On a sunny day in mid-February, Samah Mohammed pauses to take in her new surroundings.
She sets her bags on a bed as her husband, 41-year-old Omar Abdulrazaq, and two sons drag the rest of their possessions up a flight of stairs.
The only light in the hotel room peeks in from drawn curtains and a front door left ajar. The air carries a faint smell of cigarettes.
Samah, 31, pulls back the curtains to reveal a view of neighboring hotel rooms and a busy Spokane street.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, breaking into a warm smile as she folds her hands over her heart.
Her family isn’t “home” yet, but they are a big step closer since leaving Jordan, their home for the past 10 years, as refugees.
The family members are among the 500 Iraqis resettled in Spokane since 1992, and among the roughly 12,000 refugees a national Christian organization, World Relief, has brought into the Inland Northwest in the past 20 years.
The United States has taken in “displaced people” and those fleeing oppression for decades, but it wasn’t until after the fall of Vietnam – when 130,000 people were accepted as new Americans in an instant – that the country put in place procedures to deal with refugee resettlement. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which standardized resettlement services and established the Office of Refugee Resettlement. That office says the U.S. has resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975.
With security issues prompting closer scrutiny of refugees, less than one-half of 1 percent of the world’s 16 million refugees have a chance at resettlement.
The United States gives special consideration to people from areas where American troops are involved in a conflict, yet the number of people coming from areas like Iraq is low.
“Part of the reason is a major concern about security that we don’t bring in the wrong people,” said Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit that advocates for refugee policies and services.
Those who get the chance to come to America undergo medical and security screenings and interviews. They might face dozens of interviews and then be screened by Homeland Security when they arrive.
On Omar and Samah’s first day here, a World Relief case worker brings a storage bin stuffed with necessities – deodorant, shampoo, plates, silverware – and makes sure the family knows what to do with each of them. Then he leaves them to rest for the night.
In the morning another caseworker, Aida Debesai, arrives.
It’s Saturday, and the family’s oldest boy, 12-year-old Yousif Sadoon, is sick. Between the travel and some questionable food during a layover in New York, he isn’t up for much.
Yousif and his brother, Aymen Sadoon, 10, spend the morning watching cartoons in English. How much they understand isn’t clear, but their eyes are fixed to the screen.
The caseworker picks up Samah and her younger son to take them to the grocery store.
Samah quickly realizes traffic – even that of shopping carts – travels on the right. It’s an adjustment, but she laughs at the change.
Aymen takes advantage of the free samples and makes a face at the sugary taste of yogurt in a tube.
Later in their first week, after trips to the Homeland Security and Social Security offices, a World Relief volunteer takes the family to the state Department of Social and Health Services to apply for benefits.
In a small office with blank white walls, a DSHS case worker puts an Arabic translator on speaker phone.
Omar agrees to the conditions of the benefits – including his responsibility to work to find other income and to use the benefits only for people in his family.
The family received $890 for the remainder of February and all of March. Starting in April they received $668 per month.
Further assistance comes to the families through a program called Match Grant, which uses federal dollars in a twofold match of contributions from agencies like World Relief.
Omar and Samah meet with World Relief counselor Sajida Nelson, who explains the details in Arabic.
After a busy first week, the family has settled in and found a more suitable home: an apartment in north Spokane in a building with several other refugee families.
Mark Kadel, the director of World Relief, said it can be hard to find landlords willing to lease to refugees. They come to America with no job history, credit or even a Social Security number.
In Jordan, Omar worked in construction. The family fled to that country in 2003 after a militia took over their neighborhood in Iraq, leaving them without water, electricity or security.
The children, just 3 years old and 8 months old when they left Iraq, were able to go to school in Jordan.
But opportunities were limited, and going back to Iraq was not an option. So they applied for resettlement.
The family spent almost four years in Jordan waiting to hear if they would be chosen.
When it came time to leave, though, Aymen and Yousif’s Hollywood perceptions of life in America left them apprehensive about gangsters on every corner.
