Refugee shares early impressions of U.S.

Social services prepare for influx from Iraq, Bhutan

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

When Salih Al Fahham says everything is different in the United States, he means everything.

"Life is different. Water is different. The food is different. The trees are different. How you sit, how you walk. Everything is different," said the Iraqi refugee during a Thursday discussion of refugee resettlement with local social service providers and the public.

The host was Lutheran Community Services Northwest, the primary agency working with the government to resettle international refugees in the United States. The discussion, which drew about 25 people, was held at LCSNW's offices on Main Street in Vancouver.

"I love Vancouver," said Salih, who arrived in the United States with his wife and two children, ages 10 and 5, on Aug. 3. Salih spent the last several years working as a language translator and then a cultural adviser for American troops in Iraq; before that, he said, he was a diesel auto mechanic for 17 years. His English is excellent, so LCSNW asked Salih to describe the feelings and experiences of a new refugee learning about life in the United States.

"To start a new chapter of life at my age is not easy," said the 53 year old, "but it is exciting, too. When we arrived, the first moment when my feet hit American soil, I can't even describe. America was my dream the whole time. It's just like a dream come true. It's late, but I am here. Thank you America and thank you Vancouver," he said.

The stereotype of America that he grew up with is a drunken, crime-ridden nation where people are always shooting each other, he said. But it was Iraq that he fled with his family because of "serious threats," he said.

And even though starting out in a place where everything is different makes him feel like a baby, Salih has also been delighted to learn just how friendly and hospitable Americans are. He's already made friends in the neighborhood, enjoyed social lunches and dinners, even sampled American church. His wife is going to start taking English lessons, he said, and his children will go to public school. And the discussion at LCSNW got down to seriously American issues — like Egg McMuffins versus cereal and milk for breakfast.

Salih said he already knew about McDonalds.

Changing populations

Joe Asbridge, the special projects coordinator for LCSNW, said his agency assesses its ability to resettle refugees — including its own language resources — and sends a caseload request to the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. This year, he said, LCSNW's capacity totals 180 refugees: 50 from Myanmar/Burma, 35 from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, 80 from Iraq and 15 from Bhutan. But, he said, the number served will probably wind up closer to 130.

In years past, he said, the influx of Eastern European and former Soviet refugees who came through Portland and landed in Vancouver was huge. That wave has now passed, he said, and the numbers from places such as Iraq, Myanmar and Bhutan are rising.

VISTA volunteer Jessie Ghiglieri gave presentations about Iraqi and Bhutanese culture. In particular, she pointed out, the Nepalese Bhutanese refugees that may come here will have suffered severe discrimination across generations; they are traditional farmers with little notion of education and jobs for pay, she said.

So, the challenges the Bhutanese will face will be similar, but likely even more shocking, than the Iraqis: language, education, relationships and gender roles, social pressures and prejudice, job training and navigating the American health care system.

Tom Medina, refugee coordinator for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, said one of the primary challenges refugees will face in the United States is the welfare system. It's typical for highly educated refugees — like Salih — to have to take a poorly paying, even minimum wage job in order to qualify for welfare benefits.

"Get a job and get one now," is the philosophy, he said. "It is shortsighted."

If refugees had more time to straighten our their educational histories and get the recertifications and licenses they need, they could go back to work as the professionals they used to be, Medina said.

Salih said he hopes to do exactly that — even though it likely means going back to school to learn materials he could probably teach.

"I do not mean to be stuck on welfare for the rest of my life," he said.