Refugee stories: Navigating hardship and resilience in Portland, Detroit and San Francisco
As the United States made a pledge to give an extra $140 million dollars to Lebanon for aid with its influx of Syrian refugees, refugee communities in cities like Detroit, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco endure discrimination and misunderstandings while trying to thrive in their new homeland. With the support of many nonprofit organizations, refugees have the strength and resilience to build new lives.
Yasmin Jama Elmi, a Somali refugee who resettled in Portland with the help of Catholic Charities, explained the importance of empathy towards refugees.
“People say we understand you, we support you, but you don’t know how to support unless you know what I’m feeling,” Elmi said. “The pain I’m holding in … What I’m actually going through.”
In Portland, many refugees say they feel unsafe when they experienced bias, prejudice, and oppression. Along with Elmi, Jean Paul Mugisha and Mariamou Abdoulaye survived war, famine, oppressive regimes and poverty. When they moved to Portland, they believed it would be a safe harbor. However, Mugisha said other people looked down on him and negatively labeled him several times for being a refugee. Abdoulaye said she has been called a “terrorist” and other names. Elmi’s hijab was once pulled off by a white man at a bus stop. This caused her head to bleed from the pins attached to the scarf.
“I heard yelling, so I turned around and then got my head scarf just snatched out of me, and I get pushed, while this white man just comes up to me and said ‘why don’t you go back to your f***ing country, you little terrorist, you blow up everything, you take our jobs and stuff like that,” Elmi said. “I was just shocked.”
To support refugees in these hostile environments, charities like Catholic Charities work tirelessly to provide safe havens. Michelle Welton, program and outreach manager for Catholic Charities said she wants to help them grow and take advantage of opportunities.
“Getting to work with our team and the new arrivals reminds me of the humanity of it and why I want to help give people a voice, even though it’s not my identity,” Welton said. “Everyday, I am inspired by their resilience and strength, the journeys they go through and starting over.”
According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, the number of refugee arrivals in the state has gradually increased from 944 arrivals in 2011 to 1,780 in 2016. Most of Portland’s African refugee community comes from Somalia, Egypt and Sierra Leone.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, California has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other U.S. state, during the fiscal year of 2016. Data from the International Refugee Committee shows San Francisco county accepted 21 refugees from Afghanistan and Syria.
In San Francisco, a refugee who refers to himself as Eid, for personal protection, applied for asylum to the United States and waited almost four years. Once his application was approved, he said he had two weeks to pack his things and move. However, he couldn't just pack up and leave Turkey. He said he had to apply for the exit permit through the Turkish government and get approved within a two week timeframe.
At a time when the Turkish government was halting college graduates from leaving the country, Eid said he was one of the few whose exit permit was approved.
Now that he has resettled in the Bay Area, Eid said he is grateful for all the support the IRC Oakland office has offered. A week into his new journey, he recalled an IRC social worker answering his questions about traveling to visit a friend in another state.
“You are free like a bird,” said the social worker.
“I will always remember that moment,” Eid said. “I felt that I am finally free.”
Dr. Arash Javanbakht with Wayne State University School of Medicine conducted a study on the mental health of refugees in Detroit. He said refugees are experiencing high levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD after resettling in the United States.
The study surveyed 400 participants which included 95 families. Among the participants, the study found 30 percent of adults showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and 50 percent suffered from depression. The study showed 60 percent of Syrian children had signs of anxiety because of trauma.
Wayne State University School of Medicine is currently piloting a 10-week program along with nonprofit resettlement organization Samaritas to help reduce these numbers in the Detroit area. Women and children can participate in the 90-minute program that focuses on dance, yoga and art therapy.
Despite battling displacement, discrimination and poor mental health, there are success stories for refugees who come to the United States. Refugees like Abdoulaye say they are finding the hope they've been searching for.
“I couldn’t see myself, even when I was back in Africa, I did not know I will be in America, and look where I am right now,” Abdoulaye said. “I am in high school. I’m getting the education I want. I’m getting the things I want and later when I’m done, I’ll be a pediatric doctor.”