One late night in January, a crowd gathered at the Memphis airport with Ahmednur, a Somali refugee breathlessly awaiting reunification with his wife and children. Ahmednur had been forcibly displaced from his homeland as a child in 1991, spending the next 24 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia, where he eventually met and married his wife, a fellow Somali refugee. After a lifetime of waiting, Ahmednur received the incredible news of his approval for resettlement in the United States. The joy quickly turned to anxiety, however, because his wife (and therefore their children) had been registered as a separate case long before they met. He would have to go without them. The indefinite separation overwhelmed them, especially considering his wife was pregnant with their fourth child.
Shortly after his 2015 arrival in Memphis, Ahmednur learned from his World Relief case worker that our office also provided immigration legal services. He quickly sought assistance and we were able to file for family reunification, ensuring that his wife and children would eventually be resettled in Memphis. Fast forward to this cold night in January 2017, our airport group celebrated with warm hugs, tender tears, incessant chatter and laughter as we welcomed Ahmednur's family, launching their transition from seeking refuge to refuge found.
Little did we know that only a week later, their home country would be among those banned from entry to the US, a moratorium would be placed on refugees (including reunification), and 60,000 refugee arrivals would be slashed from the resettlement quota, making the line for families like Ahmednur's despairingly long. Even the newest Executive Order sadly lends additional discouragement by restarting the 120 day moratorium.
Memphis Welcomes Refugees
For nearly 40 years World Relief USA has welcomed people fleeing violence and persecution, most of whom are women and children. This is a critical time for refugees and we are witnesses to the greatest displacement of people the world has known.
Since our Memphis office opened in 2012, we have seen with joy hundreds of lives transformed, from refugee families like Ahmednur's reunited, to children attending school for the first time. Your gift will serve refugees who have recently come to the U.S.—helping them adjust to life in Memphis—and preserve our office's services and expertise until the refugee admissions flow increases again.
World Relief Memphis and the refugees we serve need your help
Please consider a Monthly or one-time gift of support to the following funds:
MEMPHIS GENERAL FUND: help us serve existing clients and prepare for future clients as we remove barriers to their self-sufficiency (such as rent, utilities, transportation), navigate cultural orientation, coordinate volunteers, oversee various eligibilities and service enrollments, connect employers with eager employees, educate-equip-empower churches and the community to be more welcoming to the vulnerable. GOAL: $48,000 ($18,000 will be matched by a grant 2:1)
IMMIGRATION LEGAL SERVICES: help us offer a variety of low-cost immigration services to refugees, asylees, and other immigrants. Our office is a recognized organization by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and our services are provided by a BIA Accredited Representative. GOAL: $50,000
Now more than ever your financial support is crucial to stand with the vulnerable in Memphis. Together let's lend hope for refuge found. Give online at bit.ly/SupportWRMemphis or by mailing your gift to World Relief Memphis, 3340 Poplar Ave Suite 222, Memphis, TN 38111.
I was typing an e-mail when he sat down beside me for the first time. He looked about 7 or 8 years old. He had large, dark eyes and a smile that somehow seemed both timid and unbound. Unimpressed that I would waste a computer screen on e-mail, he pulled out a paper spinner and proceeded to play and giggle. As opposed to the adult clients, he seemed unconscious of his limited English. In fact, my new friend was determined to have a conversation with me and the other intern.
We asked him where he was from. Asia. We asked him how long he had been in the United States. Eight months. We asked him who taught him to make the paper spinner—was it his dad? No. His dad had died. He laughed awkwardly, looked down, and continued playing.
Only later did I discover that his father had been assassinated. Men from an opposition political party wanted to destroy the father’s political influence and take his land. In the end, they attempted to kill the boy, too. Fleeing for their lives, he and his mother have sought asylum in the United States. Each time that I see him, I learn something new that complicates the simple image of a boy laughing and playing with a paper spinner.