“We’ll stay with Grandma and you go,” the boys told their parents.
Refugees eager to contribute
After refugees resettling in America move into homes, find the nearest grocery store and learn the bus routes, the real integration begins.
“They come, they’re resilient, they’re survivors, they want to get their lives back together,” said Kadel, the World Relief director. “They’re so thankful for every little bit of kindness that they’re ready to hit the ground running.”
For children, that means enrolling in school, navigating the social scene and mastering the skills needed to be a successful student. For adults, that means learning English, perhaps, and finding a job.
There also are “real … economic impacts” to the community of accommodating refugees, said Limon, of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “The schools have to take in the kids. … Hospitals have to treat diseases they don’t usually see.”
What makes it worthwhile, she said, is what the refugees bring to America.
For each family, organizations that resettle refugees set a goal: financial independence by six months. The local office of World Relief has about a 75 percent success rate.
Limon, whose organization boasts an 87 percent rate, noted said there are always going to be cases of people not being able to handle the challenges of assimilating to life in the States.
“We do have casualties,” she said. “We do have people who commit suicide. People who just can’t cut it and end up on welfare.”
Many of the refugees, however, come from places where providing for one’s own family is a cornerstone of their culture.
“Relatively quickly, those refugees start contributing,” Limon said.
Students generally accepting
Aymen wants to know everything there is to know about school.
“When will I receive my books?” he asks. “Where is my locker?”
And finally, “What is the name of my school?”
The school counselor tells him, and Aymen repeats it over and over, emphasizing different parts of the word.
“Garfield. Gaaaarfield. Garfieeeld.”
The whole family is there to meet with school officials to enroll Aymen and Yousif.
They don’t speak more than a few words of English, so a translator from the school is on hand for the meeting.
At last count, 56 different languages are spoken by Spokane Public Schools students. More than 1,100 kids speak the top 10 languages other than English, including Marshallese, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, and Karen, a language spoken by people in Myanmar and across the border in Thailand.
Arabic translator Areej Alabassi, a former World Relief refugee client who now works for the schools, said the other students are generally accepting of the refugee children.
“It’s the refugee kid that usually feels alone,” she said.
Translating for the boys’ parents, Alabassi said they aren’t nervous for Aymen and Yousif to enter an American school.
“They want them to catch up and learn English,” she said. “They want them to merge with the community as soon as possible.”
Program specialist Vangtou Xiong X said the boys should have no trouble with the other kids; “they are nice boys,” he said.
But just in case, Vangtou gave the boys a quick lesson in dealing with bullying. He told them to go to a teacher if anyone harasses them and not to retaliate if it gets physical.
Vangtou also talked to them about their futures.
Aymen said he wants to design cars. Yousif wants to be an architect.
“They can be anything they want to be,” Vangtou said. “The only thing they can’t be is president.”
‘They … choose their future’
Garfield Elementary School sixth-grade teacher Sam Stachofsky passes out paper to each of his students as he explains their nightly assignment. He stops at Yousif’s desk.
“Did you have homework in Jordan?” he asks the boy, who smiles and nods.
“Every day,” Yousif says in his thick accent.
Homework may be a familiar concept for the 12-year-old Iraqi refugee, but the English language is not.
His teacher said he has tried his homework every night anyway.
“Yousif appreciates education,” Stachofsky said.
So far, the other students appreciate his soccer skills and his curly hair.
“The girls like his hairdo,” Stachofsky said. “Poor guy.”
Xavier LaSarte was Yousif’s first friend at school.
He said he noticed no one had befriended the new kid yet, and started talking to him when they were seated next to each other in class. They have bonded over their different athletic backgrounds.
“In basketball I show him stuff,” Xavier said. “In soccer he shows me stuff.”
Stachofsky said the focus for non-English-speaking students in sixth grade is to give them time to acclimate and pick up as much language and school skills as possible before moving on to middle school.
The boys’ father, Omar, said he’s excited for the possibilities that lie ahead for his kids.
“We brought them here,” he said, “but they can actually choose their future.”