ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Assad Al Obaidi proudly wore his new Bernalillo County work badge to a gathering of the Refugee Well-Being Project at the Holiday Park Community Center.
He was proud of the government job in information technology that he started two days before.
“There are 120 people in the IT department. I am not working for a private company. This is a government job,” he says. “I am so proud to be here. I feel like I am half Iraqi and half American. The U.S. gave me another chance to live.”
A world away Al Obaidi, 25, got his master’s degree in computer science in Malaysia.
Al Obaidi, a political refugee, originally from war-torn Baghdad, Iraq, came to Albuquerque about six months ago, sponsored by his cousin, who has lived in the city for eight years.
“My cousin is my idol,” he says, with an enthusiastic smile. “He is the smartest cousin I have. He started here working at a car wash and now he is an energy specialist with the City of Albuquerque.”
Al Obaidi was one of around 50 people, other political refugees and their advocate partners, University of New Mexico undergraduate students, at the gathering where pizza and other snacks were served.
The refugees and their partners get together once or twice a week to discuss whatever is on their minds and problems they may have adjusting to their new lives in Albuquerque.
Al Obaidi’s student partner, Lucas Winter, a 20-year-old communications major, says he and Al Obaidi have become friends. “He came to my house for Christmas. We go hiking,” he says, explaining that his mother and his family like Al Obaidi. “It’s eye opening. It’s a chance to meet people who aren’t like you. It really changes your perspective, if you let it.”
Levels of impact
The UNM program begun by sociology professor Jessica Goodkind in 2006 has seen hundreds of refugees and students learn more about each other and life.
“It has multiple levels of impact. It has a big impact on refugees’ mental health, their English proficiency and how well they are able to access resources,” Goodkind says. “The students learn what the refugees went through to come here, what their goals are and the world they’ve left behind. The (students) learn to think about how the world is structured and they learn that not everyone has the same privileges and advantages.”
Goodkind says she started a predecessor of the UNM program as a graduate project in Michigan. While she was in the Peace Corps in Thailand she worked with Hmong people of Southeast Asia. Thousands of Hmong lived in refugee camps.
She saw both sides of the refugee issues. Just how hard the people she knew worked to immigrate to the United States and then what isolation they experienced when they arrived.
“I had seen what they went through to get a new life and when I visited them (in the United States) I saw how challenging it was for them. They didn’t know any Americans,” she says. “The Hmong people had been so welcoming to me and I saw no one was doing that for the refugees here. Nobody took the time to meet them. I knew how much the refugees had to contribute, but I wanted other people to get to know that, too.”
She says students in her nine-credit-hour, two-semester class learn about resilience from the refugees and how much they have to offer their new society, if the refugees can learn how they fit in, how they can adjust: “Our country was built on immigrants. Immigrants who are working hard, seeking a better life. Refugees are a perfect example of this. Our students can be interpreters of this.”
Al Obaidi says he learned to speak English from “Friends” and “The Simpsons” and playing video games. He misses Iraqi food, but he was enchanted by his first snow. “It hails a lot and it’s windy (in Baghdad), but we don’t have snow.”
He says he doesn’t like to think about how dangerous Baghdad is. His family is still in Iraq, but he thinks they may come to visit soon. In the meantime, he talks to them often via Skype or other video call technology.
“Everyday, if you go out in Baghdad, you have a 50-50 chance of returning. I almost died three times. There are explosions, random shootouts and kidnappings,” he explains. “But I’m optimistic. I have to be optimistic. You know what they say, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?”
Sawsan Al Sabae, a 67-year-old woman from Baghdad, sits with her student partner, Monica Swann, a 20-year-old biology major, reading an English picture book.
Swann says her goal is to help Al Sabae learn English. It’s a trade-off. “She taught me how to make dolmas. And she’s teaching me to crochet.”
But, Al Sabae says through interpreter Sam Ali, originally from Egypt, that it is very hard for her to remember new words and how they connect from one day to the next.
“I forget,” she says in English.
Al Sabae came to Albuquerque with her 35-year-old son, who is now a manager at a car rental agency. She and her husband of 44 years had applied for political refugee status in 2010.
But before the approval came to immigrate to the United States, her husband was killed in a bombing.
“It’s not safe. Because of the war and so many conflicts, it is not safe,” Al Sabae says through Ali.
Emily Czajkowski, 20, a biology student, says her work with an Iraqi family – a mother, father and four children – has changed her mind about her future.
Czajkowski, a La Cueva High School graduate who hopes to be a medical researcher someday, says she’s joining the Peace Corps when she graduates from UNM next year. The father in her refugee family was a police officer in Iraq and then his life was threatened by an opposing force in power. Czajkowski sees how that terror has informed the lives of all the family members.
She often takes the kids to play in the park or helps with the children’s health-care appointments, both transporting and interpreting. “I think what bravery it took coming here. What it feels like to be around Americans and all the culture shock. But my family is good at adjusting. It feels good to help, because they have so much on their plate.”