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Tag: refugees

Nazia’s Story: An Afghan Refugee’s Relentless Commitment to Education and Hope

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The hardest and most important job

Growing up in Afghanistan, Nazia developed a true passion for teaching at a young age. She became an English instructor when she was in 10th grade, and for years, continued teaching for little or no money, eager to gain experience.  

“Teaching has been my dream job. In our country, people don’t have a good perspective about teaching – they think it’s a simple job, but it’s the hardest and most important job. A doctor once had a teacher. A president once had a teacher.”   

With time, Nazia became successful and well-known in her profession. While completing her university degree in education, she taught English to both children and university students, and then after graduating, accepted a role teaching adult learners online. With hard work and sacrifice, she had built a life for herself doing what she loved. 

 

A dark cloud 

Then, the Taliban came and took it all away. It was 2021, and Kabul had fallen in what felt like an instant.  

“[Women] lost the right to get an education and have a job. We couldn’t travel alone, we had to have a guardian. It felt like a really big, dark cloud had come over our country and it was not going to move away. It made everything dark. You felt like thunder was going to hit you; the thunder was the Taliban.” 

As a woman, it was now illegal for Nazia to teach. It took her a full year to find an opportunity to do so anywaya decision which came with real peril.

“Taliban were living in our neighborhood, so when I taught, I would close all the windows and doors. I felt afraid they would hear my voice talking in English, and I would cause danger for my family.” 

The Taliban did their best to fan the flames of her fear. 

“Two separate times, I received a WhatsApp message from an unknown number with a profile picture of the Taliban, asking me ‘Have you started teaching again?’ I deleted the message and blocked the account. It was terrifying, but I didn’t stop because there were a lot of women who needed education, they needed a light in the darkness. My class was not only for teaching English, it was to give students motivation to be brave, to never lose hope.” 

Nazia did not give up. In fact, she wanted to do more. She decided to start a social support and education group for fellow women living under the Taliban, which she named “Lifesaver Girls.” It took her many tries to find an education center brave enough to host this illegal gathering, but with perseverance, she was able to convene one meeting. She felt she had to. 

“After the Taliban took over, most of the girls got disappointed and depressed. This group motivated them. When they first came to the meeting, you could feel the hopelessness and [see] deep sorrow in their faces. We talked about some successful women who did their best in the hardest situations, and we introduced them to online ways to get an education. At the end of the session, you could see the brightness of hope in their eyes.”  

A really hard night 

Nazia had been living in Ghazni, a city about two hours from Kabul. In December of 2023, she received a call from the organization that was helping to evacuate her from Afghanistan. They told her to be in Kabul the next morning. Women were not allowed to travel alone, so she set off with her father. They waited 14 days before being evacuated to Pakistan. Then they had to walk an hour in the middle of the night to meet the driver who would take them to Pakistan and then to Qatar.  

“It was a really hard night. It was so stressful. At the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Taliban checked all of the stuff we had and asked ‘Where are you going? Are you going to a foreign country?’ I told them ‘No, I’m sick.’ My father was pushing me in a wheelchair so they would believe me.” 

Nazia told the Taliban that another male relative was waiting for her at the border, so that her father was able to leave her. Then she was alone. She was checked by the Taliban four separate times. When she got to Pakistan, she stayed three nights before being evacuated to a camp in Qatar. It was a difficult period.  

“It was like you are in a big jail. You are not allowed to go out of the camp. I was stressed that my case wouldn’t be accepted, and I would think about how I would live in Afghanistan. I would be arrested for leaving the country alone.”  

After 28 days, Nazia’s case was approved. She arrived in Boston in January 2024.  

Learning how to walk 

Nazia with IINE Career Navigator Emma Pond

Within one week of her arrival in Boston, Nazia enrolled in services at the International Institute of New England (IINE). Case Workers quickly helped her get her social security card, enroll in food benefits and health care, and acquire her work permit. IINE’s Education and Employment teams helped her to write a resume, begin searching for jobs, and explore opportunities to pursue a master’s degree. She was also invited to a monthly support group for fellow Afghan women to meet, socialize, share advice, and explore their new city together.  

