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Taking Refuge


Posted on March 10, 2016

As the national news thrums with stories about Syrian refugees, and controversy about immigration colors the upcoming presidential campaign, what’s happening on the ground level in Sacramento as large numbers of refugees arrive from all around the world?

Sardar Wali, a refugee from Afghanistan, pictured with his 1-year-old son, Fahad, came to Sacramento this past November with his wife and children.
Sardar Wali, a refugee from Afghanistan, pictured with his 1-year-old son, Fahad, came to Sacramento this past November with his wife and children. Photography by Carl Costas

Just shy of 10:30 p.m. this past Nov. 5, Sardar Wali, his wife, Fatima, and their two young children step off a plane at Sacramento International Airport. Tired from nearly 24 hours of flying from Afghanistan, they walk to the escalators. At the bottom, Sacramento Food Bank refugee resettlement coordinator Rocio Gonzalez and her colleague Nematullah Sarvary—himself a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived last January and now works at the food bank—wait to greet them.

The food bank is one of four organizations charged with resettling refugees in the Sacramento area. Having only started working with refugees in the past couple of years, it is by far the newest entry into this work. The other three are the International Rescue Committee, established before World War II by Albert Einstein, primarily to assist people fleeing the Nazis, and which has been resettling refugees in Sacramento since the 1980s; Opening Doors Inc., which grew out of the Interfaith Service Bureau; and World Relief, which until 2014 mainly dealt with refugees from the ex-Soviet Union, but nowadays is increasingly working with the soaring numbers of Afghans and Iraqis arriving in town.

All four organizations report massive increases in the numbers of people they are resettling. Debra DeBondt, who until recently served as executive director of Opening Doors, says that until 2013 her organization was resettling between 120 and 140 refugees per year. “Then, the summer of 2014, Sacramento experienced the Afghani phenomenon. In 2013–2014, we were at 374 and last year 350-something. This year, we’re told to expect 400 to 450.”

The four organizations run employment training programs and classes in English language and health management. They also offer microloans and legal services, and provide some day care for parents needing a place to leave their children while they study. Also, in the IRC’s case, there’s an onsite urban gardening program known as New Roots.

While Gonzalez and Sarvary wait for the plane to arrive, they bump into an ex-client who is now working for Opening Doors and waiting for a different refugee family to fly in. And then there is 34-year-old Fraidoon Islamkhwaja, another Afghan refugee, who in his homeland worked as an analyst evaluating U.S.-funded development projects and strategizing ways to discourage farmers from growing poppies. He now works for the IRC and is also at the airport, waiting for yet another family.

Before he arrived in the United States in May 2014, the farthest Islamkhwaja had traveled from home was to Tajikistan and, way back in 1999, to Pakistan, after his family fled Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “We were there till the Taliban regime collapsed,” he says. “Then we started a new life, built our home again.” Yet nothing was secure. As the Taliban began regrouping after the U.S.-led coalition drove them from power following the 9/11 attacks, families such as Islamkhwaja’s again found themselves in terribly vulnerable positions.

Once more, Islamkhwaja became a refugee, this time eventually finding shelter in America. “I heard about California a lot—it’s a dynamic state,” he says in near-perfect English. “California is the center of 21st-century development in the whole world, from Facebook to Google. They change the whole world. Since I’m a dynamic person, I felt California is a wonderful place to move to.” Within two months of arriving, Islamkhwaja was working at a local Apple warehouse, known to employ large numbers of refugees. A year later, he was hired as a cultural interpreter and translator for the IRC.

Most evenings these days, refugees arrive at Sacramento International Airport to begin their new lives. They are easy to spot, arriving with nametags hanging around their necks in pouches, and clutching white plastic bags containing their personal documents and emblazoned with a blue International Organization for Migration logo. They are the Paddington Bears of the modern era, displaced and far from home, entirely reliant on the goodwill of those sent to greet them at the transit hub where they arrive. They come with almost no possessions, with little money, with a host of dreams and a desperate need to start things fresh.

They come from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, Bhutan, Myanmar, Iran, the ex-Soviet Union. There are Palestinian refugees, a smattering from Africa and from Central America, as well as victims of human trafficking from around the world. A good number of Sacramento’s recent refugee arrivals have been told by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS that they will be killed if they remain in their homeland.

