A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
“A lot of people don’t understand that refugees are here because they had no choice. Nobody’s dream is to come to the United States and get food stamps. I come from an affluent background. My father was a civil engineer. My mom had her own business. Never in our mind were we thinking of leaving our native country.
“After the Armenian genocide in 1915, my grandparents fled to Iran and started a family. When the [Islamic] revolution happened there, we declared ourselves refugees and came to Chicago in September of 1984. Everyone made it out except my dad.
“Quite a number of our staff members are former refugees. We are an oasis for our newcomers. For a lot of people, this is the first time they are living in apartment buildings. So they may do things like sweep their apartment and sweep out in the hallway, because that’s how they swept everything out of their hut in the refugee camp.
“We teach them how to fill out job applications, how to do interviews. In a lot of countries you get jobs because somebody you know works at a place, and they say, ‘My cousin is looking for a job,’ and they say, ‘OK, bring him with you tomorrow morning.’ The concept of sitting in front of a stranger and complimenting yourself is new.
“Until about six, seven months ago, large numbers of Iraqis were coming in. Right now it’s split between Burmese, Bhutanese, and Africans. This is a population that has been in refugee camps for more than ten years. Although they are eager to work, they really don’t have transferable skills. Their entry point is the service industry—hotels, restaurants—or manufacturing jobs.
“I don’t think anybody who comes to the United States expects the difficult economic situation they find when they get here. That’s very scary. If you’ve been living in refugee camps, even though your conditions have been miserable, at least you knew that you would have your food ration. Most of us are coming from cultures where the United States was the generous outsider bringing in humanitarian aid. And then to come here and see people under the bridge is mind-boggling.
“We helped welcome an Iraqi gentleman, a single dad. His wife was in Jordan. He came with his daughter and his son. His son has a disability—he doesn’t have legs from the knees down. Suddenly it hit him that he was in a foreign country, in an unknown society, with a handicapped child and a little girl, away from his wife. And he broke down. Chain-smoking, rocking all day long, totally neglecting the children.
“DCFS had to get involved while he got psychiatric help. The children were placed in foster care. One year and a half later, he is functioning 100 percent. He is working; he’s got visitations with the kids every week. The little boy has his new legs. The wife just got her approval, and we are hoping by Easter the family will be reunited.
“Whenever I feel like I’m getting burned out, I just go to the airport and welcome a new refugee family. They bring such enthusiasm to their new communities. Many of them have been sitting for 20 years in refugee camps, waiting for this moment to start a new life in a peaceful and free society.”