A good friend of mine here in Maine is an enthusiastic and extremely dedicated ELL (English Language Learner) teacher at the high school that I briefly attended at the beginning of my freshman year. That high school, which was almost entirely white when I was a student there 20 years ago, is now accepting an average of six new foreign students each week. At last count, there were kids from 54 countries speaking 27 languages. Forty percent of the student body is now first-generation immigrants, many fleeing conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. (The United States accepted 70,000 refugees in 2014—fewer than the number of American births each week.)
My friend has been helping a group of teenage boys who are here (some without their parents) from Burundi, a tiny nation in East Africa that suffered a brutal civil war from 1993-2005. They are among the more than 175,000 Burundians who have left home in recent months to escape political unrest over an unconstitutional presidential election in July. Two of the boys who came here unaccompanied are living with my friend’s parents, who have become their legal guardians here in the United States. These quiet, gracious boys were at a summer cookout that my friend and her husband hosted, where they played with the little kids in attendance and chatted politely about their favorite American foods and their first Maine winter. They could have just as easily been eager exchange students as resilient refugees.
People flee their homes for all sorts of reasons: war and civil conflict, economic decline, lack of educational opportunities, and climate changes, to name a few. “If you’re frightened for your life or unable to feed your children your first response is to flee to where you think you might be able to meet those needs,” said Stephen O’Brien, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief. Many of the places people flee are high on the Fragile States Index. Burundi was number 21 in 2013—the most recent ranking. I suspect that its rank will rise for 2014 and 2015 because of the recent political strife.
The feature article in this issue is set in Burundi. “The Blood Cries Out” explores the complicated issue of land inheritance in a country with one of the highest population densities in the world: 1,127 people per square mile, versus 607 people per square mile in Maryland, whose land area is about the same size.
The father’s land (women typically do not own property in Burundi) must be passed on to his sons, according to custom. But that is getting increasingly difficult as population growth outstrips available land and plots become smaller and smaller with each generation. The population has doubled since 1990 and continues to grow by 3.2 percent a year—only Niger is growing at a faster rate at 4 percent (Uganda is tied at 3.2 percent). Burundian women have an average of 5.7 children; even assuming future fertility decline, the population is projected to double again by 2040.
Pierre Gahungu, the man pictured on the cover of this issue, knows this story all too well. He suffered an attack by his cousin’s son over rights to his land and fled to the nearest town. Extended family now squats on his land, treating it as their own and refusing to move away, even though the court ruled in Gahungu’s favor.
I enjoy the diversity that refugees bring to my historically homogenous state, where less than 4 percent of the population is foreign born (the largest share being from Canada). But I cringe to think about what brings them here. I wish they lived the lives of foreign exchange students visiting for a semester or a year, but the reality is that most of them do not. And without population stabilization, the refugee crisis—in Burundi and in so many other places— will only get worse.