Program helps families resettle
By Natasha Clark
Joining the family upon their arrival are Church in the Acres members Olive Edwards (left) and Shirley Fraser-Williams (right). Edwards and Fraser-Williams have been helping Tifow and his family adjust to life as Springfield residents. Reminder Publications submitted photo
Reminder Assistant Editor
SPRINGFIELD When Ali Tifow wakes up in the morning, he breathes easy. As a man in the United States of America he is at liberty to raise his family and live the life he chooses. The one he left behind in Somalia was constricting and violent.
Thanks to Lutheran Community Services and Episcopal Migration Ministries, along with the co-sponsorship of Church in the Acres, Tifow and his family are settling into their lives as Springfield residents.
Tifow's Somali Social Worker Zakaria Ahmed-Gass was a refugee himself. He knows what it is like to re-establish in a new place, so he has dedicated his life to helping people like himself.
"When I first learned that my fellow country men and women were being resettled here in the Springfield area I felt obligated to make them feel welcome in any way I could," Gass explained to Reminder Publications. "So, I ended up working for Lutheran Community Services, one of the largest resettlement agencies in New England, who are bringing some of the Somali Bantus."
"In 1991 Somalia lost its central government," Gass continued. "That is when the chaos began and warlords started to use power and intimidation to control regions that had no power like places where Ali comes from. So that's why Ali and his family fled to Kenya by foot with no belongings except their clothes."
Tifow and his family which includes his wife, Hawo, and five children Ibrahim, Makay, Hussein, Hassan and Kedro sought refuge in Kenya. There he and his family stayed in a refugee camp in the city of Kakuma.
Tifow has skills as a plumber and he worked with CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) in Kakuma, helping them manage the water distribution system around the refugee camp but conditions were not good.
"He's mentioned things like going without food for days," Gass said. "Sometimes the natives the Turkana would come at night and take what little food they have or risk being killed. Diseases like Malaria and Tubercolosis are very common too."
Refugees are heavily scrutinized before their acceptance into the United States, according to Helen Czerniejewski, of Lutheran Community Services. Each year the president, along with Congress, sets the number of refugees who may be resettled in the United States.
Teresa Hodge, ESOL Instructor/Co-sponsorship Developer at Lutheran Community Services said last year that number was 70,000.
"It's not usual to get that number in. [Guidelines] got very strict after Sept. 11, 2001," Hodge said, estimating that last year the U.S. took in about 50,000 refugees.
A refugee can participate in the resettlement process for years. Eventually, the applicant will be interviewed by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Staff. Those approved for admission, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) of Maryland, are "allocated among the 10 U.S. resettlement agencies, including LIRS."
Options for those turned away range from returning home or staying at a refugee camp, to trying for resettlement in another country.
For refugees who are approved, heading to a foreign land with strange surroundings can be frightening, and that's where Lutheran Community Services comes in.
The staff at Lutheran helps refugees with basic needs: housing, food, training, Social Security cards, but even they can't do everything.
"We really like to work with churches, we do co-sponsorships," Hodge explained.
After Hurricane Katrina tore through he gulf coast, Shirley Fraser-Williams was wondering how her church family (Church in the Acres) could respond to the disaster as a "family of faith." At first she thought they could sponsor a family victimized by the storm, but she soon found out that process wasn't very easy. In her research she came across Lutheran and learned about their mission to serve and care for people in need.
Fraser-Williams setup a meeting with Hodge and learned that Tifow and his family would be arriving in a week of their conversation. Co-sponsorship is the commitment assistance of an organized community group in the resettlement of a refugee family. It takes place over a predetermined period of time through an organized contribution of in-kind goods, services, and financial assistance.
Sitting inside the Church in the Acres office of Pastor Dan Nicewonger, Fraser-Williams beamed in remembrance of how the congregation came together and decided to become a co-sponsor.
"We knew nothing about the family, only the size," Fraser-Williams said. "The church kicked in to provide things for their house. Our congregation stepped up to the plate."
As co-sponsors, the church members helped secure kitchen appliances, furniture and clothes.
"It's really about discerning where needs are and having people put their energy there," Nicewonger added . "To watch the congregation become aware of a need and meet it ... that's an exciting thing to watch."
Gass explained that Tifow couldn't wait to arrive in Massachusetts.
"He knew as soon as he set foot on that airplane that his life was going to a better place, but he was also scared because he was not sure if the people would be welcoming," Gass said.
A week later Fraser-Williams and others were at the bus station awaiting Tifow and his family's 9 p.m. arrival. Nine o'clock came and went without their arrival.
Close to 1 a.m., Tifow and his family arrived by mini-van, their travels taking them three days; From Kenya to Atlanta, Georgia, Atlanta to New York, and from New York to Massachusetts by mini-van.
"It was so exciting to see them after their long trip," Fraser-Williams said.
Church in the Acres has been supplying the family with emotional support along with food and transportation.
"The family really appreciates what the church has done for them," Gass explained. "The children have been registered for school and will start soon. [Tifow] will attend ESL classes at MCDI (Massachusetts Career Development Institute). They have really settled well in their new apartment. [Hawo] has learned how to use the stove and the other basic kitchen appliances, but she found the microwave to be very fascinating."
Gass also said Tifow has been learning to handle the utility bills and Hawo has already learned how to navigate the supermarket.
"The most important thing I noticed is that they are at ease now. They don't seem to be as tense as when they first came," Gass added.
Tifow recently shared with Gass his thoughts about the country.
"Well," Gass said. "The father said something to me that I will never forget, he said 'In America people use paper for everything, even in the bathroom and where I come from we can't even get paper to teach our children with.' Back home they use a piece of flat board with a smooth surface and charcoal to write on it."
Refugees from all over the world benefit from agencies like Lutheran. Just last year Lutheran alone serviced over 100 freecases (refugees who come to the United States with no relatives or friends already here). Lutheran Community Services can always use help from the community and encourage groups to learn how they can co-sponsor refugees, become volunteers or make donations.
They are currently accepting donations of the following specific items:
Dining room tables & chairs.
Pots and pans, dishes and silverware.
Coffee tables, end tables, nightstands, etc.
Coffee makers, toaster ovens, microwave ovens.
Mattresses and bed frames, all sizes.
Bureaus, dressers, and mirrors.
Pillows, blankets, sheets and towels.
Sofas, chairs, and other living room items.
Televisions, radios, computers.
Gass knows from experience what such a donation can do for a person. He can't help but be proud of the progress Tifow and his family are making, he said.
"It really makes me happy to see that, a few months ago, a family that had almost no hope for the future are now loving their lives to the fullest and making something out of it," Gass added.
To make a donation or for more information on how to help, contact the Lutheran Community Services at 787-0725. Ask for Lyudmila at extension 10, Larisa Nakhabenko at extension 27 or Teresa Hodge at extension 36. All donations are tax deductible.
Lutheran Community Services is an affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. In partnership with Episcopal Migration Ministries, they assist refugees in Western Massachusetts. They are located at 593 Main Street in West Springfield.