IINE’s Afghan Women’s Group in Boston

Nazia says that the people she meets at IINE are “really kind and helpful. I’m really thankful.” She is adjusting to life in Boston and learning how to navigate new challenges with IINE’s help.  

“It has some hardships. I’m getting used to a new environment—living without my family, traveling alone—but it is an interesting experience. Nowadays, I’m like a baby trying to walk, standing and falling down, but still not losing hope. The baby is sure they will learn how to walk even though it is hard. Here in the U.S., I’m learning how to walk. IINE is helping me to learn.”  

Finding the light 

Even before she came to the U.S., Nazia had dreamed of pursuing a master’s degree and then a PhD at Harvard University. Now this dream feels closer. 

I came to Boston by chance— it’s a really beautiful coincidence. I want to get my master’s and PhD in [Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages], and one day, become a professor. Everyone says being a Harvard student would be hard; I agree it’s hard, but it is not impossible.” 

Nazia is also a writer. She has already had some success—a short story published on the website of a university in Iowa. She’s writing more short stories and hopes to write a romance novel one day. One thing’s for sure: nothing will stop her from striving for her dreams. It’s not easy, but she knows she now has support—and freedom.  

“In our country, we couldn’t go out after 5 p.m. Here, I can. I feel safe. There is no Taliban here, no one that will restrict me from following my dreams. When I have a hard time and miss my country, I walk around, and I see beautiful smiles. I feel ‘this might be hard, but I’m in a good environment… ‘I believe that when something is hard, it makes you the real version of you. There might be moments you feel down, like nothing is going to get right, but still in that moment, we can find the light.”  

We are proud to have welcomed, resettled, and supported refugees in the New England region for over 100 years. Learn more about our refugee resettlement work here.

Everyone Has A Suitcase Story

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Cheryl HamiltonBy Cheryl Hamilton, Suitcase Stories Director

“I am not sure I have a story.”

This is often the response when I speak with someone about participating in Suitcase Stories®, a signature program of the International Institute of New England. Suitcase Stories is how we explore storytelling through the lens of migration. We believe that sharing stories of refugee and immigrant life and other migration and cross-cultural experiences introduces people to new perspectives and brings communities closer together.

Responding to this question has become a bit of a fun challenge for me as director. With a smile and a raised eyebrow, I tell people I am confident they have a story. I know this because after three years of inviting people to participate in Suitcase Stories, I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a story  – regardless of their background. Even middle school students have identified suitcase stories from their lives –  and they have not even reached their teenage years!

All of us have a migration story. Whether we have moved to a new country or even a new neighborhood, we have experienced that feeling of “outsider,” or “stranger.”  Some people who participate in Suitcase Stories are immigrants, while others are a relative, friend or colleague of someone born in another country or from a different culture. Some people enjoy telling about trips that challenged their stereotypes while others share about passing down cultural traditions through generations. What ties all the stories together are universal themes such as courage, curiosity, fear, hope, family, and love.

Although helping a person identify a good suitcase story is not as difficult as people imagine, there is another question I am routinely asked that always catches my breath for a moment.

“Are you sure people are going to care about my story?”

I believe – and my experience with Suitcase Stories bears this out – I believe that most everyone sees the value in another person’s story. I have seen it in the surge of storytelling opportunities worldwide, as people seek meaningful connections outside of social media. Locally, we have seen an uptick in the popularity of storytelling events.

But what never fails to surprise me is that the people who question the value in their stories are more often refugees or people with significantly profound Suitcase Stories. These are people who have survived genocides, parents who adopted children from other countries, or youth with stories about being bullied because of their faith or race.

People don’t just present this question when we first meet. Sometimes they pose it minutes before walking on stage. A storyteller from Syria was especially skeptical before her performance. While she is an especially humble person, I also know that the lack of urgency and media attention around the protracted war in her home country justifiably contributed to her fear. But that global apathy is what makes her personal story so very important.

