The first thing Nabizhan Zavutatze remembers about his life in Krasnodar, in southern Russia, is the watermelon fields in which he was forced to load carts bound for market - heavy labor for a 4-year-old boy.
To Nabizhan, now 8, the memory invokes everything that was wrong with life in the old country and everything that appears right with his new one, the United States, where he and his family, ethnic Turks of the Islamic faith, have settled as refugees.
"We don't have to work in America," he said Sunday at the Walters Art Museum, which invited Nabizhan and several dozen other child refugees who now live in and around Baltimore to participate in its International Family Day. The children and their families fled political and religious oppression and persecution in places such as Burundi, Liberia, Mauritania, Sudan, Togo and the former Soviet republics.
Wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt, Nabizhan was helping his sister, Sona, 7, and three of their cousins, also from Krasnodar, to make beaded necklaces and other colorful accessories in a workshop at the museum, which was hosting the event alongside the Refugee Youth Project, a program run by Baltimore City Community College that provides after-school activities for the area's young refugees.
In Russia, Nabizhan said, he couldn't go to school because his native language is Turkish and the Russian-language schools made no provisions for anyone who spoke anything else. Now a second-grader at Milbrook Elementary School, Nabizhan said it had been easy to learn English, which he spoke with admirable fluency. Baltimore's winters, he said, were "no problem."
As part of the day's festivities, the museum set up an exhibit of art executed by some of the children during their after-school sessions. Nabizhan's work, doubtless influenced by American commercialism, was a collage of photos of three gleaming, high-end cars, one of them a schematic showing its mechanical innards. Also in the collage was a bucolic image of a campground bathed in the light of a fiery sunset.
But several of the other drawings suggested that at least some of the children might have gone through harsh experiences in the lands they had been forced to abandon. Some showed men brandishing knives and guns, bullets flying from their muzzles. A watercolor by one of Nabizhan's cousins, Zhumali Zavutatze, a sixth-grader at Milbrook, was covered in red blotches, as though spattered with blood. It showed a knife in its center and, as in the Turkish flag, a five-pointed star and crescent moon.
"When I saw that one, I thought, 'My God, the things he must have seen and gone through,' " said Corrie Wade, a volunteer with Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, a Baltimore-based group that helps torture victims and which took part in Sunday's event to help shed light on the conditions faced by some people in countries where such treatment is commonplace.
Under United Nations guidelines, a refugee is anyone who cannot return home for fear of persecution because of ethnicity, religion or political beliefs. During the fiscal year that ends in September, the U.S. plans to admit more than 70,000 refugees, including 17,000 Iraqis, 5,500 Iranians, 10,000 Somalis and 4,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean, primarily Cuba, according to figures provided by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, also based in Baltimore and one of nine organizations that settle refugees for the U.S. State Department.
It was not clear Sunday how many refugees live in the Baltimore area, but a representative of the Lutheran group said it was "easily in the thousands."
A 7-year-old boy from Senegal, Abdouamae Sy, a first-grader at Furman L. Templeton Elementary School who came to Baltimore a year ago, was clear Sunday about why things were looking up in his new home.
"It's fun here," he said. "I can go outside and ride my bike."
A few feet away, in an auditorium, some of the children were watching a slide show of images taken of their activities during the past year. They were shown at picnics, in art classes, horsing around. Laughter filled the place.
The background music was uniquely appropriate. It was Bob Marley's Three Little Birds, which, in an upbeat reggae tempo, advises, "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing gonna be all right."