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40 years after Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda, victims unsure how, or if, to mark anniversary

Forty years ago when Riyaz Hassanali, then 12, boarded a plane with his family at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, he realized he had dropped a transistor radio and a blanket. Desperate to cling to the few possessions he could take, Hassanali ran back. The radio was gone, and the blanket was wrapped around a sleeping African baby.

“For some reason, I didn’t think it belonged to me anymore,” Hassanali recalled recently.

Hassanali, a physician in Buffalo, N.Y., is one of about 1,200 Ugandan Asians who found a home in the United States after President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the Asian community – made up of mostly Indians and Pakistanis – from the country in August 1972.

Ashik Juma, who now lives in Houston, is another. He came to Texas after a church sponsored his family.

Saturday marks 40 years since Amin first announced the expulsion of the country’s 60,000-member Asian population – a community made up of businessmen, shopkeepers and traders whose families had migrated 100 years earlier when Uganda, as well as India and Pakistan, were British colonies. But the community is divided on how to commemorate it.

Some have planned reunions in Canada and the United Kingdom, where many of the refugees ended up. Others have planned to return to Uganda in September and October – months when they were trickling out of Uganda following Amin’s order giving them 90 days to leave.

In his Aug. 4 announcement of the expulsion – an idea that he said came to him in a dream – Amin called the Asians “bloodsuckers” and claimed they were a primary cause of the country’s economic woes. At the time, Ugandan Asians enjoyed a more prosperous life than most black Africans, and integration between the two communities was admittedly rare, Hassanali said.

This year’s anniversary has more resonance than previous ones, in part because of the ease with which word can be spread on the Internet and in part because of the buzz created by Vali Jamal, who was a Stanford doctorate student working on his dissertation in Uganda when the expulsion order was given. He’s hoping to publish a book about the expulsion later this year, noting that this may be the last chance for the older generation of the community to mark it.

A lot has happened in the years following the exodus. Many of the refugees established successful lives in the United Kingdom and Canada. Smaller numbers settled across the world, including in the United States. A few returned to Uganda to claim businesses or property after Amin was forced from office in 1979; he died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

In the U.S., the community of refugees is smaller and more scattered than in the United Kingdom and Canada, and there is no consensus on how or whether to commemorate the 40th anniversary.

In September 1972, the U.S. attorney general paroled about 1,000 stateless Ugandan Asians into the United States, and by the end of fiscal 1973 that number had grown to almost 1,200, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Johnny Young, now the executive director of migration and refugee services at the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was working at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Kenya at the time of the expulsion. He remembers the situation as particularly fraught for U.S. diplomats.

“Our embassy in Uganda found it difficult,” he said. “It became downright dangerous and we had to close up the embassy.”

The tension was felt even at the embassy in Nairobi. Young said many of the embassy’s Asian employees were relocated outside the country out of concern that anti-Asian sentiment would spread.

Most Ugandan Asians who entered the U.S. at first were professionals, Hassanali said. Later, the U.S. expanded its criteria for who could be accepted to those who had no citizenship claims elsewhere, and many came as a result of religious sponsorships.

Juma, who became stateless when Ugandan officers seized his passport in 1972, says he has wonderful memories of Uganda but that he has no desire to return.

“Uganda was the best country. We never dreamed of leaving that place,” he said.

But “what is gone is gone,” he said. “We had to continue.”

For Juma, who was allowed to take just one suitcase and the equivalent of $132 when he left Uganda, that meant an odyssey that took him to Italy, then to New York, and finally to Houston, where his was one of five families sponsored by a Texas church. He’s now a banker.

A similar journey landed Hussein Walji in Minneapolis. He said Ugandan Asians “have done extremely well” in the United States and many, especially the children of those who were expelled, no longer feel ties to Uganda. A 50th anniversary commemoration seems impossible to him.

“Most have moved on,” he said.

Despite this, Walji plans to return to Uganda in September with his children and grandchildren. He’s been back three times and said the first visit was “dramatic but heartwarming.”

As for Hassanali, he’s not sure what to think about the 40 years since the exodus.

“I suppose you can pick a number,” he said. “Ten years, 20 years, 30 years – every year that you’re away from your childhood. Is it a celebration? I don’t see it as a celebration.”

But Hassanali has a chance to go back to Uganda in September. It’ll be the second time he’s been back. Last time was a stopover, but he decided not to leave the airport, saying he’d rather hold onto the memories he still has. But this time, the occasion might just warrant a visit.

“It may be very well that I go back, though,” he said. “And in September in time for the anniversary.”

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