American Volunteers and Iraqi Refugees Become Friends for Life
Since 2003, more than 45,000 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States as refugees or special immigrant visa (SIV) cases. Most are spread out thinly across the country and lack a support network of fellow expatriates to lean back on. Local volunteers are helping these newcomers find a home away from home in their new communities.
Meet one such volunteer: Michael Barrett, 35, from Carmel, N.Y. (pictured right). He was drawn to helping refugees after reading a newspaper feature about the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), which has been assisting those fleeing war and persecution for nearly a century. Last year alone, USCRI helped more than 2,000 Iraqis find safety in America.
“I started to think about the challenges that refugees face when coming to a new country, particularly those coming from the Middle East,” said Barrett. “I thought I might be able to help.
"Barrett became a volunteer for USCRI’s field office in Albany, dedicating about two hours of his free time once or twice a week to helping recently resettled Iraqi families through the challenging process of starting over in a new country. He has helped them with everything from grocery shopping (“because it is a much different experience than it is back in Iraq,” he said) to finding work. An attorney by profession, Barrett has on occasion dipped into his expertise to offer advice when necessary.
“Newcomers to this country are not familiar with how we do things,” he said. “They are vulnerable to being taken advantage of—like landlords refusing to return security deposits and demanding more money just because they can get away with it.”
Most Iraqi refugees come to the United States not because life in America is better than in their home country, but because it is safer for their families. Once they arrive, they are eager to work and contribute to the community. “Iraqis are not used to relying on others for help,” he said. “And it is even more difficult for them to accept donations without being able to return the generosity.”
So what is the best thing about volunteering? “I know I’m supposed to say that the best thing about volunteering is the reward that comes from helping someone,” said Barrett. “But truth be told, I love Middle-Eastern food and Iraqis are very generous, which has allowed me to eat a lot of shawarma."
Another volunteer, Kristy Sherrer (pictured left) from Mobile, Ala., has also experienced the generosity and hospitality of Iraqi refugees. On their first visit to a young Iraqi couple’s apartment, Sherrer, 26, and her husband were treated to a home-cooked meal. “They were both shy at first but very welcoming,” remembers Sherrer, an employment specialist for a nonprofit agency. “They wanted to make sure that we were taken care of and immediately fed us.”
After reading books and watching movies about the horrors of genocide and the suffering of millions of people forced to flee their countries to save their lives, Sherrer wanted to do anything she could to help. “We always complain about our lives, but our troubles are nothing compared to what refugees around the world have to go through,” she said. “So I wanted to help even just a little bit.”
When she asked a refugee resettlement agency about volunteering opportunities, Sherrer was surprised to learn that there were refugees right in her neighborhood. In fact, the Iraqi family she and her husband were assigned to assist lived just 3 miles from her home.
As the Sherrers were helping the Iraqi husband and wife search for jobs, fill out tax forms, and otherwise get acclimated to life in America, an intimate friendship was forming between the two young couples. “They were just like us and we had so much in common,” said Sherrer. “We wanted the same things in life. A home, a career, and a family. We were even the same age”
Realizing the similarities between them made it even more difficult for Sherrer to fathom the tragedy and suffering the Iraqi family had gone through. “I was shocked when I heard what had happened to them before they came here,” she said. “Some of their family members were killed. Their home was destroyed and their family was displaced.”
The newly resettled family was ready to put the past behind them and start rebuilding their lives so that their daughter could have a brighter future. The Sherrers were there to help them adjust to the American way of life—and also to have some fun along the way. “My favorite time with them was their daughter’s second birthday,” exclaimed Sherrer. She and her husband took the Iraqi family to the beach then to a restaurant to celebrate the occasion. When a candlelit cake was brought out as a surprise, everyone in the restaurant burst into the ‘Happy Birthday’ song.
But the Iraqi couple also had a surprise up their sleeve. The husband and wife presented the volunteers with a crystal wind chime they secretly bought from a boardwalk shop and told them that they would never forget them. “We didn’t just help people in need, we made lifelong friends,” said Sherrer, touched to tears by this thoughtful gesture. “They’ve been even more of a blessing to us than we were to them.”