At 10:40 p.m., Wali’s family reaches the escalators. He’s bearded, in jeans and a khaki air force jacket. She’s in a burka, with gold bangles around her wrists, carrying the baby, holding the hand of the toddler. Sarvary and Gonzalez greet them, and while his wife sits down with the children, Wali walks over to the luggage carousel to retrieve the family’s three small suitcases—two rollies and a canvas tote bag. Those three small bags are the sum material total of four lives uprooted, of four people sent fleeing halfway around the world.

By 11:15 p.m., Gonzalez and Sarvary have driven them to their new apartment, a small one-bedroom, on the ground floor of a large complex in Arden Arcade. Inside is a donated floral-patterned three-seat sofa, a green armchair, a small wooden coffee table. Sarvary has filled the fridge with food: beef, rice, flatbreads. In the bedroom is a double bed, a crib and a toddler bed with a Spiderman pillow. Dotted around the apartment are toys: a small stuffed elk, a handful of children’s books. The young boy, coiled up with energy after being on airplanes for so long, immediately grabs the toys and starts playing. He is, it appears, instantly at home.

With Sarvary translating, Gonzalez quickly explains to them how to use the stove and microwave. She gives them $400 in cash, intended to tide them over for the first week or so while they are being enrolled on the public assistance programs that will help them as they learn to navigate their new city, and before they receive the first of the small monthly checks that refugees receive from the county Department of Human Assistance during their first few months in the United States. She gives them a piece of paper with their new address on it and with the property manager’s phone number. She tells them to dial 911 if they have an emergency, and then wishes them a good night.

By 11:50 p.m., a little more than an hour after landing, Sardar Wali’s family is alone in their new home. The next day, Gonzalez and Sarvary will take them to get Social Security numbers, enroll for food assistance and Medi-Cal—the medical coverage being particularly urgent, since the family’s oldest son had had surgery the previous week and needed follow-up care; will arrange for them to be given medical checkups at the county’s Health and Human Services primary health care clinic in Oak Park, and will begin linking them up with other services and classes that they will need over the coming weeks and months as they adjust to life in America.

“I enjoy when I see them and when I take them to their apartment,” Gonzalez says of the refugees she works with. “Most of our refugees are young. They’re modern. The ones who have more challenges are the women, “especially the Afghan women who are not as open as their husbands. They’re very shy. It takes them a while to adjust.”

Of course, by no means are all of Sacramento’s female refugees religiously conservative and reluctant to talk to or to be seen by strangers.

Take, for example, Setareh, a 46-year-old Iranian woman, fluent in three languages, whose name in Farsi means “Star,” and who worked in Tehran as a bodybuilding and aerobics coach. Setareh fled Iran after she was, she explains, persecuted for her Christian beliefs. Her mother was a Christian, her father a Muslim. For three years, she was a refugee in Turkey. Then, in 2010, she was allowed entry into the United States. Setareh, who didn’t want her last name used because she still has family in Tehran, settled with her second husband—her first, who she had divorced before leaving her homeland had, she says, been a deeply abusive, violent drug addict—in Orlando, Fla., and then in Salt Lake City. There, she studied English, worked at a thrift store, and got an associate’s degree in computer science. Setareh keeps her many educational certificates in plastic folios in a large folder that she is quick to show guests. For her, they validate her odyssey.

Iranian refugee Setareh worked in Tehran as a bodybuilding and aerobics coach and left the country when she was persecuted for her Christian beliefs.

 

After a few years in Utah, Setareh and her second husband split up. Seeking a fresh start, she moved west once more, to Sacramento, a city where a good friend of hers lived. These days, she lives with her college-student son in Citrus Heights, has striking, long, highlighted blond hair, and a delicately made-up face. Her apartment is ultramodern, uncluttered, but with tasteful statues and other artwork—jewelry boxes, a blue hookah, a model pirate ship—from Iran, other Middle Eastern countries, and from her wanderings in the United States.