In her case, as with others, I reminded her that all our stories are valuable. I also delivered a familiar pep talk where I reinforce how storytelling is not basketball. No one is routing for a different team. People come to a Suitcase Stories performances or community workshops because they want to listen and learn. People want to better understand the experiences of their neighbors, and especially from voices we do not hear often enough in society.

So, I ask you: What is your suitcase story? And with whom will you share it?

As IINE’s Suitcase Stories expands to an online platform, we invite you to become a Suitcase Stories Circle member. Get started on crafting your own story by using our “Suitcase Stories Circle” resources – available to members only! More information online here.

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Volunteer Spotlight: Meet the Traegers

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Disillusioned by the national debate on refugee policy during last year’s election, Mark and Heidi Traeger decided it was time to learn more about refugee resettlement in their own backyard. Last winter they attended IINE-Manchester’s

A Home for All event at the Millyard Museum and were moved by the personal stories shared by the refugee panelists.

Inspired by their experience at the event, the couple decided to demonstrate their support for immigrants by raising awareness of the challenges refugees face.

The Traegers hosted a house party for their friends and neighbors at which IINE staff and newly arrived refugees spoke. The event raised money to support IINE’s services, introduced the community to several refugee families, and helped people learn more about the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

But Mark and Heidi didn’t stop there. They also worked with IINE staff to plan a Nature Walk on their own property. IINE brought nearly 200 refugee children and parents to the Traegers’ home in the country to hike, fish, and learn more about New Hampshire’s great outdoors.

They did it again a few months later when they hosted another busload of children who arrived for a fall adventure of fishing and Halloween fun.

The Traegers’ refugee and immigrant guests at the three events delighted in the bucolic scene and the warm welcome they received from Heidi, Mark, and their neighbors.

The Traegers are unassuming and don’t think that what they’ve done for the refugee community in Manchester is all that extraordinary.

But their generosity and kindness goes beyond financial support. The value they place on relationships, on understanding where people come from and what they have endured, helps empower refugees to know a wider community of people.

During a year of uncertainty and insecurity for refugees and immigrants, it is heartening to see the Traegers and families like them offer a warm New Hampshire welcome to new Americans.

  • To support IINE programs in New Hampshire, click here.
  • Interested in volunteering in one of our programs, or in a specialized way like the Traegers? Attend one of our upcoming Volunteer Information sessions, held the last Monday of every month at all three IINE site offices.

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Finding a New Home in New England

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A Congolese family resettled by the International Institute of New England puts tragedy behind them to rebuild their lives in Lowell

Rose Mukundi Muswumba is a not just a fighter, she is a warrior. A widowed mother of ten, Rose struggled to raise and provide for her children on her own after her husband was killed in their native country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her husband had been investigating human rights violations, and after his death government officials came for Rose and her children, forcing the family to flee to Uganda in 2004.

Rose could not fathom a life free from fear and despair, but she was determined to give a safer life with better opportunities to her children. She endured numerous obstacles to get to the United States; she engineered her escape from the Congo by convincing a man to let her and her children hide among animals in the back of his truck as he drove across the border.

In Uganda, Rose and her children shared a small two-room apartment, but moved from place to place because militia from the Congo continued to pursue them. Her son Rodrigue recalls how there were days when the family had little to eat if they could afford a meal, they saved half the food because they did not know where the next meal would come from.

After many years of a hardscrabble existence, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees referred Rose and her family for resettlement in the United States.
After a lengthy process, the United States government approved their admission, and they arrived in Lowell, Massachusetts in August of 2016.

“I remember being at the airport when the family arrived,” recalled Jennifer Chesnulovitch, an employment specialist with IINE-Lowell. “Although everyone was exhausted from the long trip from Uganda, I watched Rose smile as her children pulled their luggage off the carousel. Like many of our beneficiaries, the smile signaled a combination of relief and hope.”

Shortly after her arrival in Lowell, Rose began attending IINE’s English classes while her children secured work – a role reversal for the natural caregiver.  Within months, however, Rose shared that she also wanted to enter the workforce and fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. Chesnulovitch recognized her strength as a nurturer and in January 2017 helped enroll her in a Home Health Aid training at Middlesex Community College. Rose used her advanced English skills to speak at the training’s graduation, highlighting how her dream was becoming true.