After ten weeks of interning with World Relief, I have come to appreciate the stories that lie protected just beyond an introductory smile. Syrian refugees invite us into their homes and offer us food and coffee. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I drive a pair of Congolese brothers to work, and they talk about their favorite American music. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I take a young Nepali to buy a new car battery. He smiles. He laughs. He talks. All is well. Everyone seems so normal until they offer you a glimpse of their story. Then, you hear that their village had been bombed. Their mother and sisters had been raped. He had spent his entire life in the limbo of a refugee camp. All is not well.
This summer has taught me the discomfort of moving beyond initial smiles and polite conversations. (Such movement must be by invitation only—never by force or presumption.) To do so means relinquishing easy stereotypes and reductive explanations. It requires living in ambiguity. It involves grieving. It promises pain.
By all means, thank God for the smiles and the laughter, but do not misinterpret moments of joy and rest for a world of justice and righteousness. We must draw near to the oppressed and marginalized and to the wounded and scarred. We must crucify our comfort.* Then, we just might move beyond niceties and enter with our neighbors into the grave of grief. Only then can we rise with Christ. Only then will we understand resurrection.
-Mary Ellen Poe, 2016 Summer Intern
* I am speaking here to myself and to others who lead comfortable lives, to those who have the privilege of distance from poverty, abuse, exploitation, and other forms of social harm. This statement should never be used against those who are already oppressed for the purpose of reinforcing unhealthy systems of power. Those who already live in constant grief understand the implications of resurrection.
I will never forget my first day of school. It was the fall of 1988 and I was a scrawny five-year-old refugee kid from Laos. Just two years removed from a refugee camp in Thailand, I walked into Haywood Elementary school in Nashville, Tn. I didn’t understand a word of English and wasn’t sure what to expect. My father, who was working two full-time jobs at the time, managed to get me to school but didn’t know that I needed a backpack and school supplies. He also forgot that I needed to be registered!
Eventually, I was placed in Mrs. Lambert’s class first grade class. I remember feeling scared and confused because I could not understand what anyone said. The best way to describe this experience is a scene I watched many years later from the cartoon show, Peanuts. Charlie Brown and his friends sat in a classroom while an off screen character, presumably the teacher, can be heard saying, “wha wha wha wha.”
To make matters worse, the students didn’t seem interested in talking to me—I guess it didn’t help that my name was Saengthien Mitsamphanh (Thi was actually my nickname). Often, I buried my head on my desk out of frustration and helplessness. Thankfully, Mrs. Lambert was gracious and patient with me. I’ll never forget her warm hug and welcoming smile.
The days at school turned into weeks and months and my comprehension began to improve. Letters turned into words and sentences and soon I was able to communicate with my peers and teachers. My ESL teachers, Mrs. Corley, Mrs. Gonzalez, and Mrs. Mittivong taught me to read and write English. More importantly, they showed me that I mattered and instilled in me that I could achieve anything I put my mind to. I distinctly remember when other kids were making fun of me by calling me “chicken.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Mrs. Corley sat me on her lap and told me, “Saengthien, if anyone ever calls you chicken again, remember that Mrs. Corley LOVES chicken!”
There were others. Mrs. Mitchell, my second-grade teacher asked me one day to meet her in the back of the classroom. Was I in trouble? To my surprise, she showed me a black plastic bag full of boys’ clothing. She explained to me that her sons had outgrown the clothing and she wanted to give them to me. I held on to that bag all the way home.
Classmates turned into friends and failing grades improved until I was finally on the Honor Roll. By the time I headed into middle school I no longer needed ESL and my parents expected a report card full of A’s. Although they didn’t attend every parent-teacher conference, awards ceremony, or sports competition, they always encouraged me to study hard and take advantage of every opportunity to succeed. I eventually finished high school, became the first college graduate in my family, and last year received my doctorate degree.
