A sure way to check the xenophobic impulses of the South Dakota Legislature would be for District 6 to elect Clara Hart to the House. Hart has worked with immigrant families in the Sioux Falls school district to help them settle into their new lives in America. Hart herself is a refugee.
Hart was born in Mozambique, in southern Africa. In 1964, Communist-backed guerillas launched a campaign against Portuguese colonial rule over Mozambique. In 1966, when Hart was eight years old, her family fled the violence in their homeland. They passed through Malawi to Tanzania, where they lived as refugees for three and a half years.
Working-age men were placed in separate camps from women, children, and older men. Clara and her siblings were stuck in a camp where they were lucky to receive one meal a day. Clara’s camp had one schoolroom that could hold 75 students, far fewer than the number of children in the camp. Each day, she would hurry to school hoping to grab a seat before the classroom was full and all remaining children were turned away. On the lucky days when she was able to stay, the classroom had no supplies, and all learning had to be done by memory.
Hart’s father, a teacher, found good work and decent living conditions in a separate camp, but he could not see his wife and children. He didn’t even know for sure where they were. Clara was able to write letters to her father, but letters with too much detail describing the camp were censored.
Clara’s mother was pregnant when the family reached Tanzania, and as the delivery approached, Clara wrote her father a letter asking what they should name the baby when it came. That letter was one of the few that made it past the censors, and Clara’s father was able to respond that, if it was a girl, he wanted to name her Agatha.
Two weeks after baby girl Agatha was born, Clara’s father managed to visit his family’s camp. Officials at his camp had assured the men that their families were being taken care of, that there was no need to worry about them. The poor conditions of the women and children’s camp shocked Clara’s father. The family decided they had to flee that camp and Tanzania. They went into hiding in another camp in Tanzania and saved up money to go to Kenya.
Sure that his family would be killed if they returned to Mozambique, Clara’s father applied for refugee status for his family. Every day for two weeks, he had to present himself to United Nations refugee resettlement authorities and tell them the same story about the risk his family faced in their homeland. If his story had varied even a bit, the UNHCR officials would have thrown out his application, adn the family might have been dooned. For Hart, today’s discussions of Syrian refugees trying to find safe haven from the Syrian civil war and calls for stricter immigration protocols stir unpleasant memories of the greate difficulties her family had forty years ago finding a safe place to live.
UNHCR gave Clara’s family refugee status. They lived in Kenya for nineteen years, with financial assistance from UNHCR for a few years to pay rent, bus fare, and school fees.
The Carnation Revolution toppled the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974 and led to the independence of Portuguese colonies, including Mozambique, in 1975. Clara’s family celebrated—they thought independence was their chance to go home. They sold their belongings in anticipation of moving back.
However, the first Mozabiquans who tried to return disappeared. Apparently the new Cuban-backed Communist regime ruling Mozambique imprisoned and murdered some returnees. The country descended into civil war, and Clara’s family gave up hope of returning.
Clara studied and worked in Chad, Sudan, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In 1987, her family applied to emigrate to North America. Most of her family went to Canada, which was far more supportive of Mozambiquan refugees than the United States. Clara, however, had married a South African doctor, and the U.S. favored South African immigrants. Clara recalls undergoing intense questioning about criminal background, health status, and other matters, a wrong answer to any one of which could have disqualified her and her husband from coming to America.
Clara and her first husband received approval to come to America in November 1987; local bureaucracy and resistance kept them from receiving approval to emigrate until May 1988. They received their departure papers just ten hours before their plane was scheduled to leave for America.
Clara landed in San Diego, then came to South Dakota with several Kenyans who heard from a family in Huron that South Dakota was a good place to live. Huron had been resettling refugees since the 1970s, when the Hmong came from Southeast Asia.
Clara had spent her entire adult life to that point without the right to vote, with no constitutional protections of her rights. She immediately set out to obtain American citizenship. Her experience in Tanzania and Kenya made her embrace all the more passionately the opportunity to participate in making public policy and building her adopted country. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from the University of Sioux Falls and now is working on a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Dakota.
Hart says the people of South Dakota have always been warm, kind, and generous, and she recognizes she would not have found her place as a fellow citizen here without our help. She continues to serve refugees today, and participates in public affairs to repay the greatest country in the world.
Hart is running for District 6 House. One of her incumbent opponents, Rep. Isaac Latterell, co-sponsored Rep. Scott Craig’s anti-refugee House Bill 1158 this Session. Luckily, Rep. Scott Craig saw the light thanks to some successful lobbying from people who actually work with refugees and pulled that odious bill before Rep. Latterell and other fearmongering Republicans could make any speeches or cast any votes on it. Send Clara Hart to Pierre, and other legislators may get the message more quickly that they should resepct and welcome refugees and other new Americans rather than fearing them.
Hart has run for Senate and City Council before. She wanted to run for Legislature again two years ago, but her second husband, poet Jon Hart, was ailing, and they wanted to focus on their time together. Jon died last June. An ancestor of Jon’s, Michael Ellis Hart, was a Fusion Party (!!!) Senator from Lake County for one term back in 1897. Clara is now ready to take the Hart name back to Pierre and serve the state and the country she has chosen as her home.