Upon completion of the training, Rose worked part-time as a home health aide and enrolled in an advanced Certified Nursing Aide (CNA) training program. Soon she will complete the program and be eligible to work as a Certified Nurse.

“My life is much better in the United States,” Rose said. “I have many more opportunities – I can work, save money, attend trainings, and my children have education. I am free. I am happy again.”

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IINE CEO Jeff Thielman’s response to U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the President’s Travel Ban

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The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday means prolonged suffering for many refugees approved by the U.S. government to find haven in America. Sadly, people who have suffered trauma, lived in camps for years, and followed all the rules of the U.S. refugee processing system will either not be able to enter for at least another 120 days or have to restart the entire process.  Our staff at the International Institute of New England was preparing to welcome and resettle some of these refugees in Boston, Lowell, and Manchester, New Hampshire.

The Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court narrowed but did not overturn lower court decisions stopping parts of President Trump’s Executive Order, which sought to ban visa holders from six predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. for 90 days and suspend the Refugee Resettlement Program for 120 days.  The Court did not rule yesterday as to whether the Executive Orders were constitutional or otherwise illegal.  Instead, the Supreme Court said the government may ban refugees and other visa holders with no ties to people or entities in the United States from coming to our country while it rules on the merits of the case.  The Court will hear the case in October and rule by the end of 2017.  By then, it is quite possible that many matters raised in the appeal will be moot because the bans will have taken place and a new fiscal year will be underway.

The Court said that some people, including refugees, may come to the U.S. if they have a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”  The Court said this includes people with close family relationships in the U.S., students admitted to a U.S. university, workers who have accepted jobs here, and lecturers invited to speak to U.S. audiences.  The dissenters to the unsigned ruling said this compromise will create a lot of litigation because the courts will have to sort out what “bona fide relationships” means.  They are probably right.

The Court stated that the U.S. may admit more than 50,000 refugees in FY17, the ceiling set by President Trump in his Executive Orders.  The criteria for admission of refugees for the next 120 days, however, is that they must have a legitimate connection to persons or entities in the United States.

Resettlement Nationally and Locally at IINE

The United States has resettled nearly 49,000 refugees as of today, and because of the Court’s ruling, the country will resettle more than 50,000 refugees by September 30.

By the end of this week (June 30), the International Institute of New England expects to have resettled 402 refugees in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, with three months remaining in the fiscal year.  Our original target was 623 refugees (we budgeted for 590) by September 30.   It is unlikely that we will reach that target.

Special Interest Visa holders (SIVs) and any refugee with family and personal connections to anyone living in the U.S. will be able to come to Boston, Lowell, or Manchester.  We expect to see primarily U.S. “tie” cases between now and September 30.

We are just three months away from a new fiscal year, and by law, President Trump must issue a determination letter on or before October 1, indicating how many refugees the country will admit in FY18.

Earlier this month I was in Washington, DC with leaders of resettlement agencies around the country lobbying members of Congress to urge the President to admit 75,000 refugees.  We will know in a few months how many refugees our agency will serve in the coming fiscal year.  The number of refugees we contract for impacts our budget, planning, and programs for FY18 (which begins for us on October 1, 2017).

Next Steps

Our work will continue, and our job remains to keep serving the people in our care.

We will help every refugee assigned to us and expand our efforts to serve a broad range of early status immigrants in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  We just received word that IINE-Manchester will receive a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant from the state of New Hampshire to expand English, Skills Training and Civics Training programs.  We will look for other ways to expand programs for new Americans in our three sites.

While there is some sadness in yesterday’s ruling for us and for many of our clients, we are not discouraged.  The International Institute has been serving new Americans since 1919; this is the not the first time we have confronted anti-refugee and anti-immigrant feelings.  Our clients need IINE to continue to support them in all the ways we have promised; and we rely on the support of our volunteers, donors, and community partners to continue to do so.