This fall, many refugee kids will step into Memphis classrooms for the first time. They come with years of hardship and loss behind them but many more years of hope and opportunity ahead. Will their experience be similar to mine? What fears and frustrations will they feel? What challenges lie ahead for them? Who will come alongside them to encourage and equip them to thrive and succeed? My hope is that one day they can share similar stories of kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
There are many ways to invest in the lives of refugee students in Memphis. If you are interested in after-school tutoring contact email@example.com or Refugee Empowerment Program for volunteer opportunities. To help provide gifts cards for school uniforms, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you've been involved with refugees in Memphis, you already know that transportation is one of the greatest challenges facing these new Memphians. The WRM team has seen first hand how successfully refugees overcome this challenge and found these two articles interesting when considering difficulties with transportation.
In an article entitled The 7 biggest challenges facing refugees and immigrants in the US, Christina Nuñez, editor of Global Citizen, states that the lack of access to reliable transportation can affect nearly every aspect of a newly arrived refugee's life. She describes how limited English proficiency and literacy can delay obtaining a driver's license. The article also mentions that once a family does have one car, this still does not always meet all the needs for transportation. For example, children may need to go to school and adults may need to go to work or run errands at the same time.
In the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows further illuminates transportation challenges in How America Is Putting Itself Back Together. Fallows acknowledges the economic contribution of refugees and immigrants to smaller cities and towns while pointing out the difficulties created by inadequate transportation. In the article Fallows notes that unreliable public transportation is a significant challenge faced by refugees, who sometimes solve these problems by walking long distances to and from work, even in inclement weather. Fallows also tells that cultural norms regarding transportation can be challenging.
In Memphis, you can help new refugees overcome their transportation challenges in 3 ways.
- Driver's Education Classes: Donate $500 to pay for a refugee to attend class and receive private driving lessons. Students also have the opportunity to take driver's license testing.
- ESL Volunteers: Volunteer to help a refugee become fluent and literate in English so they can pass the driving exam.
- Used Cars: Donate a working used car or money towards the purchase of a first car.
Acting on any of these steps will help refugees assimilate to life in Memphis and move towards self-sufficiency.
Zuhra, Turkmenistan, University of Memphis
Why am I doing this? How is volunteering valuable to me? Why does it matter?
Such kinds of questions rolled repeatedly through my mind when I was sitting during volunteering orientation.
Volunteering is the perfect way to learn and develop a new skill. Mahatma Gandhi said, ”Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” For me community service is a part of my life. It has strengthened my character in ways that will be professionally and socially beneficial for years to come. I had a huge experience before I arrived to Memphis. I worked at the National Red Crescent Society in Turkmenistan where I taught classes over Art Therapy to disabled kids at rehabilitation centers as well as kids from orphanages. I also helped elderly, lonely people who were living alone. When I first arrived to Memphis, I met amazing people who helped me with cultural adjustments and introduced me to World Relief, the only refugee agency in Memphis. I had never met any refugees before, so that experience was totally new for me and was one of the reasons I chose to complete my community service hours with them. I am so happy to be part of the World Relief family.
One of the greatest things about my volunteering experience with World Relief was meeting and building relationships with refugees from all over the world, whether it was having a dinner with a family from Syria or helping with a doctor’s appointment for a Nepali family. As I spent time with some refugee families, I was able to hear some of their stories, visit their homes, and learn about their cultures. I learned a lot of their stories that touched my heart. I can’t even imagine how hard it was to be separated from their family, culture, friends and environment. My experience with meeting and helping them opened my eyes to many different types of people and the difficult circumstances they are facing.
I believe that everyone deserves a better life. I’ve met refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nepal, etc. All of them are brave, intelligent, good-natured, delightful people who want the same future for themselves and their children as we do.
I assumed before that one person can never make a difference, but now I’ve realized that change starts with you. Yes! You, me, her, and just ordinary people. You have something valuable to contribute and learn from befriending, assisting, and advocating for immigrants and refugees.
