“I decided to see hope where there was no hope.”
I came to the United States from Botswana on September 30th, 2008. I was born in Zimbabwe forty years ago and I left my country for political reasons. I was involved with the opposition party in Zimbabwe. On paper, Zimbabwe is a democratic country, but you will only know it if you don’t oppose or speak against anything the government does. My reason for leaving was not why other people were leaving; we had a lot of people leave because of the economy. Because of the political unrest, things weren’t going well and we had professionals leave Zimbabwe to seek better opportunities. But with me, I loved my country so much! Nothing short of what happened to me would have made me leave my country. No matter what you would have offered me, I would not have left it. I was forced to leave because I had to be safe, to live, and to survive. I could not do those three things in my country.
We gained independence from Britain in 1980, but by the 1990s, long-promised land reforms had failed. People were not happy because they were still living as squatters and had not received what they were promised. The more unrest increased and the more people got restless, the more the government started to panic. They decided to start secretly supporting groups that invaded white farms and kicked out the families that lived there. We still supported land reform, but their methods and the new incompetent farmers that took over didn’t sit very well with most of us. That’s when the opposition became stronger. The government wanted to use the same methods they used to destroy the opposition during my father’s era, but this time it didn’t work because people were asking educated questions that the government could not answer. We campaigned fervently during the 2002 presidential elections – this time we meant it. Wherever you walked, two out of three people were wearing an opposition T-shirt – that was huge. People are afraid of the government, so when people throw away their fear, you don’t need polls to tell you people are angry and prepared to do whatever it takes to win the election. However, the government rigged the elections and won.
At that point, I was the chairperson of a district and we had campaigned very strongly. I monitored the voting on behalf of my political party and I saw lots of things the government did to rig the elections. In some places, people believed in just capturing what was happening in order to contest the election in the courts. I used a different method; I believed in stopping it. With my experience, I knew the government would look at us with a straight face and say, “You are a damn liar.” Every time I would see them try to do anything to rig the elections, I would stop it. Without me signing off on the elections, they couldn’t be declared. In my district, the opposition actually won. The head of the CIO (Zimbabwe’s version of the KGB) heard what was happening and confronted me with a gun to my head. I knocked it away from my face; I was very confident.
I tried to delay signing off on the elections, but I had no cause because I had stopped all the meddling. As soon as I signed off, I fled. I have never worn a dress in my life; I always wore pants and jeans. I managed to escape by switching clothes with a lady from a local church whose members dressed like the Amish. She took my jeans, I took her dress and tied up my hair, and I walked away nicely without them noticing. After only two days, they found me on a farm owned by my company. The government picked me up and I realized they were going to kill me, so I jumped from the car and injured my back. I stayed away from that area for about three years but remained in Zimbabwe. I returned in 2005, campaigned fervently, and managed to stop them from rigging the vote again. This time they managed to catch me and took me to the mountains, where they tortured me and they left me for dead. When they were torturing me, there were a lot of beatings and rapes. They finally tried to hang me. When I woke up, I still had the knot around my neck. I tried to survive on wild fruits and crawled towards any water I could find. They had taken my crutches so I couldn’t walk. Someone must have made an anonymous call to the people who ended up rescuing me. They started looking for me, and three days later, they found me and picked me up in the darkness of night.
I got some treatment so I could travel without drawing attention and was taken to Botswana. I thought I was secure, but I was only in Botswana for a month before I was put in prison. I declared my asylum with the UN, who reported it to the government. The government found out I was on the wanted list for treason and I was jailed for one year, from Nov. 15 to Nov. 2nd 2006. After a lot of negotiations involving the UN and the U.S. I was released and given asylum in Botswana with the condition I would leave for a third country. While I was waiting to be resettled in the U.S., there was an attempt on my life during World Refugee Day in 2007. After I was released from prison, I worked for the UN making sure dignitaries were well taken care of. Intelligence officers working at the Zimbabwean embassy found out where I was and started trying to kill me. I was forced to flee from town to town. They rushed my resettlement process and I arrived in the U.S. in 2008.
I think God had a purpose. I’m a Christian and I believe that for everything that happened in my life, even the bad things, God had a reason and a purpose. I know a lot of people are very bitter when they go through what I went through, but I had made a choice when I was in prison. When I was first in prison, I was very angry, very frustrated, and felt betrayed by my own God. As I stayed longer in prison, I made a choice: I knew that the bitterness was destroying me, I knew that it was eating me, and I knew that I was the only person that could get myself out of that situation. I decided to make that situation better by having a positive attitude. I started reading the Bible more, meditating more, praying more, and I started to try and see what I could learn from what happened to me. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I decided to see hope where there was no hope.
I bought a house within two years of arriving and now I work at Walls Fargo and I’m doing very well. I decided to take advantage of the opportunities I found in Des Moines. Being in a small state like Iowa allows you a voice: to speak and be heard. Everything you need is within arms’ reach. I started capitalizing on that and got involved in a lot of things at work and speaking on behalf of refugees. I speak fervently; some people think my candor is not so good, but some people take it very positively. The head of my department has chosen me to be in the diversity council, representing thousands and thousands of people in our department. My outspokenness and my fervent desire to make sure that refugees’ voices are heard has been noticed at Wells Fargo and they are giving me the space to do so. I speak about my experience, the life of a refugee, and what people can do to help. Wherever I speak, most people expect to hear me say, “Oh, I wish people could give us food and clothes and things!” But whenever I speak, even when I actually didn’t have material things, I spoke more about people opening resources to refugees. I speak more about making the life of a refugee easier, not by giving them material things, but by opening doors for them and telling them about resources. People should get involved in refugees’ lives so they become street wise.
Fortunately, my children ended up living with an American family in Botswana who helped me bring my kids to Des Moines. I had to fight on my own and communicate directly with the U.S. ambassador. The UN refused to give my kids passports, but I still managed to get them here. They joined me here in 2011 – now I have a happy family! The only thing I’m waiting for is my husband; I don’t know how long it will take to get him here. I love this country and I can’t wait until September when I get my citizenship. I hope I will be celebrating five years in the U.S. and becoming a citizen at the same time. I will be so ready for politics! I’m going to be a Republican and I’ve already been to Republican conventions. Whenever they decide to go diverse, there are so few black people they will have no choice but to choose me! I’m very excited.
Everyone has lots of stories. What I always tell people is that there are no more unique or less unique stories. There are a lot of people who say “Oh, I feel so bad because I didn’t go through as much as you went through, but I feel like my life is crap.” You have a right to do that; the pain you know is your pain. It’s the worst you have known. As much as I have gone through, I don’t feel like the world owes me anything. We are living in an ugly world. Lucky for me, I still had a country like the United States where I could come and speak freely as I do. I know I step on a lot of people’s toes, but I don’t get shot or killed for it. People just look at me and say “She is just a crazy politician.” We have the freedom to speak; the freedom to be crazy.
By Rumbi Chinhamhora
Written with Cody Austin
(Throughout June, we’re excited to honor World Refugee Day by sharing stories from the Des Moines refugee community and highlighting how refugees are contributing to their communities. Special thanks to LSI intern and Drake University graduate Cody Austin for coordinating this project!)