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Fleeing Danger and Finding Hope
Published 07/04/2017 by Global Communities
As an interpreter, Arabiya Aldhaher uses words to bridge divides. But when it comes to telling her own story, sometimes even language can’t fill certain gaps.
“No word can express the feeling of leaving your country by force just to find a safe space,” said Aldhaher, who moved to the United States as a refugee from Iraq in August 2013.
After her husband died of kidney failure just 6 months before the Iraq War began in 2003, the single mother of four secured work with the United Nations (UN) in Baghdad. When that agency’s headquarters were bombed, Aldhaher served as a translator and interpreter for the U.S. Army – a position that made her family a target. Terrorists killed several of her relatives, including a sister, brother, niece, nephew and their spouses and children.
“The list is so long,” she said. “I left Baghdad looking for a safe haven for my kids and went to the north of Iraq. … We waited almost five years until we got approval to be refugees.”
Almost as soon as the airplane’s wheels hit the runway in San Diego, California, Aldhaher began searching for work to support her family. They were resettled in El Cajon, a city that borders San Diego to the east and is home to a growing number of Iraqis. In fact, the year Aldhaher arrived, Iraqi Americans made up one-third of the city’s population.
Although Aldhaher had a bachelor’s degree in English/Arabic language translation and interpretation, the job market—and new culture—proved challenging.
“I applied to many organizations online for almost a year but couldn’t find a job,” she said. “I was so helpless and depressed.”
Over the course of the next two years, she finally landed work as an on-call medical interpreter but still needed a full-time job. Through a friend, she learned about a position with Project Concern International (PCI) that changed the course of both her life and the lives of nearly 40 women with stories like hers.
PCI hired Aldhaher to be a community health educator for its Women Empowered (WE) program, an evidence-based initiative that enables women to save money, develop financial literacy and become leaders and decision-makers within their families and communities. While WE launched in 2005 and now has nearly 500,000 participants in 12 countries, Aldhaher was the first person hired to work specifically with Arabic-speaking refugee women in the San Diego area.
“To be a leader is something great but not easy,” Aldhaher said of the task assigned to her by PCI. “At the beginning, they told me ‘You have to recruit about 40 women.’ It was a challenge for me, but I realized I was doing something very special.”
At first, Aldhaher started looking for participants within her own networks and then expanded recruitment efforts to churches, nonprofits, community centers and social media. When this generated enough interest, she set up an informational meeting about the program at a local library.
“I explained that we would work together to make their lives better and help them understand their value and rights as women and as human beings,” Aldhaher said. “They are isolated and don’t know where to go. Most of them are staying at home or going to school to learn English. They don’t know the law. They don’t know the culture. There is a lot to do, and they need somebody to lead them to that.”
Two WE groups—“Hope for Success” and “Promising Women”—formed as a result of Aldhaher’s library presentation. Since January 2017, they’ve met on a weekly basis to study and discuss curriculum related to fostering mental health and wellness, creating budgets, establishing savings accounts, managing credit, developing leadership skills and starting a small business. They also make an effort to do extracurricular activities together, such as going to the beach, practicing yoga and organizing potluck dinners.
According to several members, what began as an educational opportunity for newcomers to a strange country has since become a gathering of friends who have created a safe space and support network for each other.
“Before joining the group, I was just a depressed housewife with no desire to explore what was going on outside my home, as my English language is so limited that I can’t communicate well with others,” said Sahar Jasim, who came to the U.S. three years ago as a refugee from Iraq and was one of the first to sign up for a WE group in El Cajon.
Now, the mother of two said she’s registered for an advanced English course at a community college near her home and even secured work as a cake decorator at a local bakery. She credits her WE group with giving her the confidence and skills to pursue these personal and professional endeavors.
“It’s been a great opportunity to know amazing women in the group and share our ideas and experiences,” Jasim said. “I am becoming financially independent to help myself and family by doing the job I was dreaming of since childhood.”
Rjiha Abdulrahman, another refugee from Iraq, said her time with WE has given her a reason to smile again and even picture herself as a leader in her community.
“When I came to the USA, I felt homesick and lonely because of the sudden change of my life. I tried to keep myself busy, study the language, and get my driving license, but all that didn’t change my mood,” Abdulrahman said. “I started to attend meetings with women from my country and we talked about our concerns and problems and how to find solutions. Now, I am not feeling lonely anymore. … [This program] promotes us to move on and provides us with tools to eliminate the suffering and love ourselves first, so that we can love our family and others.”
Aldhaher said that all the women in these groups share similar success stories and sentiments and make her proud to be part of something that will continue to serve both current and future participants. In addition to translating PCI’s WE curriculum from English to Arabic, she’s also making sure each group feels prepared to continue meeting once her official role with them ends in November.
“They have a dream to make a women’s center or coffee shop as a group, a space for them to gather and share their lives,” she said. “They are very much connected now. Just like a family. When they asked if I was leaving, I said, ‘Even if I’m not here, I will be in touch with you. You are now a stronger group of leaders who can take care of each other.’ I believe that, and they’re beginning to see it.”