It’s really neat to be able to take something and to present it to somebody else who really needs it. It can be just friendship, knowledge and experiences. It makes all the difference in the world.
Originally posted here.
So far 19 Syrians have taken refuge in Memphis, and Mahmoud Al Hazaz is just one. He left his home country of Syria behind and took his family to Jordan after the government shelled his successful restaurant. But life is rarely easy for a refugee. Mahmoud has now found safety in the Bluff City for his wife and four children and is hopeful the rest of his family can join him here soon.
This isn’t a story of pain, even though it could be. It’s a story of hope that rises out of pain, and that’s probably the most genuine kind.
Imagine owning a successful restaurant, one that is profitable and full of customers, the kind you see time and again across Memphis. Mahmoud Al Hazaz’s street-level restaurant in Homs, Syria, drew big crowds, bringing him success and a good life.
But in the early days of what has turned into a crippling civil war, big crowds came to represent dissension to the Syrian government. In early 2011, when the Syrian regime came across large crowds they countered with AK47s, tanks and other weapons.
It was during this time that Mahmoud’s busy restaurant was hit with a tank shell. Thankfully when diners saw troops coming, they all went inside and no one died.
Think about that for just a moment. No one died. At a restaurant. Talk about finding the good in a bad situation.
“In the beginning of the events they started with peaceful demonstrations,” Mahmoud says through an interpreter. “Then the Syrian regime came with weapons. When they would see a big group of people they’d shoot at them. We had a crowd of people at the restaurant and the government hit it.”
Mahmoud tells this story as he sits in the living room of the Memphis apartment he has called home since early December. There is no emotion in his eyes as he retells his story in a matter-of-fact tone. Maybe it’s the passage of time – it has been more than four years, after all – or maybe the fact no one died in this attack. Either way, Mahmoud seems grateful.
There is something different about Mahmoud. By all accounts, he is an excellent chef, with the ability to make fantastic versions of traditional Syrian specialties. But on this mild and sunny January afternoon in Memphis, Mahmoud isn’t talking about food. Not yet, anyway.
His restaurant was destroyed by his government. He and his business partner responded by reopening it in a taller building so it wouldn’t be in the line of fire. But Mahmoud also decided it might be safer if he stayed with a friend instead of in his own home.
The fighting eventually followed. The free Syrian army and Syrian government forces had firefights around his restaurant.
It’s estimated that since the Syrian civil war began in early 2011, a quarter of a million people have died. Mahmoud’s father was one of them. Mahmoud didn’t share how, only that a bullet did the job. No emotion, just a bullet.
Mahmoud left his successful restaurant of five years behind and took his family to Jordan. It was still pretty easy to leave Syria in November 2011. In those days a passport was enough.
It also helped that at the border crossing, no charges against Mahmoud or his brothers were found. So they were allowed to cross, ultimately settling in the capital city of Amman.
When he and his family first arrived, conditions were good. They were welcomed, and Mahmoud and his family began to resume life in a new home. But life is rarely easy for a refugee.
“In the beginning, Jordanians were welcoming,” Mahmoud said. “Their treatment was good, but then as more and more came and it got crowded, the way we were treated was difficult.”
Mahmoud said rents were raised, but because of his restaurant experience, this successful chef had no problem finding work, especially in the beginning. Also, living conditions weren’t bad, especially compared to Syria. Mahmoud’s extended family of 10 shared a four-bedroom apartment.
But then more Syrians followed and with them more difficulties. In his first year in Jordan, Mahmoud didn’t need special permission to find work. Later, though, the country began requiring refugees to acquire permission papers to gain employment, which meant it cost about $700 a year just to get a job.
In Memphis, Mahmoud hopes to gain permission to work soon. His traditional Syrian food is really good, he said. It’s hard not to take this man’s word for it. He’d love to find a restaurant that could use his services, or maybe a restaurant owner or investors willing to take a chance on a man who’s already taken a chance on life and won.
