Global Politics

Language barriers make it tough for Colorado refugees to understand mass shooting

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A memorial site for the shooting victims in Aurora, Colo, home to one of that state's largest refugee communities. (Photo by Megan Verlee.)

July’s mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado took place in the state’s most ethnically diverse city.

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In recent years, thousands of refugees from around the world have settled in Aurora, Colo., and the massacre has left some of them questioning their safety.

Most of Aurora’s refugee community clusters along the busy lanes of Colfax Avenue, in an older part of town with cheap housing and good public transportation to jobs in Denver. Headscarves and sarongs are familiar sights here, as people from Somalia, Myanmar and Bhutan try to settle into new, American routines.

The man charged with the movie theater shooting lived on the edge of this neighborhood, but barriers of language and culture mean many here are still confused about what actually happened.

On a recent evening, locals speaking seven different languages filled a meeting room at the Aurora Mental Health Center. With plates of vegetarian samosas on their laps and translation headphones on their ears, they listened to city councilwoman Melissa Miller try to explain.

“I want to preface what I’m telling you that this is a very random act that occurred,” Miller said. “This is not something that is a normal thing to happen in any community across the country.”

This was probably the first chance some people in the room have had to get reliable news about the shooting. Many can’t read English-language newspapers or understand American television, so they’ve gotten their information from foreign websites and community gossip.

It was also, for many, their first opportunity to ask questions.

“I just wonder sometimes (if I should) own a gun in this country — the shooter bought all of these weapons legally?” asked a man from Somalia.

He also wanted to know if there were limits on owning guns. Another refugee asked how many guns a person could buy. A police officer explained how background checks work and mandatory waiting periods, but the officer's answers don’t seem to satisfy many people.

December Paw came to translate the meeting into Kareni, for refugees from Burma. She said her community’s talking about guns.

"They all say, 'why do these people own a lot of guns? So maybe we should stop (and not own) guns,” Paw said.

Paw’s neighbors may think gun control is the answer, but that response is at odds with many other Coloradans — gun sales in the state actually spiked after the attack.

Mara Kailin, a psychologist who works with refugees at the Mental Health Center, said living in a new culture is scary enough, without events like this.

“A lot of people who were born elsewhere think of America as quite a dangerous place, and so when something like this happens, it can reinforce people’s fears about being in this new country,” Kailin said.

In the weeks since the shootings, Setu Nepal has been getting a lot of phone calls from relatives and friends in Bhutanese refugee camps, who want to talk about what happened.

“They started thinking twice, whether to go to the United States or not,” Nepal said. “Shooting events happen everywhere — not only in Colorado. It happens in other states also.”

It happened in Wisconsin, with the massacre at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek. In some ways that far-away shooting may be actually be harder on Aurora's immigrants. Few of these refugees go to midnight movie screenings, so the Aurora attack occurred on foreign territory, as it were.

But Kailin said temples and churches serve as social centers in the life of refugee communities.

“A place of worship is a place of refuge, similar to a movie theater. It’s a place of leisure. So I think that it could have a similar impact on shaking people’s kind of fundamental sense of security and safety in their community,” she said.

Aurora doesn’t have much of a Sikh population and so far news of that attack doesn’t seem to have filtered down to the broader refugee community, saidJenny Pool Radway, who coordinates a refugee integration project. She’s sort of hoping it doesn’t.

“We just told people ... something like this happens once in a blue moon, it doesn’t happen very often, to try to reassure them," she said, "and then a few weeks later, it’s happened again.”

Pool Radway and her colleagues at the Aurora Mental Health Center worry that news of mass shootings can dredge up old traumas for people who escaped violent conflicts.