracelet was his country’s flag and then he gave it to me.”

Hill said one of the things the Burundi community in Portland needs is blankets, so she and some other women decided to make 10 quilts. At the end of the cultural presentation on Sunday, Hill gave the quilt she made to the man who gave her the bracelet. The quilt was red, green, and white — the colors of the Burundian flag.

“One thing that stood out in my mind was how much (the Burundians) love their country,” Hill said.

After the quilts were given to the Burundi members of the church, there was a performance by Burundian dancers and everyone got up to sing and celebrate. The cultural presentation and dancing was followed by a meal of Burundian food cooked by Burundian volunteers the morning before the event.

“We’re very happy we’ve made these new friends,” Bean said.

There were four Burundian speakers and, in between each speech, the dancers lightened the mood and reminded the audience of the Burundian culture, a culture tarnished by a brutally oppressive government and civil war.

The event began with an introduction from Bean.

“There are horrible things going on in Burundi, but there are also wonderful things,” Bean said. “We have been blessed at Hope Gate Way to have the Burundi join our fellowship.”

Norbert addressed the crowd in English and talked about the politics and history of Burundi.

“The government of Burundi is mismanaged,” Norbert said. “Everything the (government) did was violence.”

As Norbert spoke there were slides and photos projected on the wall of Burundi people suffering by acts of their government. He spoke of how elections in Burundi are “rigged” so change is nearly impossible to obtain. A picture of a man wearing a headset flashed across the screen; Norbert said he was a radio journalist who was jailed for giving his microphone to the rebels fighting against the Burundi government.

“There is no justice in Burundi,” Norbert said. “Anybody can do anything they want if they have power or a connection to the government.”

After Norbert spoke, two men and a woman talked about their experiences in Burundi.

One man, Innocent, was a politician in Burundi trying to make positive changes in his country. He told of how he was hunted and tortured by the government and later found out he was on a list of people the government intended to kill.

“They told me, ‘If you don’t accept this we will kill you. If you don’t accept this we will kill your entire family,’” said Innocent, whose words were translated from French to English.

Innocent said about one year after the Burundian rebels gained power, the government started killing people.

“Many people died or were tortured,” Innocent said, adding that more fled and now remain in exile for their “political opinion.”

At the end of his story, Innocent had one request for the people packed into the Cape Elizabeth church.

“I ask friends to be courageous and one day the truth will set you free.”

Staff Writer Kristy Wagner can be reached at 282- 4337, ext. 233.

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