“All my experience has been with Arabic food, so that’s what I’m comfortable with. But I can learn anything,” he said. “I can do Western food.”
In broken English, he said “KFC,” with a smile.
Mahmoud has found safety in Memphis for his wife and four children. But his mother and brother, as well as his brother’s wife and child, are still in Jordan. Mahmoud said the family is hopeful to hear soon they can come to the United States.
Maybe you’ve heard their story. Mahmoud’s mother was interviewed by the website Humans of New York in early December. “Tomorrow he’s leaving for a place called Memphis, Tennessee,” she told the site. “I don’t know what I will do without him. I hope they will let me come to Memphis too. Can you tell us anything about Memphis? Are there nice people there? I heard that it is a city of music. I love music.”
Mahmoud is hopeful his family can join him here. He also has a brother still living in Syria, and two others living in Germany and Brazil, respectively.
Memphis is a different world than Syria. For one thing, Homs is a battleground.
“I didn’t know anything about Memphis,” Mahmoud said. “I knew California and Texas. It’s very nice here. The people have been excellent. Their treatment of us has been very good. I’m not just saying this for your sake. When I talk to my family they ask, ‘How is the treatment of Americans,’ and I say it’s wonderful.”
Mahmoud said his children were afraid at first because they were around new people, and because they didn’t know the language. They’re adjusting, though, particularly the girls – ages 10, 8 and 5 – who are all in school. The boy is 2 1/2, and like most toddlers, his attention is on the phone in his hands instead of the American reporter in his living room.
Mahmoud said his life was wonderful in Syria, but that was before the civil war. There is no going back for him, ever.
“Syria’s finished,” he said with a smile. “As far as I’m concerned Syria’s finished.”
He did admit that he’d like to one day live in his home again, but he knows better.
“There’s nothing to go back to,” he said. “The old city is demolished, complete destruction. There is no going back.”
Not to their house, at any rate. When they left Syria, Mahmoud and his family left a home fully furnished. Afterward, they heard everything was stolen, even the toilets, electrical fixtures, and light bulbs. It’s since been destroyed, presumably by an artillery shell.
And of course, Mahmoud’s story isn’t unique.
More than 800,000 Syrian refugees sought asylum in Europe between April 2011 and November 2015, according to the United Nations. That’s enough people to fill 12 soccer fields, standing very tightly.
Additionally, the UN has registered more than 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa, most of them living in camps close to the border. For these refugees, it would take 62 soccer fields.
So far 19 Syrians have taken refuge in Memphis. Nearly 55 soccer fields fit in one square mile, and Memphis is over 300 square miles in size. That’s enough room for considerably more than 19 Syrians.
Steve Moses is the office director for World Relief Memphis, an organization that brings about 200 refugees a year to the area. He recently was in the Middle East, a region he’s spent a lot of time in over the years. He gets emotional recalling a 5-year-old girl he met.
“She cuts herself, breaks glass in her hand, takes cold showers yet shows no emotion,” he said. “Her uncle sits incapacitated and in a deep depression.”
But the most important part of the work he does, Moses said, is to deliver the message he’s been told to bring back to America, time and again.
“All – yes, all – of them stated they are human,” he said. “Real people … they desire for dignity and respect. (They want) their personal stories to be known and not simply lumped together as a large group of people.”
By Lance Wiedower in the High Ground News on Thursday, January 21, 2016. The original article can be found here.
The Refugee Empowerment Program (“REP” for short) is a cornerstone of support for our refugee community in Memphis. In 2002, a recently arrived refugee began to see a need for educational support and more interconnectedness between the refugee population and local Memphis communities. She came to Memphis from Sudan with her 5 children and her sister’s 5 children (sadly her sister passed away before their journey to Memphis).
