For Sahar Aldurobi, the biggest struggle was getting the chance to start over.
Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she worked as an English translator for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense while her husband helped rebuild the country’s infrastructure with an American company. One day in 2006, the family received an envelope in their mailbox. Inside was a bullet and an unsigned note that read: “You won’t be missed.”
The family fled Baghdad within days. Aldurobi and her two youngest children, a 14-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, returned to her hometown in Iraqi Kurdistan. Fearing the relative safety of Kurdistan would not be enough to keep their oldest son safe, the family fled to Egypt. It would be three years of applications and background checks before Aldurobi would see her husband and son again in Oklahoma City.
The experience took its toll.
“For three years you don't know what's coming. I used to cry a lot in bed at night,” said Aldurobi. “I hadn't seen my oldest son for three years. When we finally get together in 2009, (my youngest son) didn't recognize his dad at the airport. It was very hard.”
Aldurobi is one of the more than 600,000 refugees who have come to the U.S. from conflict-affected countries over the last 10 years, a phenomenon that could only increase with Greece, Germany and other European countries struggling to meet the needs of refugees fleeing places like Syria and Iraq. Next month, Aldurobi will represent Oklahoma in Washington, D.C., as part of the Refugee Congress, the only national refugee-led advocacy organization in the U.S.
Delegates represent all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and meet throughout the year in regional meetings and stay in contact with one another through Facebook groups, but the Refugee Congress only meets nationally every few years. By coming together, the delegates are able to share experiences and lessons learned from their communities, establishing best practices to help new refugees get on their feet.
Delegates meeting with members of the U.S. Congress is the highlight of the national meeting. Sharing their stories, of how they came to the U.S. and their experiences once here, gives insight to the lawmakers responsible for setting refugee policy and programs designed to help new refugees integrate into their new lives in America.
A new life, new direction
While Aldurobi’s main struggle was getting the chance to resettle in a safe country, for others the biggest challenges start once they arrive in the U.S.
After her parents were killed in the Second Sudanese Civil War and she became one of the 20,000 “lost children of Sudan,” Rebecca Deng came to the U.S. in 2000. Knowing no one and speaking little English, she moved in with a host family in Holland, Michigan, enrolling in high school and trying to learn how to be an American — all experiences very different from her previous life in a crowded refugee camp in Kenya.
“I was confused the first day of school because when the lesson ends and the bell rings, in the United States people all get up and change classes,” said Deng. “But in the little school we had (in Kenya), we had only one room. Here everyone is running in different directions, and I didn't know why. I thought maybe someone was attacking the school.”
Deng’s arrival was a challenge for her new community too. As the first ESL student in her high school, her teachers faced the daunting task of teaching someone who knew very little English and came from a dramatically different culture. Through perseverance and open-mindedness by everyone involved, Deng ultimately made friends and a good life in Michigan, and paved the way for more refugees to resettle in the same Michigan town.
Years later, Deng and Aldurobi are thriving in the U.S., using their experiences to help others. Aldurobi is a refugee caseworker for Catholic Charities, the resettlement organization that placed her family in Oklahoma, while Deng works with those impacted by conflict. For both, the Refugee Congress offers an avenue to share their experiences with lawmakers of what it means to be a refugee.
“The entire idea of the Refugee Congress is to find refugees and former refugees and let them advocate on behalf of refugee populations that might not be here,” said Deng. “And when they come here, they really think this is their home and they are willing to contribute.”
Finding a voice in a new home
For others, the Refugee Congress is a natural extension of their previous lives. Living in his hometown of Tehran in 2001, Farjam Behnam founded the Iran Almanac website to better inform people about political developments in the country. After writing several books and creating a monthly newsletter he distributed to foreign embassies in Iran, he received warnings of his impending arrest if he didn’t leave the country. Iran is notorious for cracking down on journalists who operate outside the censors of the state.
Using his diplomatic contacts, he came to the U.S. and applied for asylum in 2008. Now a translator for other asylum seekers with Human Rights First in Washington, D.C., the Refugee Congress gives him the opportunity to continue his activism and inform lawmakers here about the realities of asylum seekers.
“We try to help as much as we can,” said Behnam. “If some law is going to pass against the refugees, we try to meddle and go talk to our representatives in our states.”
With the current political debate over refugee resettlement, the delegates have their work cut out for them, but they remain optimistic.
“After the war in Syria and Iraq, I can understand that people here get angry about some refugees and asylum seekers coming in,” said Behnam. “But I'm trying to make them understand that these are people who couldn't stay in their country because of the war. And try to make them understand that if they were in their situation, what would they do? So we are trying to make them understand that maybe they should consider accepting them with open arms.”
“Our experience as a refugee family is a good one. We came as Einstein said — with a bundle — and wound up having a really good life,” she said. “Unfortunately, the scenario all over the world, especially in the U.S., is not on the side of refugee cases right now. So I hope we can give a better picture to make resettlement for Syrian refugees easier and faster.”
Kim Curtis is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter: @curtiskj