A new kind of ministry

Sierra Leone to Denver

  • Tom Simbo at home with Mukeh, son of another Sierra Leonean refugee.

    Jeremy Miller

See end of story for a complete package of refugee stories in this issue.

Tom Simbo's voice trembles a little when he remembers one sunny January day in 1999. That was the day a young man with an AK-47 showed up at his front door to murder him.

"He took me out onto a little patio, like this one," says Simbo, gesturing to the enclosure behind his small southeast Denver apartment. "Then he told me, 'Say what you need to say, preacher. Because I am going to shoot you.' "

The young fighter was a member of the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army seeking to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone. The group had identified Simbo as a government sympathizer and an enemy of the uprising sweeping through the country.

Eyeing the barrel of the rifle, Simbo fumbled for the right words. "I said, 'You can kill me if you must. I'm ready to die for what I believe. But if you kill me, my wife and children will suffer. Can you live with that?' "

The young man lowered the gun. It turned out he had once been one of Simbo's students in a class offered by the Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone, a group that provided rebels with job skills and career counseling, and promoted nonviolent resolutions to the conflict.

"Pray for me, Father," said the man, turning toward a pickup crammed with rebel fighters. The Simbo family dog followed on the heels of the shaken young man, who spun around and shot the animal through the neck. "My family heard the shots and saw the blood and assumed I had been killed," says Simbo.

Though Simbo and his family survived, the toll has been steep. During the 10 years of fighting between 1991 and 2001, they were forced to flee Sierra Leone three times for the neighboring country of Guinea. Each time they returned to find their home ransacked, their belongings looted or destroyed.

But it was not until after the war officially ended in 2001 that Simbo decided to leave permanently.

"We had just come out of a brutal civil war, and I wrote (a letter to the government) that it was not a time to start arresting people –– that these actions would lead to more fighting," Simbo recalls. "I didn't think much of the letter at the time. But when I went back to Sierra Leone, people were telling me that I was now an enemy of the government. My sister said that there were people out looking for me."

Now perceived as an enemy of both sides, this man of peace was a man without a country.

For the last seven years, Simbo, 54, has lived with his wife and three daughters in a small apartment in a Denver suburb. He and his family were granted asylum in the U.S. in 2004.

In Sierra Leone, the Simbos lived in a spartan three-bedroom apartment in the heart of Freetown with eight other relatives. Simbo misses the connections forged in those close quarters and says he and his wife are still adjusting to the "isolation" of American life. Nonetheless, he is grateful for the opportunities he has found in Denver. A significant portion of the family's earnings is sent home to relatives, and Simbo says he is saving up for a return to Sierra Leone, where he plans to aid in the healing and reconstruction of his native country. But for now he is an outspoken advocate on behalf of a largely unseen and silent group: the victims of torture.

He serves on the board of the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center -- the nonprofit that helped his family gain legal status -- and reaches out to the city's elusive survivors. Since 2000, roughly 45,000 refugees and asylum seekers have come to the Denver metro area, says Jennifer Wilson, the center's executive director. Over the last nine years, her group has helped 1,400 people from 60 different nationalities obtain healthcare, work authorization, legal representation and psychological treatment.

Simbo also supervises the housekeeping staff at downtown Denver's Grand Hyatt Hotel, which has become something of a haven for new immigrants. According to his latest estimate, there are 22 different nationalities working in the hotel's housekeeping department alone -- making it arguably Denver's most diverse workplace. French, Swahili, Spanish, Arabic and Turkish all echo through the labyrinthine back hallways of the 500-plus-room hotel.

When asked about what he managed to hang onto from his previous life -- photos, perhaps, or newspaper cuttings -- anything that might remind him of his lost homeland, Simbo thinks hard for a moment.

Most of the family's possessions were lost during the years of chaos and fighting, he says. Then it comes to him. He and his wife adopted a 6-year-old orphan named Jeneba before they left Sierra Leone. And Jeneba is now a vibrant 13-year-old, who loves Hannah Montana and excels at her Cherry Creek middle school.

"She is a reminder that there can be good even in places where so much has been gone wrong," he says. "She is our finest souvenir."

More refugee stories:

Editor’s note: The newest Westerners
Immigrants from around the world are changing traditionally white Western communities such as Boise, Idaho.

Refugees unsettle the West
In Greeley, Colorado, a meatpacking plant observes Muslim traditions such as Ramadan while multicultural refugees adapt to the West's very different landscape and culture.

An orphan heads to college
Chan Kuoth's journey has taken him from Sudan to Tucson, Ariz., where he hopes to help other refugees.

A hard-fought immigration victory
Valentina Kabinov's family, Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, fought for years to stay in the U.S.

Seeking a vocation in a no-man’s land
Salam Talib, who barely escaped from Iraq with his life, now seeks a new beginning in San Francisco.

Refugees by the numbers
Placing the influx of refugees in the West in context.

More than English
The Emily Griffith School has taught English to immigrants and refugees since its Language Learning Center opened in 1981. Using creativity, games and encouragement, the school also offers an orientation to U.S. culture and workplace protocol.

“I like America”
Multimedia: A unique neighborhood north of Seattle is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them refugees. The neighborhood center is used on Sunday mornings for Russian church, on Fridays for Arabic Muslim services, on weeknights for ESL classes for Somali Bantu.

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