By Travis Quezon
Northwest Asian Weekly
For the thousands of new immigrants and refugees who make Washington state their home each year, there are immediate obstacles to overcome. The language barrier may keep individuals from finding jobs and services. For those with degrees not recognized in the United States, minimum wage jobs might be the only option. Many refugees face issues of separation from their families, and those from places such as Nepal, Burma, and Bhutan have been witness to war, trauma, and political strife and have lived in refugee camps for up to 30 years.
For Someireh Amirfaiz, executive director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA), the key to overcoming these challenges lies in carrying on a message of hope and resiliency.
ReWA is a multi-ethnic, community-based organization that provides culturally and linguistically appropriate services to refugee and immigrant communities throughout King and Snohomish counties.
When Amirfaiz came on board as executive director in 2001, ReWA’s budget was under $1 million, and it had a staff of 28. Today, ReWA has grown to a staff of 158, operating from 10 offices, and its budget has increased 6-fold.
In 2011, ReWA helped 630 families find employment with livable wages and benefits with job placement assistance. Last year, ReWA’s Youth Program offered over 30 academic and enrichment classes to more than 600 students in grades 4 through 12 in King County. ReWA’s Domestic Violence Program also serves 540 victims of domestic violence and sexual assault each year.
“Most if not all of our clients, the commonalities, are that they are the first to leave their countries, they have been witness to tremendous trauma, there has been some sort of political or religious oppression ongoing in their country of origin for a long time,” Amirfaiz said. “In some manner, most of them have been in refugee camps before they got here.”
The first step for ReWA’s clients, Amirfaiz explains, is helping them to find a place where they can fit. Arriving in a new place not knowing the language or culture can be difficult. For many of the refugees who have been separated from their families and are still coping with the trauma experienced in their countries of origin, that difficulty is overcome with a sense of determination that’s fostered by every interaction with ReWA’s employees.
“Hope and resiliency — I see that every single day when I come to ReWA and we have our ESL classes,” Amirfaiz said. “These are individuals who, despite the atrocities, despite what they have been through, every single day, they show up to learn English and they are so joyous and so thankful.”
In addition to the language barrier and the economic hardships that many of ReWA’s clients face, there is also a stigma that immigrants and refugees must also overcome, Amirfaiz said.
“Because of the language, because of the lack of transferable skills … [some refugees and immigrants] have to do jobs that pay the minimum wage or they cannot find jobs, especially in this economy, so they are poor and hence dependent on public assistance,” Amirfaiz said. “And that leads to the stereotype that all refugees and immigrants are on welfare and so on. What we are adamant in proving is this shift in paradigm that not all refugees and immigrants are on public assistance. We do have a lot of refugees and immigrants who are the head of Fortune 500 companies, universities, and non-profits.”
ReWA’s own staff is composed of 90 percent refugees and immigrants. ReWA’s bylaws mandate that its board of directors represent the communities it serves — 75 percent of ReWA’s board is made up of refugees and immigrants.
“When we hire and we train, we are really leaving a legacy for the next generation,” Amirfaiz said. “People who come here, our clients, they look at someone like me and say, ‘If she can make it, I can, too.’ Or they look at our advocates, our case managers, our managers, and directors, and say, ‘I have a place, too.’ So we do become role models and that’s pretty powerful.”
This sense of belonging is essential to overcoming obstacles of prejudice and intolerance that many immigrants and refugees face in the United States, Amirfaiz explained.
“I think people don’t want to talk about it, but I think we need to put it on the table,” Amirfaiz said. “How you look and what religion you are really plays an important role in terms of how the host country is going to accept or reject you and how fast you are going to be assimilated.”
When Amirfaiz arrived in the United States in 1980 on a student visa at the time of the Iranian Revolution, she could not return home. She had lived in the United States as a displaced person and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2003. She recalled facing a wealth of intolerance herself, especially after 9/11.
“Yes, still we are the land of opportunity,” Amirfaiz said, “but we cannot become oblivious to the racial tensions and the prejudice and the assumptions that people make based on where you are from.”
Amirfaiz said the key for her transition to living in the United States was finding a sense of community and being willing to embrace the larger community as well.
“For every individual, it’s different,” Amirfaiz said. “The challenges that I faced are different than challenges that someone else faces, who is new to this country who is dealing with poverty, a lack of an ability to speak English, having a large family, or is older. For my challenges, I really try to understand who am I. But still, I struggle.”
“I think because we are so multi-cultural, our challenges are so different,” Amirfaiz continued. “You really need to find where you belong. And when you say, ‘I’m an American,’ know in your heart that you are. Whether or not people accept you, at some point, it has to be irrelevant. Because once you are a citizen of the United States of America, you have to psychologically understand that you do belong.”
Amirfaiz said the ReWA clients are often faced with the questions: Who are we? Where do we belong? Does anyone actually acknowledge and accept us as Americans or not?
As ReWA has grown under Amirfaiz’s leadership, the organization has focused on finding a political voice for refugees and immigrants.
“One goal for us was to make sure we do have a public policy arm and public policy agenda,” Amirfaiz said. “We really believe that without that, nothing is going to change for the populations we serve, which are mostly invisible and are not counted.
The goal has always been and continues to be to provide quality services in the language of the clients to our communities with the public policy agenda.”
ReWA will be carrying on that message at the Capitol in Olympia as part of Refugee and Immigration Legislative Day on February 14.
“I hope the governor really understands that he is the governor of all Washingtonians, including refugees,” Amirfaiz said. “We should all care about refugees and immigrants.”
When Amirfaiz is not busy putting in 12 to 15 hour days as an executive in Seattle, she is a mother of two sons, aged 26 and 17, at her home in Bellevue.
When asked what was the one thing she hoped to pass on to her children, she said she hoped to teach them about empathy and equality.
“None of us are entitled to anything,” Amirfaiz said. “Being able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, having empathy for other human beings, and to extend a helping hand wherever you can. That’s what makes a good human being. More than your degree, more than where you go to school or how much money you make.”
“Empathy is really understanding the plight of another person at their level and not taking pity on them,” Amirfaiz continued.
“It’s different than sympathy. And that’s the measure of your character. That you never look down, that you always look to other people as your equal, even if they need your help.” (end)
Travis Quezon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.