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Student Story: Abdi

In some respects, Abdi and his family were among the lucky ones. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, they were among the first to flee the country. Abdi’s father had worked for the government and 21-year-old Abdi had a job of his own. They had enough money to rent a car and drive across the border to Kenya. “We saw killing everywhere,” Abdi said. “If the government sees you, they think you are with one of the (militia) groups. If the others see you, they think you are with the government.”

Like most Somalis, Abdi’s family hoped the crisis would be temporary. They arrived with the first wave of refugees accepted into the Dadaab camp, built to accommodate 90,000 Somalis, while the United Nations, the United States and neighboring countries tried to help reestablish a government that could unify warring clans and stave off Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda attacks. As more than a dozen governmental groups emerged and fell apart, Abdi’s family remained at Dadaab. Hundreds of thousands would die in Somalia, either directly from the fighting or from the disease and famine that accompanied it. Hundreds of thousands of others would make their way to Dadaab, swelling it to more than four times its intended size until it became the world’s largest refugee camp. Both Abdi’s parents died there. His siblings found spouses and had children who have never known life outside the camp.

Abdi made himself useful at Dadaab. Always a strong science student, Abdi found work as a laboratory technician, and his English skills made him a valuable translator for foreign doctors. But the rest of his life, much like that of his home country, entered a holding pattern. Even if he had had the time, Abdi couldn’t imagine trying to start a family inside Dadaab. “Life is difficult (in the camp),” said Abdi. “You go to your job, you go home. You cannot get married and have children. It’s expensive to send them to school. So you forget about it.”

In the fall of 2016, Abdi came to the United States through the UN’s refugee resettlement program. In some ways, the move marked an exciting new beginning. In other ways, it’s merely extended Abdi’s holding pattern. He came with no family members or friends. He lives alone, works at a grocery store and comes to RHR to improve his English and learn more about American citizenship.

“It’s a beautiful country, beautiful people. The only problem here is the snow,” he says with a laugh. But for many refugees—especially those who resettle without families—isolation presents an even greater obstacle than Rochester’s harsh winters. I go to my home. I go to work. I come here,” he says. “I don’t know how to talk to people here. I think too much. Because (in Dadaab), the situation was no good, you couldn’t have a family, a wife, kids. So maybe you worry now.”

Abdi can still remember when Somalia was a beautiful country. As a young man who dreamed of becoming a doctor, Abdi and his friends would go to the renowned National Theatre in the heart of Mogadishu. One of the first structures to be bombed during the war, the site became a prized base for warring militia groups over the years. The first attempt to rebuild the theatre was derailed by a suicide bombing in 2011, but a new renovation effort began this year. Abdi may never make it back to the theatre, but he’s working on his own rebuilding project here in the United States.

“I want to be an American,” he says. “I like having an opportunity to learn more American history and more English. I want to become a citizen.” Abdi says he sometimes smiles and waves at strangers, but he worries that they might be afraid of him. “People think you might not be a good person,” he says. “People don’t know your heart.”

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Touching the Lives of Individuals

Nazareth College student Alison Risewick recently visited us at Refugees Helping Refugees and was able to meet many of our students and staff.

Reflecting upon her experience, she writes “In America, there are numerous misconceptions about refugees. Often, one of the biggest mistakes that Americans make when hearing the term ‘refugee,’ is that they forget that refugees are individuals who once lived a normal life before they were forced to flee their home country; they were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and yet suddenly, they are forced to leave behind all they have ever known. Rochester has now expanded its residency, becoming home to individuals all across the world….While this is a local organization, it has the strength to touch the lives and make a difference to the individuals who are a part of it, and that is a start to changing our world.”

We pride ourselves on the individualized attention we give to our clients at Refugees Helping Refugees. Our class sizes are small, our case managers hold office hours for walk-in appointments, and our clients can feel comfortable asking any member of the staff for help. We have recently taken this individualized approach one step further––pairing our clients with a local friend in a mission to bridge the gap between refugees and members of the Rochester community.

If you live in Rochester and are interested in working to help us bridge this gap, consider joining our Caring Circle program. The Caring Circle matches Rochester residents with refugees in a partnership of cultural exchange and support. Refugees practice their English and gain a friend in the community. The community members, in turn, learn about their partner’s culture and language, share their favorite parts of Rochester, and help contribute to the integration of a refugee.

The Caring Circle requires a commitment of at least 10 hours a month for a minimum of 3 months. The exact time and commitment should be decided at the beginning of the partnership and can be re-evaluated over time. Volunteer times for this commitment are flexible and include evenings and weekends.

What are you waiting for? Sign up today for the Caring Circle with our Volunteer Application and make a new friend!

Rochester Community Stands with Muslims

Staff and volunteers from Refugees Helping Refugees joined the greater Rochester community in gathering outside of the Islamic Center of Rochester on Sunday afternoon to show their love and support for the Muslim community.

The event was organized by the Levine Center to End Hate and the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester in the wake of the New Zealand terrorist attacks that took place at two mosques on March 15, killing 50 people, and injuring 50 more.

Refugees Helping Refugees Case Manager Pamela Adams shares some of her thoughts and observations of the gathering below.

“The afternoon was a beautiful and poignant coming together. People from all different areas of Rochester – of all ages, genders, faiths, races and ethnicities – standing, kneeling, holding hands in solidarity with one another.

As I sat quietly in the crowded room for prayer (a room just like the one in which the New Zealand victims were praying during the time of the attack) watching the women pray on their knees in front of me I was overwhelmed. Some were crying. Children were meandering through the narrow spaces between bodies. We sat together in silence literally watching one another’s backs.

Before and after the prayer, I locked eyes with several women…some said thank you, some didn’t speak…either way, we were connected in sorrow and in love.

I’m grateful to live in a community that cares deeply. We don’t get everything right, but we get a lot of things right. Today we had one heart. Thank you to the compassionate organizers of this event, to all of the courageous speakers and to everyone who showed up on this Sunday afternoon to say #NotInMyName.”

Her Voice Carries

Refugees Helping Refugees is excited to announce that one of our own, Safi Osman, was recently featured in a Rochester public art project called Her Voice Carries!

“Her Voice Carries is a public art project featuring women who are lifting up the voices of others. The intention is to create a network of murals across America that weave a collective story laced with individual truths. In addition, each story becomes part of a larger dialogue through audio recordings, social media and a traveling exhibition. This series emphasizes the commonalities of our human experience through the leadership of empowered women.”

Originally from Somalia, Safi has lived in the United States for 20 years. Known as “Momma Safi,” she teaches sewing skills, serves as an emergency translator, and provides transport to refugees in need through Refugees Helping Refugees, an organization for which she is a founding member. Safi is one of the first people refugees call upon for help, day or night.

Sarah C. Rutherford started the project in Rochester, New York, and completed five outdoor murals across Rochester, as well as one inside the Memorial Art Gallery. Follow the project as it expands to other locations @hervoicecarries on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.