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Published:November 25th, 2006 04:43 EST
Virginia, Refugees Find a Welcoming Home

Virginia, Refugees Find a Welcoming Home

By SOP newswire

Charlottesville, Virginia -- Najeeba Siddiqe is a tiny woman, but her small size belies her strength and indomitable courage.

An Afghan refugee living in the small city of Charlottesville, Virginia, Siddiqe struggles to learn English while working as a housekeeper and caring for her two severely handicapped children.

Her life would seem difficult to many Americans, but with a warm smile she will tell you (through an interpreter) in all sincerity:  "I live like a queen now."

Siddiqe is among some 800 refugees from 20 different countries to have settled in this city tucked in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. The refugees have survived war and persecution because of their religion, race, nationality or political opinions.

The United States is the world’s leading resettlement country, having accepted more than 2.6 million refugees since 1975.  Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration (PRM), said on a recent visit with Charlottesville’s refugees that what makes the U.S. resettlement program unique is the emphasis on integration into American society via employment.

By the time the refugees reach the United States, their most obvious physical injuries have been treated.  What remains is the challenge of healing from psychological trauma and adjusting to a new country by getting a job and becoming self-sufficient.


When Siddiqe’s husband was killed and her two handicapped children were injured in a rocket attack in Afghanistan, she took her family to Pakistan.  There she found she was unable to find schooling or medical help for her son and daughter, both of whom have multiple sclerosis, are unable to walk and have cognitive deficiencies.

But Siddiqe’s luck improved when she was accepted by the United States as a refugee and brought to Charlottesville.  There she came under the care of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit, nonsectarian voluntary organization partly underwritten with federal government funding. 

Originally founded in 1933, the IRC has operations in more than 25 countries.  In the United States, where the IRC has 17 offices across the country, it annually helps as many as 10,000 refugees who have been offered asylum by the U.S. Department of State.

The IRC is one of 10 major resettlement agencies that partially are funded by federal government monies and that together have 370 affiliates around the United States.  According to Sauerbrey, the most successful refugee placements are in smaller cities like Charlottesville, where housing is less costly and there are many small employers that can absorb entry-level workers.

The State Department’s PRM Bureau funds the initial resettlement costs for each refugee for the first 120 days of their stay in the United States.  After 120 days, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services pays for a variety of services, including medical assistance, skills training and social adjustment and aid for victims of torture.

In 1998, the IRC began resettling refugees in Charlottesville, a community of about 41,000 people.  A tourist destination and home to the University of Virginia, Charlottesville enjoys low unemployment and many job opportunities.

More important, the community has demonstrated strong interest and volunteer support for the IRC’s efforts, says Susan Donovan, resettlement director at the Charlottesville IRC.  The Charlottesville IRC now resettles up to 150 refugees per year in the city and surrounding area.

David Brown, mayor of Charlottesville, said the city has become more diverse because of the new refugee residents. "Their participation has improved the soccer teams in the area," he joked.

According to Sauerbrey, there is care taken in grouping refugees by ethnicity.  "The United States does not want to create ethnic ‘ghettos,’" Sauerbrey explained, "but we do try to settle people where they can have some small cultural attachments."

Sauerbrey, emphasized, however, that the U.S. refugee program is a "needs-based" program.

"There is no political agenda, no ‘cherry picking,’" Sauerbrey said.  "The United States takes the most needy and vulnerable."


The Omni Hotel, a luxury hotel in the heart of historic Charlottesville, employs 50 refugees, full and part time, on its 135-member staff.  Patty Shifflette, the human resources director for the hotel, says the hotel has been employing refugees for about nine years, and describes them as "fabulous."

A number of the refugees on the hotel staff appreciate their entry-level jobs as stepping stones to a better life in the United States.  For example, Joseph Sesay, who came to the United States two years ago from Sierra Leone, is a bellhop now, but he is working to complete his secondary-school education with the aim of eventually working as an electrician on heating and cooling systems.

Other refugees have gone on to open thriving businesses in Charlottesville.  Bosnian refugee Dragana Katalina-Sun and her Chinese husband, Sun Da, run the busy Marco & Luca dumpling shop on the mall in the central part of the city. Meliha Mela Cosic and her sister Alma Zeljkovic, who escaped Bosnia-Herzegovina, now own and operate a hair salon.  Croatian-Serbian refugee Duska Burruss owns and operates a European foods and convenience store that attracts other refugees as well as local residents.

The process of assimilation into U.S. society begins when the IRC staff members meet refugee families at the local airport, transport them to modestly furnished homes, assist them with medical needs, enroll the children in schools and the adults in English classes, help them to obtain Social Security and state identification cards, and provide extensive orientation about life in their community.

The IRC has had success in placing refugees into jobs quickly despite language and cultural barriers.  Within four months after arrival, nearly 100 percent of the refugees are economically self-sufficient, according to Monte Hackney, employment coordinator for the IRC’s Charlottesville office.

Siddiqe, for example, laughs that her coworkers are learning Farsi from her more quickly than she is learning English from them.  With only three years of formal schooling, she has her own learning challenges.  Nonetheless, Siddiqe has been a productive worker in housekeeping services at the University of Virginia, according to her case workers at the IRC.

Refugees who received better educations in their home countries typically are placed in entry-level jobs until they can master the English language but then strive to move up to better jobs.

For example, Nada (last name withheld at her request), her husband, son and daughter escaped persecution in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Nada’s husband, a chemist in Iraq, is now a cook at a local restaurant.  According to Nada, her husband, rather than being disappointed with his new status, will tell you "cooking is chemistry" and he hopes one day to open his own restaurant.

Nada, who speaks English very well and was once a math and science teacher in Iraq, is finishing her degree in biotechnology and is seeking a job with the hospital in Charlottesville.


"The commitment of the United States to protecting and assisting refugees is deep and abiding," says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  "This commitment is part of our nation’s history and it goes to the very core of our values."

President Bush has emphasized that the United States is both a lawful and welcoming society that honors the heritage of all who live within its borders.  The United States, he has said, is "the great hope on the horizon, the open door to the future, a blessed and promised land."

For Siddiqe, a poor Afghan widow who finally has found a welcoming, safe place to live, a means of self-support, and schooling and medical care for her two handicapped children, the United States is a place of rebirth.

"I feel like I gave birth to my children for a second time," she said of her new life in the United States.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: