Panel sheds light on refugee struggles

By Byron Patten - Staff Reporter

Being a refugee means struggling with housing and employment — all while learning a new language, members of a panel on refugee resettlement told a Highline audience last week.   

"We have been forced to leave our country and adjust to a life where we don't even know the language," said Yahye Algarib, from the Iraqi Community Center of Washington. 

The panel was one of the events from Highline Welcomes the World Week, a week-long series featuring speakers, workshops and art dedicated to learning about refugees. 

The event featured several panelists, including Algarib, who work with refugee resettlement groups within the state of Washington. The event was created to educate people on the struggles refugees face and how people can get involved. 

Algarib began the panel by sharing his story as a refugee from Iraq. 

"I spent three years in the refugee resettlement camps. It's not a five-star kind of place. It's not a good life," he said. 

It was his experiences immigrating here in 1994 that compelled him to work toward helping fellow refugees. 

"We had to learn the language, food, system and culture at a time when technology and resources were limited. So, we set up a community gathering," Algarib said. 

This community was built of Arabic speaking refugees, mostly those from Iraq, who combined their resources to help each other. 

"Our group [Iraqi Community Center of Washington] is made up of volunteers who help out in a variety of ways. We help with housing, documents for immigration, workshops; we also provide attorneys to those in need." 

The Iraqi Community Center of Washington is like a family, Argrib said. 

"The families who have immigrated here are helping each other and newcomers," he said.

One such case involved a pregnant woman who was unable to afford rent. The families pooled together to cover her rent and provided the necessary resources she'd need to support her child. 

The next panelist was Tahmina Martelly from World Relief Seattle. As a refugee from Bangladesh, Martelly also saw the necessity of aiding incoming survivors. 

She began working with World Relief Seattle, a non-profit that provided much the same resources as the Iraqi Community Center. 

"A large part of what we do is help these people find stability," Martelly said. "We want them to feel comfortable financially and in the community." 

World Relief Seattle has acknowledged that female refugees, in particular, have a lot of difficulty in adjusting. 

"Women more often are not familiar with the language. Their husbands are traditionally their translators back home," Martelly said. 

In response to growing numbers of women, World Relief began a cohort in English as a Second Language. The cohort teaches the women in classroom settings but has also utilized real-world experience as lessons. 

"We went to Jo-Ann [a fabric store] yesterday, the women love it there," Martelly said. "We have them place their own orders which gets them practicing English and then fractions, as math is needed in sewing." 

World Relief began looking into more creative ways to help refugees earn money as well. 

"We asked ourselves what we missed most and for many, it was the food, which started the idea of a community garden and a commercial kitchen," Martelly said. 

The community garden not only brought refugees together but residents throughout Washington as well. During the process of constructing the large garden, more than 500 volunteers helped out. 

Currently, the commercial kitchen is still in the planning process. 

"This provides them with a sense of their home, but also gives them options to make money," Martelly said. "A commercial kitchen allows them to cook meals or can foods from the garden that they can later sell." 

The panel concluded with questions from the audience. 

One person requested that non-profit groups consider increasing help with paying housing rent longer than six months. 

"This is one of the largest issues we're facing," Martelly said. "We only have $900 per person to get them resettled. The rest comes from donations." 

Martelly finished the event pleading with students and interested audience members to get involved at non-profits, like theirs, and to donate when possible. 

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