Adjusting to America


Streets of gold

"In Afghanistan, almost everyone, everyone when you say United States, they picture what they see in Hollywood movies," Samim Noorzad said. "Fancy cars, fancy buildings, fancy life."

Baraka Kasongo, who was born in Rwanda, thought the same thing: "Just unbelievable, this mentality of gold streets and you know, anything an African kid can think of."

Noorzad, Kasongo and many other refugees were startled when they arrived in America and realized it was nothing like what they had imagined.

Kasongo remembers how disappointed he was when his family's case worker first drove them to their new apartment in Roanoke.

Jim Hershberger said other refugees weren't shy about voicing their dissatisfaction with their new living situations.

Arsalan Syan, who worked as an interpreter for American forces in Iraq, said he was scared by the way movies portrayed the United States. He said he expected drugs, alcohol and violence to be everywhere.

"But in reality it's a very good country," Syan said. "What I saw in the movies that's reflected in the imagination [about America], but here everything is normal."

Noorzad, a case manager at Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC), came to Roanoke from Afghanistan in 2016.

He worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military from 2013 to 2016 in Kabul and said other Afghans harassed him. He said many believed he was helping the enemy.

"You are a traitor. And you deserve to die. You deserve to be killed," Noorzad said. "We had to run away if we wanted to survive."

In 2008, Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to protect local residents who support U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. People can apply for the visa if they feel threatened because they helped the U.S. 

Syan left behind a career as a mechanical engineer, despite his fears of violence in the U.S.

He and his family arrived in New York just after Thanksgiving in 2016 after four years of waiting. Syan also applied for SIV resettlement, a process that typically takes two years. But he said he needed more time to look after his 10 siblings and dozens of nieces and nephews who were staying behind in Iraq.

But four years is nothing compared to the 19 years Fahizi Msimbwa and Jeanne Etunyema spent in a Tanzanian refugee camp with their six children. They lived in Nyarugusu, one of the largest refugee camps of the 21st century.

Their oldest son, Cyprien Kilozo, 14, said he had no idea what to expect when his family arrived in Lexington in the spring of 2016.

"I didn't even know how to speak English," he said.

Just unbelievable,
this mentality of gold streets and you know, anything an African kid can think of.
— Baraka Kasongo

a new normal

Noorzad said a family's first night in a new apartment can be frightening.

By this point, refugees have spent days traveling, and years waiting.

Kasongo estimated it took just under three days to travel from the refugee camp to the U.S. in 2001.

"Getting here is only half the battle," he said.

Noorzad said he picks the families up from the airport and takes them to their new homes. The homes are equipped with appliances, food and basic furniture, but nothing more.

After a brief tour, he leaves.

One family, he said, got upset with him for not staying with them overnight.

"I explained to them everything, then I left. But [the next day] they were saying 'you left us, you didn't cook us anything,'" he said. "This is what they thought--that I'd be staying with them, that I'd be cooking for them. It happens."

Noorzad monitors the families and their adjustment to life in Roanoke throughout their remaining three months of refugee status. He has an official timeline of check-ins: 24 hours, 15 days, 30 days and 90 days.

But he said he sees most of his clients almost daily.

Laura Murphy, a resettlement director at CCC, said refugees go through an intensive and government-mandated cultural orientation course.

As they create a new life, the intricacies and oddities of American society can trip them up.

Noorzad said he didn't know what a credit or debit card was when he first arrived. Learning when to cross the street and how to use the bus was intimidating, he said.

"The first day, they [CCC volunteers] teach them how to ride the bus. The volunteers will actually drive their cars to the client's home and ride the bus with them to teach them how to get here," Murphy said.

Even something as banal as mail can bewilder refugees.

"I receive mail, I open them, it's these forms I've never seen. I get confused. What should I do?" Noorzad said. "We don't have mail in Afghanistan."

Refugees resettled by CWS in Harrisonburg are required to attend one month of cultural orientation classes for two and a half hours a day, three days a week.

Case workers teach refugees how to get their driver's licenses, balance checkbooks, run a household and be good neighbors.

Refugees continue to build their new lives after they finish the mandatory orientation courses. They're occasionally assisted by case workers.

But Hershberger said there are some things his staff cannot teach. No class can help refugees completely overcome the trauma they experienced before coming to the U.S., he said.

Refugees also miss the relatives they left behind.

They can use the internet to communicate with their families, but it's not the same as being able to see them in person or celebrating milestones with them, Noorzad said.

Nargis Noorzad, Samim's wife, said she couldn't go to her sister's recent engagement party. Samim will miss his sister's wedding this summer.