There is a lot of work to do, and it is important that we do it well, especially now

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On World Refugee Day, We Stand #WithRefugees

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By Jillian Woodgate, IINE Marketing and Communications Intern

What is World Refugee Day?

On June 20th, World Refugee Day was recognized in different ways across the globe. Initially established in 2000 by the United Nations, World Refugee Day aims to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees worldwide. It also exists to raise the public awareness of one of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time – the global refugee crisis.

According to a recent report on global trends of forced displacement published by the UN Refugee Agency, there are currently more than 65 million individuals that have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. Just in the past year, 10.3 million people were displaced worldwide. To put this figure into perspective – the number of displacements is equivalent to 28,300 people forced to flee their homes per day, 20 people per minute.

World Refugee Activities at the International Institute   

In honor of World Refugee Day this past Tuesday, June 20th, the International Institute of New England (IINE) hosted activities at each of our three sites.  In Boston, we welcomed our partner TripAdvisor to our office where volunteers created murals with a group of our refugee and immigrant clients. The activity allowed our clients to paint canvases inspired by the flags that represent the countries they are from, and the finished product visually represents our clients coming together as one community in their new home. We also enjoyed a live musical performance by the talented Eureka Band.

Some members of the IINE community also traveled to celebrate World Refugee Day with employees and volunteers at the TripAdvisor headquarters in Needham, MA. During the day, TripAdvisor volunteers assembled and presented the IINE team with 50 children and adult bicycles for our clients. These bicycles are so valuable because they will create an effective means of transportation that will allow our clients to commute to work, school, and to the International Institute for English and workforce development classes.

In Manchester, due to the large presence of our refugee and client families, IINE partnered with the Richmond Middle School and the Church of Jesus Christ Dartmouth for a “day at the playground,” where close to seventy participants celebrated with face-painting, soccer games, drumming, bubbles, volleyball, and cultural dancing. These partners also held a school backpack drive, created home welcome kits, and donated Walmart gift-cards for our clients that will be used to aid them in their resettlement process. In addition, the staff in our Lowell office celebrated the day by hosting a lunch and brainstorming future activities to conduct with our clients.

 

Why EVERYDAY Is World Refugee Day

This day of commemoration helps remind both the IINE team and the public of the importance of supporting the world refugee crisis. While it is important to have one day a year for people to band together around the cause, the refugees need our help and support each and every day. We need your continued commitment to help provide immediate and long-term assistance to new Americans.

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What Would You Risk?

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Imagine being faced with a terrible choice – risk persecution, imprisonment, and torture, or leave behind everything you’ve ever known for a slim chance at safety? What would you do, if your survival was at stake?

Every day across the world, people like you and me are forced to flee their homelands because of violence and persecution. This is the reality of an unprecedented 21.3 million refugees worldwide, including the 623 refugee women, men, and children from 20 countries that the International Institute of New England (IINE) resettled in the past year in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. These clients had the courage to fight for new lives, and with our help are now reclaiming the future that was stolen from them.

Recently, I met Hanna Petros Solomon, a refugee from Eritrea who risked her life twice to come to the United States. Orphaned at a young age, Hanna and her siblings had little chance of surviving one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Together, they made the decision to escape – and were caught. For three years, Hanna was transferred from prison to prison, places known to be rife with torture and other human rights abuses.

Eventually, Hanna convinced a prison guard to let her go. This time, she successfully escaped from Eritrea with her siblings and fled to Ethiopia, before resettling to the U.S. as a refugee in 2012 and reuniting with her grandmother and sister in Boston. Yet the safety of family and a new life could not erase the trauma she experienced in her homeland. To acclimate to her new surroundings and transition to American life, Hanna needed the diligent assistance of IINE staff.

Hanna’s caseworker placed her in our English and Cultural Orientation classes at our Boston site, where she learned how to navigate her new city and its cultural expectations. Hanna then enrolled in and graduated from our Hospitality Training Program, and with the help of her training specialist found work as a server at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel.

Today, Hanna is looking ahead to her next graduation ceremony. As a junior at Tufts University studying clinical psychology, she is determined to help others like her heal from mental and emotional trauma. One day, Hanna would like to return to Eritrea and be a part of fixing its broken mental healthcare system. But first, we are pleased to welcome her as an intern at IINE in Boston this summer.

