From Learning to Leading: Former Refugee Gives Back to Community in Time of Need

By Sarah Barnett and Bailey Clark

World Relief Memphis has several community ambassadors who are helping to connect former refugee and immigrant groups in the city of Memphis. Our bilingual ambassadors connect members of these communities with resources in their languages, which is especially important now as the pandemic continues to affect our daily lives. They are sharing important information to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in addition to providing resources to alleviate food security, access relief efforts, or transition to virtual school. Last time, we introduced and highlighted the work being done by our Spanish-speaking ambassador, Diana. Today, we’d like to introduce you to Arwa, our ambassador to the Arabic community.

Six years ago, Arwa arrived on American soil with her husband, two baby girls and mother-in-law in tow. Originally from Syria, Arwa’s family were the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Memphis, but the process to get here was not as simple as a plane ride from one country to another.

Having grown up surrounded by a large family, Arwa had never imagined that she would one day have to leave her mother and all but one of her seven siblings behind. Yet as the situation in Syria grew increasingly more dangerous, Arwa and her husband, Shadi, decided that it was time to leave the war-torn country in the hope that their children could learn and explore about the world rather than fearing for their safety. Quote from Arwa

However, deciding to leave was only the first step for the family. Once this decision was made, they then had to escape Syria—on foot. Pregnant with their second child, Arwa walked eight hours across the rural countryside to cross the border into Jordan with Shadi and her daughter by her side. Like any parent, Arwa and her husband thought only of their children’s safety as they made the treacherous cross-country hike into a new world.

In Jordan, Arwa’s family experienced a waiting period as their paperwork was prepared. Because the Jordanian culture was similar to that of their home country, the transition was relatively easy compared to what was to come. In fact, realizing the incredible life change that awaited him on the other side of the Atlantic such as learning an entirely new language, Shadi momentarily doubted whether or not he had made the right decision in bringing his family to the United States as they prepared to board their flight to a new world.

Upon their arrival in the U.S., Arwa and her family were welcomed into the Memphis community by World Relief and fellow Memphians. Two American families helped introduce Arwa and Shadi to the culture and customs of the South. Speaking no English, the couple immediately began learning the language thanks to the help of their American friends, who encouraged them to speak openly and confidently despite the mistakes they made, reminding them that native English speakers make mistakes too.

Over time, these families grew to be close friends of Arwa’s as they adjusted to a new life in Memphis, where everything from the language to the clothes to the food was different from their former home. No longer could Arwa eat pomegranates straight off the tree as she had done since she was a child, nor could she see her mother every day as she was used to. Now, she and her husband were forced to develop a new network and community in Memphis on which they could rely while being so far away from their family.

Despite the constant worries about their families’ safety in the Middle East, Arwa and Shadi eagerly set about rebuilding their life in the U.S. Thanks to her childhood English grammar lessons and her new American friends, Arwa was able to quickly pick up the language in addition to her native Arabic. As she and her family slowly grew accustomed to Southern American culture, Arwa began helping other Syrian refugees when they arrived in Memphis. Much as World Relief and those families had shown her the ropes, she began doing the same for others, helping them navigate American society and discover the resources available to them.

Once new to this land, Arwa has now become a leader to others who arrive in the Arabic community, using her English skills to assist them with applications for car insurance, WIC programs, food stamps and school registration. Since becoming a community ambassador for World Relief, she has also begun sharing information about the current crisis such as how to slow the spread of COVID and how to address food insecurity or changes in the public school system.

A teacher herself, Arwa understands how important it is for children to receive an education, and it was important that others in her community learn how they can continue their schooling from home in the middle of the pandemic. Despite the changes in the past year, Arwa still expects her children to perform well in school just as her mother had expected of her and her siblings all those years ago. She also hopes that the U.S. will continue to be a safe place for her kids to grow up and receive a good education with people of all backgrounds, and Arwa herself hopes to do the same one day by returning to university. Having fled Syria while she was in college, she aims to finish her bachelor’s degree by the time her children finish theirs.

Regardless, Arwa and Shadi have worked hard to build a life for their two daughters and son, who was born in the U.S., much like any parent would. Now an Arabic teacher at the Pleasant View School, Arwa and her husband have created a community for themself in this new world that they so bravely entered in order to offer their children a safe life with more opportunities. While she continues to hope and pray for the war in Syria to end so that the rest of her family might return to a normal life in her beautiful home country, Arwa also continues to invest in the local Memphis community, with both Americans and other Syrians or Arabic-speakers.

As a community ambassador, she has already helped so many as they adjust to this particular period of life just as those two families helped her adjust six years ago. In November, Arwa became a U.S. citizen, the first of the Syrian community in the Memphis area to do so. As other members become eligible to request citizenship, they will undoubtedly continue to look to her for guidance in this process as well.

By becoming citizens, Arwa and her husband are one step closer to providing the life for their children that they dreamed of as they fled across the Syrian border nearly a decade ago. At World Relief, we are so glad to have their family in Memphis today, and we are thankful for the ways that Arwa is helping to inform and connect the Arabic speaking community.

Sarah BarnettSarah Barnett was the former Mobilization Intern for World Relief Memphis and is a senior at Furman University in South Carolina. She majors in Political Science and Spanish and is passionate about influencing where people and policies collide.

Bailey Clark serves as the Communications Coordinator for World Relief Memphis. With a background in journalism and advertising, she is passionate about storytelling and its power to make a difference.