Because of her vision and her efforts, with 12 students and 2 volunteers, REP opened its doors; since then, it has grown to a network of more than 400 people plus hundreds of volunteers who are committed to serving and walking alongside many refugee families who call Memphis their home. Many refugee youth have had limited access to formal education, because they have spent large periods of time in refugee camps or fleeing persecution. After families are resettled in Memphis, REP and its dedicated staff and volunteers help to fill this education gap.
(For a more background information, you can watch this short video featuring the founder of REP on the Choose 901 Blog.)
REP offers an after school program Monday-Thursday and currently serves about 250 refugee students who range in age from pre-kindergarten to high school seniors. Some of their other programs include educational summer programs for youth, adult education classes (including three levels of ESL classes), character education classes for teenagers, college prep courses, pre-GED classes for adults, a women’s leadership program, and Bible studies for all ages.
We recently were able to talk with Cam Blackmon, the Executive Director of REP, about their work in Memphis. It was abundantly clear from our conversation that the staff and volunteers at REP are changing lives on a daily basis. She spoke about our tendency as Americans to “fix” problems, but how working in community gives you a unique opportunity to be part of a process that is beneficial for both you and the person who you are working alongside.
Mrs. Blackmon also talked about finding community and kinship in ordinary circumstances and how REP strives to “teach education through daily life.” She sees REP as a mission field, where she is able to work with people from various nations and show them that we all have “love” in common - and that love can transcend oceans and any of the barriers that might keep us apart.
We are so thankful to have the Refugee Empowerment Program serving refugee families in Memphis! If you would like to learn more about REP, get involved with any of their programs, or support their work with a donation, you can visit their website.
One of the biggest barriers faced by the refugee population is access to transportation. The public transportation system is not very reliable or user-friendly for our clients. For example, it may not provide routes or schedules that are convenient for certain jobs. Saving money for a car takes time, and obtaining a driver’s license is also difficult for our clients who have limited English proficiency because Tennessee’s exam is only offered in English and Spanish. Refugees with limited English skills do learn English, but takes time, especially to have the skill level to pass the exam. We rely heavily on our volunteers to transport our clients until they are able to provide their own transportation, and we are really excited about this new program that will offer transportation to our refugee clients and Memphis residents!
Recently, we sat down with Sara Studdard, the project manager at Explore Bike Share, to talk about what the Bike Share program hopes to bring to Memphis and how this service will positively impact the greater Memphis community and our refugee clients. Explore Bike Share is committed to developing a bike share program that can truly advance our city on multiple fronts: transportation, tourism, health, environment, and culture.
Explore Bike Share is in development to build a system with around 60 stations and 600 bikes that will connect the city’s downtown, midtown, and surrounding neighborhoods. Bike Share also hopes to make connections with existing greenway assets and the future Wolf River Greenway trail. Memphians would be able to walk up to a station, pay (with cash or credit card) to check out a bike, and ride for a chosen amount of time. There will be a variety of membership options from daily to longer term, all of which include unlimited mileage within a set amount of time. After your time is up, you return the bike to any of the stations, either to end your adventure or to check it out again.
Sara expressed that she believes the Bike Share program will bring the Memphis community closer by connecting fellow Memphians with each other. She says Bike Share is not only a mode of transportation, but also a tool to connect our neighborhoods and our cultural assets because people will be spending time biking through areas that they might have previously driven right through on their way to somewhere else. She also noted that there is only a short bike ride between many of the neighborhoods and popular attractions throughout Memphis.
This is especially exciting for our refugee clients. We envision them being able to access Bike Share to make it easier to get to and from work or run errands, and also to connect more with the broader Memphis community. Accessing a bicycle is a reliable and cost-effective solution for transportation that also provides the benefit of exercise and opportunities to socialize - which means that our clients can benefit financially, physically, and socially from this program. We at World Relief are very excited about the Bike Share program coming to Memphis soon.
If you would like more information, visit their website: http://www.explorebikeshare.com.