“I chose to intern at IINE,” explains Hanna, “because I want to show clients and my refugee peers that they can make it in life. They have the chance to change their lives.

In 2016, the Institute served 1,737 new Americans like Hanna. As our nation wrestles with questions about how open our borders and society should be, IINE continues to provide education, job training, and other critical programming to people seeking safety and the chance of prosperity. Our services are needed now more than ever, and we are grateful for the support and dedication of our community.

Today, we ask you to help those whose lives have been upended by violence and persecution. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift and honor the courage and bravery of people like Hanna, as they work toward a brighter future in the United States.

As we prepare to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, we have an opportunity this year to receive a matching $25,000 contribution thanks to the generosity of some of our supporters. For all gifts made to IINE by June 30, these donors will match dollar-for-dollar all gifts of $1,000 or more, and will provide a match of 50 cents for every dollar raised from contributions of less than $1,000. This means your gift will go farther and help even more immigrants and refugees – but only until June 30.

Thank you for your generous support, and for helping us give newcomers like Hanna a chance to change their lives.

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Refugees Waiting and Hoping in Jordan

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By Cheryl Hamilton, IINE Director of Partner Engagement

In the language of refugee resettlement, there are two kinds of cases: free cases and tie cases. In free cases, refugee individuals or families do not have any immediate relatives in the United States. Alternatively, tie cases are often when new Americans reunite with loved ones.

As a practitioner, I often sympathize with people associated with free cases. The reality is that as much as any resettlement agency strives to provide refugees with a warm welcome and orientation to the United States, the value of having unique connections in a new country is unmistaken. At least this is how I feel arriving in Amman, Jordan for the first time.

For the past year, the International Institute of New England (IINE) has been expanding our partnerships with universities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to advance the study of refugee resettlement and immigrant integration. One of our strategies is to strengthen relationships between academics, policy makers, and practitioners because while one might imagine that people from these disciplines connect often, the fields are often quite siloed.

As a step forward, IINE launched a new four-part learning series in 2017 called Intersections: Syncing Policy, Practice, and Personal Experience. The first lecture focused on the Syrian refugee crisis and featured, among others, Denis Sullivan, a political science professor at Northeastern University and Director of the Boston Consortium of Arab Regional Studies (BCARS). Six months later, what began as a conversation is developing into a more formal collaboration between IINE and BCARS, including comparing the integration of Syrian refugees in Jordan with New England’s newest refugee population.

This is how I come to be in Amman in advance of World Refugee Day on June 20th, an annual event that honors the challenges and contributions of refugees worldwide. Traveling with staff from BCARS, one of our shared goals is to identify related experiences and transferable lessons in refugee protection. For example, Jordan wrestles with the same paradox as the United States whereby many residents want refugees to work and be self-sufficient, but at the same time accuse newcomers of “taking their jobs.”

It’s one thing to understand peripherally that the economy in Jordan is challenged, but it’s another to arrive and learn that while officially unemployment hovers at 30%, the unofficial data suggests that as many as 60% of the population is underemployed. Compounding this challenge is that Jordan currently hosts nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees in a country of an estimated nine million residents and growing. This is compared to the approximately 20,000 refugees that the United States has welcomed since 2015. Often pundits will extol that the Arab nations are not doing enough to respond to the Syrian crisis, but this is simply not true. Currently, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey host more than five million Syrian refugees, with more arriving each day.

It’s also important to note that Jordan does not just host Syrians; there is also a large Iraqi refugee population, some of whom have been displaced for more than a decade. I discovered this first-hand when I had the opportunity in Amman to visit the relatives of my colleague Farouq Ali, a refugee IINE resettled to Lowell in 2011. Farouq works as an Arabic interpreter for the International Institute, and he and his family have been instrumental in welcoming and supporting hundreds of refugees from the Middle East in Lowell – a mission motivated in part by his family’s experience as a free case.