Setareh currently works part time at a local day care center. She recently took a course offered by Opening Doors to qualify as a licensed day care provider and is hoping to soon start her own business. “I like Sacramento,” she says, her voice filled with enthusiasm. “I’m happy here. The weather is better than Utah. We have neighbors. They cook and bring food for us.”

Iraqi refugee Kadmea Almuhamadawi, also now working as a licensed day care provider, agrees. “The weather is suitable. I love the people. I have American friends, Arabic friends. But I don’t have enough time to see them, because I spend all the day with kids.”

Back home, in Baghdad, before her husband, a doctor, was killed by one of the warring militias, Almuhamadawi was a well-known newspaper journalist and a romantic poet, writing under the nom de plume Nadia Almuhamadawi. These days, she still sometimes writes articles in Arabic, exploring life in the United States for her audiences back home and for her friends on Facebook.

Almuhamadawi would love to re-emerge as a journalist here in the United States, she says, but while she learns English and studies writing at American River College, she has made her peace with earning money by taking care of several children from nearby Iraqi families. “When I came here, I was alone and missed my family a lot,” Almuhamadawi recalls, with her daughter Sanad translating. (Sanad arrived a year after her, soon followed by another daughter, Hind.) “My neighbor had a baby and asked if she could put her baby with me because she had to work. I love babies. That’s why I started this work.”

Officially, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, refugee status is “protection granted to people who are outside of their country and unable or unwilling to return because they fear serious harm,” and who may be escaping persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality or otherwise. In recent years, the United States has accepted roughly 70,000 refugees annually—though in some years, such as 2013, it agreed to large temporary bumps in that number. The greater Sacramento region is taking in approximately of 3,000 of these men, women and children, roughly one in every 25 refugees entering America. In California, only San Diego (which attracted large numbers of Iraqi refugees a few years back) and Los Angeles welcome more refugees. Do the math, and discover that as a percentage of its total population, Sacramento is taking in about 10 times more refugees than the rest of the country. As a result, our city now has one of the highest concentrations of refugees in the United States.

Lisa Welze has worked as resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee branch in town for two years since relocating from Phoenix. “Sacramento has become a really popular resettlement site, mostly because of Afghans,” she says. “Now that a community’s here in Sacramento, a lot of people decided to come. There’s also great employment opportunities here—because the Sacramento IRC resettles the most educated refugees of any office in the country.”

Syrians fleeing the grisly civil war have also recently begun arriving in town, joining an established Syrian community that has been in place for some 20 years. Many of the region’s Syrian community members are firmly ensconced in professions such as medicine and dentistry.

In some areas, around Arden Arcade for example, one can find apartment complexes filled with refugee families, and food markets, such as Babylon City Market on Watt Avenue and other stores catering to these new Sacramentans’ needs and tastes. New hybrid worlds, part Californian, part Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian, even Bhutanese, are being created in Sacramento.

Many of the refugees, traumatized by extreme violence and threats against their lives and those of their family members, worked for coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in the post 9/11 years. The men, in particular, often arrive speaking fluent English. “They’re very easy to employ and become self-sufficient very quickly,” says Welze, who became fascinated with the world of refugees while working on a research project on Tibetan refugees in Salt Lake City as an undergraduate more than 15 years ago. She also did graduate work at University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre.

Other refugees, she says, weren’t involved with Americans, and didn’t face much English until they began the long application process to make the journey across continents and oceans to a new country to call home.

Ram Khatiwoda was a member of a Nepalese minority population in the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan. “In 1990, there was an uprising because of caste oppression.” Still a young boy, Khatiwoda found himself living in a refugee camp just across the border in eastern Nepal; he would live in camps there from 1990 until 2009. During those years, his education was funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. He grew proficient in mathematics, and picked up a smattering of English. He grew from boyhood into adulthood.

Ram Khatiwoda, from Bhutan, grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal and came to California in 2009. “Going to the moon and coming to America is the same thing for us,” he says. “This is amazing.”

