Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day. The day is dedicated to raising awareness about the situation of refugees around the world. The theme for 2011 is “One Refugee Without Hope is Too Many.”
Refugees and asylum seekers are placed strategically all over the world. As mentioned in a , Clarkston, Ga., is one of the main refugee resettlement points in the United States.
Joe Kernan, community relations officer for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, attended the World Refugee Day Celebration at the Clarkston Community Center this past Friday and had a booth set up for refugees with questions about becoming citizens. The celebration was sponsored by the Georgia Coalition of Refugee Stakeholders to raise awareness about refugees in Clarkston.
Part of Kernan’s job is to do regular community outreach within the four states he is assigned by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Refugees in Clarkston
According to Kernan, the refugee population in Clarkston grew organically.
“You get people who are accepted by the United States as refugees, and when you ask them where they want to go, they want to be near family or friends,” he said.
Because Clarkston has been accepting refugees since the mid 1990s, certain populations have grown exponentially as more and more requested to move to the area.
Clarkston is an ideal location for many because of the availability of cheap housing and public transportation options. Kernan works closely with six major refugee relocation agencies in Atlanta to make sure the integration process goes smoothly.
The U.S. government is not responsible for directly resettling refugees into the states, nor is it responsible for where they are sent. The federal government does, however, fund nonprofits, like World Relief, Lutheran Services of Georgia, and Refugee Family Services in the Atlanta area, and have been doing so for around 10 years, according to Kernan.
Each refugee receives government aid for six months after arrival.
“The adjustment is the most difficult,” Kernan said. “A lot of these folks have lived in refugee camps for a long time; some were born in them. It’s a totally different culture, and different way of doing things,” including things like timeliness, clocks, and establishing credit history.
“You’re going from a low-tech society to a fast-paced, high-tech society,” he added.
A Little Closer to Home
Snellville resident Samira Ahmed, originally from Ethiopia, experienced some of these difficulties when she and her husband moved to Alpharetta on July 12, 1995. She received immigrant status rather than refugee status when she came, but other members of her family arrived soon after as refugees.
Ahmed arrived in Georgia with her husband and 6-month-old baby boy. For three months, she stayed home with her child, but then found a job at Harry’s Farmer Market (now Whole Foods).
“It was a lot harder than we expected,” she said. “In the movies, America is like a heaven. When we came here, it was the opposite.”
Because she did not speak English well, she worked in kitchens for three years. In June of 1996, she had another child.
“Then it became really tough,” she said. “We didn’t have insurance. Life was really hard. We got paid $6 per hour, and our rent was $678.”
She had another child in February of 1998, and then her last in November of 1999.
Ahmed and her husband purchased a small house near Northlake Mall and transferred to another Harry’s. It was there that she was introduced to a nonprofit called Sheltering Arms, an organization that provides free daycare for low-income families. Her two youngest were accepted into the program.
Ahmed moved up in the company, and when Whole Foods took over, things at work began to improve for her. Her husband, also Ethiopian, had a more difficult time.
“In Djibouti, he had his own business and his own shop,” Ahmed said. “It was a fruit and vegetable shop, and he had a good income, good customers, and a good house.”
Because of his difficulty learning English, getting a better position has been difficult.
There is another element to Ahmed’s story that made things even more challenging. She had a daughter back home in Ethiopia, a young lady featured a few weeks ago as an outstanding graduate, .
Ahmed and her family overcame many obstacles and challenges, but , a place that she and her family have grown to love. However, Ahmed does frequently see refugees and immigrants that do not speak English well get taken advantage of. That is something that Kernan is well aware of, as well.
Recently, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services launched a campaign with the Federal Trade Communication, Department of Justice, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help immigrants avoid being fooled by scams. The initiative, "The Wrong Help Can Hurt," provides immigrants with the information needed to make better decicsions on legal, financial and other matters.
“We are talking to immigrants and refugees about who can give proper advice, and what to do if you’ve been ripped off, Kernan said.
The government encourages refugees and immigrants to become naturalized citizens as soon as they are able. It also encourages them to learn English quickly to increase success in the workplace.
To find out more information on World Refugee Day, visit the United Nations Refugee Agency's website.
(Editor's Note: Snellville Patch will run the last of four stories this month on refugees in the coming days. In the upcoming story, readers will learn more about the reconciliation of Samira Ahmed and the daughter she left in Ethiopia.)