Sitting in an apartment surrounded by three Iraqi refugee families, one mother touches my arm and says that there must be something I can do. She is worried for her children’s future. She and her husband registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 2007 but ten years and two children later, their future is still uncertain. The family applied for resettlement to the United States years ago, but the waiting list is very long. With the anticipated reduction in refugee resettlement in the United States, combined with the competition with applicants worldwide, I tell her honestly that I wouldn’t get my hopes up, a statement I painfully repeat to the additional two families. The mother responds, “There is always a little hope.”

Meanwhile, their lives in Amman are stunted by their inability to secure work legally and funds are depleting. Despite their personal risk, a few of the fathers return to Baghdad to work as contractors where their paychecks are not always guaranteed. When I casually and perhaps inappropriately ask two teenage sisters what they do other than study, they reply, “nothing, we have no money.”

As BCARS highlighted in a policy report, the Jordanian government recently extended a new work permit program for refugees, but it only applies to Syrians. The program offers up to 200,000 refugees the opportunity to work in certain sectors that many Jordanians often refuse. This reminds me of our clients in Lowell, Massachusetts who fill positions at manufacturing and textile companies that many Americans find unattractive. To date, a little over 50,000 Syrians have registered for the permits, but even then, employers will often pay them less than their Jordanian counterparts.

Leaving the Iraqis’ homes, I feel somber and concerned for the mother and her young sons, one of whom reminds me of my nephew with his boundless energy. Unable to work legally in Jordan or return safely to their country as a family, their immediate solutions are bleak. It’s hard not to compare their lives with those of Farouq’s children who have flourished in the United States since their resettlement. Two talented college students, they have seized their opportunity to make the most of their move to Massachusetts. However, only one percent of refugees are afforded the same opportunity; the remaining 99% like Faroqu’s relatives must merely wait and hope for a better future.

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Fostering Friendships over Food

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IINE-Lowell and local community groups unite residents and newcomers at shared dinners.

On Jan. 24, 2017, Lowell community members and three newly- arrived Congolese families gathered for a meal at IINE-Lowell’s site office. The potluck meal was hosted by the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Khalil Abdo’s smile disguises the difficult journey that brought his family from Syria to Lowell, Massachusetts. In 2013, war and violence forced them to leave their homeland, and in 2016 they became some of the few Syrians granted resettlement in the U.S. When the family of seven arrived, Khalil knew little English and relied on interpreters to navigate his new surroundings. In Lowell he faced challenges as he adjusted to a new community, addressed urgent medical issues, and searched for employment. The first months for any refugee in the United States are challenging, yet can be eased by a warm welcome from new neighbors. Last summer, IINE-Lowell staff worked with community and faith groups to organize a series of welcome dinners for newly arrived refugees. Since the launch, 12 refugee families have participated in a welcome dinner, including the Abdo family who attended one hosted by IINE supporters in Andover, Mass.

Held in a local hall, the space was brightly decorated and an array of ethnic and traditional American foods was available for all to enjoy. The dynamic at each welcome dinner is slightly different. When a group of professors hosted Congolese families recently, the hosts and their guests spontaneously broke out in African dancing. At another dinner, the group discussed shared interests and cultural traditions. In Andover, Khalil and his wife and children practiced English and Arabic words with their new friends over chocolate cake.

Welcome dinners are easy to organize, and their impact is enduring. Through the relationships formed, refugees secure play dates for their children, learn about job opportunities, and get insights on the American healthcare system and culture. At the same time, families such as Khalil’s share the experience of their journey with their hosts. This gives American families an intimate perspective on the global refugee crisis. At the end of dinner in Andover, Khalil surprised the organizers by sharing that the evening was his sixth-month anniversary in the U.S. Smiling, he told the group, “This is the first night in the country where I only feel joy, only joy. Thank you.”

Many of these welcome dinners are hosted by Resettle Together volunteers, a growing network of community partners who help refugee families rebuild their lives in New England.  They also provide immediate and long-term support to refugees and immigrants on the road to self-sufficiency. If you’re interested in becoming a Resettle Together partner, contact Cheryl Hamilton at chamilton@iine.org.

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