 

At times, he was allowed out to work on local farms; but, always, he would have to return to the camp at the end of the day. Khatiwoda and the others in the camp lived on rations and donated clothes. “For 19 years,” he remembers, sitting in a refugee resettlement agency office in Sacramento, wearing jeans, sneakers, a white shirt and a dark brown leather jacket, “we’re just stuck there. And then, finally, the refugee camp people started talking about solving the refugee crisis. Finally the [Nepalese] king came, and then the educated people in the camp were divided: those who wanted repatriation to Bhutan and those who wanted resettlement to a third country. Finally Norway, New Zealand, Canada, America accepted us as refugees.” Somewhat randomly, Khatiwoda chose the United States. It took him a year to go through the application process. He was asked to choose three states that he would like to live in. Again, randomly, he picked three: Ohio, Pennsylvania and California. He was assigned to California.

On Sept. 17, 2009, Khatiwoda, his wife and his brother embarked on an epic series of flights: from eastern Nepal to the capital city, Kathmandu; from there to Bahrain, on to Paris, then to Miami and finally to Sacramento. Exhausted, they were met at the airport by representatives from the IRC and driven to their new home in Arden Arcade, where several hundred Bhutanese refugees were living at the time.

In an election season marked by controversy about immigration and refugee programs, with proposals to institute religion tests for would-be refugees from Syria and Donald Trump advocating a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, Sacramento has remained largely welcoming. Locals have responded to appeals for donations by providing clothes, car seats, bicycles, food, school supplies and money. Local artists have auctioned off art to help refugee families. Members of churches, mosques, synagogues and other organizations have also helped set up apartments so that arriving refugees have a place that they can call home from Day 1.

County employees, such as the staff at the Refugee Health Clinic, located within the large county primary care clinic on Broadway, work diligently to make sure that refugees are fully checked out medically. They are screened for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, and are linked up with health care providers in the region. In 2014, the clinic saw 1,700 refugees. This fiscal year, it expects to treat somewhere around 2,500.

Meanwhile, the staff at Sacramento’s four resettlement agencies push themselves to the limits to help the huge numbers now arriving each week from war-ravaged regions. Sitting at her desk in the IRC’s Hurley Way offices, where photos of her 2-year-old twins adorn the wall, Lisa Welze—who has, in recent years, done work in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—ponders why she does this work. It gives her, she explains, “this connection to the international community. I really love working in conflict zones and refugee camps. A lot of staff here spent time abroad, came back to the U.S., and still really want to help those overseas populations.”

The IRC’s goal, Welze says, is to make sure that the refugees are “thriving. It’s more than just being self-sufficient. It’s whether they feel connected to their community.”

For Sacramento’s refugees, life is a series of surprises. Ram Khatiwoda, who works for an optical lab mounting and inspecting lenses, misses the stunning scenery of his Himalayan homeland, as well as the clean air and unprocessed foods. He wants to grow organic vegetables and raise goats and chickens. He wants to visit the land where he “was bootless, in raggy old clothes. I want to climb that mountain, pick the wild fruits, see the neighbors I left behind.”

Iraqi refugee Kadmea Almuhamadawi, once a well-known newspaper journalist and romantic poet in Baghdad, runs an in-home day care in Sacramento, watching children from local Iraqi families, including cousins Ellen, 1 (left), and Sadan Mahdi, 5 months.

 

But, nostalgia notwithstanding, he still shows his wonder at the hand of fortune that he was dealt back in 2009. “Going to the moon and coming to America is the same thing for us. This is amazing. All of a sudden, it’s the turning of life from harm, hostility, a disadvantaged atmosphere, to the land of opportunity. It’s kind of like being reborn. The technology, the language, the freedom. We have a right of life, a pursuit of happiness, and freedom. I feel the sense of what that means.”

For Kadmea Almuhamadawi, the day care provider who still dreams of writing poetry, Sacramento is a grand adventure. If she were to write about her new city, what would she say? She pauses to think, sitting on her sofa and caressing one of her day care wards. “I’d say there is a river. It hugs Sacramento, like two people loving together. The man hugging his girl. I’m romantic. I arrived at 1 a.m. It was my first night and I was far away from my country. On that night, I wished the morning came fast to see the city.” And what did she see when it did? “I got my breakfast and went to the Kurdish people from Iraq. They were in the same apartment complex. They welcomed me. Opening Doors people came to pick me up. And my journey started.”