By Alexandria Sharpe (’14)
The Director of Refugee Resettlement and Assistance for IIRI, Baha Sadr, acts also as both a teacher and ESL educator for the organization. Before coming to IIRI, Sadr had worked as a community organizer, but it was his unique personal story that drew him into this line of work. “I’m an immigrant myself. I came from Iran as a student,” said Sadr, “being from Iran, [Human Rights] is something I’d like to promote. I see how people struggle with the government, not being able to voice their concerns.” Yet he makes a distinction between his experience and that of most refugees, emphasizing that the obstacles refugees face are larger than those confronted by traditional immigrants. Even in the U.S., refugees remain “a traumatized population”.
Integrating refugees into American life is difficult, but Sadr believes that many of the obstacles refugees confront could be avoided if better systems were in place to support them. Above all, when refugees arrive, they need to be connected with resources tailored to their individual needs. Because “not all refugees should be painted with the same brush,” the government should provide a flexible support network capable of responding to the specific needs of each individual. But even with an ideal program, some cases are prone to fall through the cracks. For example, “eighteen or nineteen-year-olds without their parents are forced to work” despite not having the skills to do so. Too old to attend high school and unqualified to go to college, “the only option they have is to get a job [and] job training usually takes a year,” which is a long time to cover the requisite costs of housing, food, and transportation. For these reasons and others, “when they arrive to the U.S., the clock is ticking.”
Many refugees in similar situations have been placed in Job Corps, an organization that offers free education and job training to low-income teens and adults. Participants are expected to come out with a high school diploma or GED and knowledge of a skill that should help them find a job. Job Corps, although a step forward, is merely a temporary solution: as Sadr point out, “an entry level job is not enough”.
Even if they succeed in Job Corps, Sadr said it is difficult for refugees “to culturally adjust to people born in this country.” Refugees often struggle to navigate the most basic of situations and are hesitant to trust anyone. “Being an immigrant myself, I have gone through similar experiences…learning another language, feeling isolated being from a different culture, people having a wrong perception of your culture,” said Sadr about his transition from the Middle East and how people’s perception of him may have been shaped by the media. “People like to stereotype a certain ethnicity that happens to be on the news.” These stereotypes further complicate resettlement by increasing cultural misunderstanding between refugees and already established American citizens.
Yet as Sadr repeatedly emphasized, given that the refugee experience is more complicated than the typical immigrant experience, refugees require additional support. Sadr notes that refugees are a “very special population, so they should be given much stronger status at the point of entry.” Doing so, he said, would prevent “[having] to go through a lot of the paper work that causes confusion [that delays resettlement]”.
Moreover, Sadr offered some specific reforms including permanent residency at the time of arrival and a personal caseworker for each refugee. He also recommended giving “access to social security [and] disability when they arrive to the US…so they don’t have to go through the states bureaucratic system.” Access to such benefits would alleviate many of the hardships of resettlement. “Access to health care for longer than eight months…especially those who do not get employed,” he added, should be mandatory as well.
Regarding IIRI, Sadr believes “this is a human rights program; we feel that it’s a humanitarian effort… [we] want to help others. Here in America we can’t really reach out to many countries, but if you are able to reach out to at least some of the people who are in trouble—people living in war torn countries—we can at least do our share”. Sadr explained the importance of refugee support from people who can “’make a case that [refugees] need to receive services” adding that IIRI refugees will be “making their homes in Rhode Island.”
As for the future of the Rhode Island refugee population, Sadr believes that the refugees he works with, if given the opportunity, can strengthen their communities. If the program receives proper support, Baha Sadr envisions “more refugees really taking ownership of their cultural background…sharing their background with others…making a stronger community in Rhode Island. They can make a huge change. A better, more productive place.”
But as more refugees arrive at the door of the IIRI and the policies regarding refugee support remain unchanged, refugees will continue to face significant obstacles as they attempt to assimilate into communities in Rhode Island. Sadr, however, is optimistic: “they will help this community,” he assures. Looking forward, if our community can soon offer refugees as much as they can offer us, we would have reason to share in Sadr’s optimism.