Each year, the Office of Refugee Resettlement holds its National Consultation for partner agencies involved with the resettlement of refugees in the United States. The conference’s aim is to enhance the public-private partnership that drives the agency’s success.
This year’s program “Transforming Hope into a Brighter Future,” took place in Arlington, Virginia, on Sept. 19 and 20. More than a 1,000 people attended the conference, which gave an opportunity for caseworkers, advocates and government officials at the local, state and federal level to share best practices and innovation.
Several panels and workshops were held, but the highlight of the event was the plenary session dedicated to Refugee Voices, when heartfelt testimonials from recent arrivals were shared with the audience. The refugees spotlighted on stage were all nominated by their communities and selected for their leadership strength.
One after another former refugees shared their difficult journeys to America. Many gave thanks to the U.S. government for providing them shelter and a permanent place to call home.
One of the brightest success stories came from Basma Alawee, 26, from Jacksonville, Florida. The young educator boasted about her life in the United States, working in the public school system as a substitute teacher, helping her community and raising her small family.
In 2010, Alawee left her home in Baghdad, Iraq, due to the increasing uncertainty of her husband’s safety. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, many Iraqis worked to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure alongside American companies situated in the nation. Because of her husband’s ties to American industry, resentful Iraqis still angry at the Western invasion targeted people like him.
“It was not safe. I was always worried about my family, especially my male family members,” said Alawee, who graduated with an engineering degree and worked for the oil ministry in Iraq. “My husband and I quietly began the process to leave Iraq. It took eight months. We told no one.”
Even before the Iraq War, Alawee’s anxiety over her family’s safety was a daily torment.
“My father would tell us to stay far away from anything political. We wouldn’t clap for Saddam, but we wouldn’t clap for his opposition either,” said Alawee, who suffered from stomach aches and headaches throughout her young life due to the stress of war and tensions among religious groups in her community.
Finally the fateful day came. Alawee, her husband and young daughter gathered their belongings in the early morning hours and quickly said goodbye to only immediate family members who had no idea of their departure.
“No one knew until that day,” she said. “We didn’t report to work. Everyone in my community found out after we landed in the United States and we were able to tell them.”
Today, Alawee is a happy, healthy mom raising a new baby daughter and seeing her husband and older child flourish in Florida. This engineering major who once worked with numbers and chemicals just two years ago now has a different calling— social worker.
“I love volunteering for my community. I want to help refugees, any type of refugees, because we all have the basic needs,” said Alawee, who volunteers with a local agency to help settle other Iraqis.
Although the teachers in her public school want Alawee to get certified to teach, she is drawn to the challenges and rewards of being a case worker.
Iraq may be 7,000 miles away, but Alawee — at times — cannot let go of the worry. Every time a major development takes place in the war torn nation, she calls home to make sure her family is alright. But she has decided that one can only worry so much. “You have to live your life and move on,” said Alawee.
One day she hopes to share with her daughters about the people of Iraq, its beautiful culture, and its important place in history being the birthplace of written language. She also will make sure her daughters know about their rights and liberties in their new home.
When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, Alawee hopes to earn a graduate degree in science and see her husband who has a bachelor’s degree in tourism and hotel management open his own business. Alawee wants to make sure her daughters are empowered and have every opportunity. And Alawee also hopes to be reunited with her parents, brothers and sisters in the United States.
The Administration for Children and Families, through the Office of Refugee Resettlement and its partner agencies in Florida, are determined to give her the tools and access she needs to see those hopes become a reality.