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Accents: Kabul to Cleveland

Friday, December 6, 2002 at 1:36 PM

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Every year Greater Cleveland absorbs thousands of new immigrants. Some come for economic opportunity. Others come because they have nowhere else to turn. Over the years, Cleveland Catholic Charities' Migrant and Refugee assistance program has resettled people from the Balkans, southeast Asia, and Africa. This year, the agency broke new ground by welcoming a handful of families from Afghanistan. This morning, we revisit their experience, with a story heard here first in August as ideastream's Accents series continues. While the Refugee assistance program has roots in Northeast Ohio's storied immigrant tradition, ideastream's April Baer reports, it's now paving the way for a different crop of newcomers.

April Baer: Fatima Faizi has had to hit the ground running. Just weeks after arriving in the U.S - before she’d even begun learning English-she began work as a housekeeper at Cleveland’s Hilton Garden Inn.

Since Fatimah lost her husband to the Taliban, she’s gone through a lot to keep her five kids together. She joined tens of thousands of other Afghanis in a refugee camp in Pakistan, scraping by under dehumanizing conditions. She worked her way through extensive bureaucracy until her family was approved for permanent resettlement in the U.S. Now, she’s here, making beds and tidying up.

Fatimah Faizi: Sixty rooms.

AB: Today?

FF: Today.

AB: Not that Fatimah’s complaining. For so many other people she knew, the chance to work - or even lead a life safe from gunfire - was never a possibility.

FF: Here, no problem! Good. I come to work, good. It’s good, work, good, my children, good! My problem? Car. Small car.

AB: Fatimah’s life is quite different than that of her predecessors. Eighty years ago, when Cleveland was booming, people running from war were funneled into factory work, and small homes in the central city. They crowded into synagogues and spired churches. She probably wouldn’t recognize their eastern European dialects, but she probably could relate to their struggle - the one every immigrant has to face: trying to fit in. The Faizi family, including the five children and Fatimah’s elderly father-in-law, are living in a plain but neatly-kept apartment, obtained through Catholic Charities.

Everything is different here, from the beds the Afghanis sleep in to the food they eat. But the families are finding ways to feel at home. They’ve discovered the abundance of Middle Eastern grocery stores that have sprouted on Cleveland’s near west side, in response to an influx of new immigrants. They attend services at local mosques. One of the girls has made friends with a Saudi Arabian she met at school - happy to find someone speaking a familiar language.

With a proud smile, 11-year-old Tamanna Faizi shows off the small room she shares with her sister. The walls are bare, beds draped with plain white sheets. But Tamanna doesn’t mind. She has big plans involving the aging computer sitting in the corner. It’s not running - not yet.

Tamanna Faizi: I want to do computers. I want to help the other people in Afghanistan. They have no home, they don’t have anything. When I grow up I want to help the other peoples. Because they are also like us. When I was in Afghanistan, I had a lot of problems. My father is die now. And a lot of people also there have fathers and mothers are die. My neighbor in Afghanistan, her mother and her father die. She didn’t have any relatives. When she is so like crying every day.

AB: The 27 Afghan refugees who arrived in Cleveland this year were selected by the United Nations, by virtue of their desparate situations. They’ve lost homes, family members, and are compeltely without prospects for self-support in their home countries. A desire to contribute, in some way, is common among them.

Habiba Nouri: We want to be educated, and to be something, to do something.

AB: 17-year-old Habiba Nouri, her two sisters, and their elderly parents took refuge in Pakistan, another temporary haven for thousands of Afghans. The women in the family have traded in their solemn burqas, but still cover up, with simple headscarves, and flowing skirts and blouses, all second hand. They’ve come a long way since the days when Habiba says her older sister had only one ironic way to make a living.

HN: She was tailoring… sewing the burqas (laughs).

AB: The Nouri family, and others, will soon find they have all the work they can handle. The minute refugees’ feet touch American soil, they simultaneously shoulder a debt for the cost of their passage. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees loans money to newcomers to cover airfare, but expects to be paid back. A family of seven, like Fatimah Faizi’s, might owe as much as $6,000 before paychecks even begin to arrive. Refugees who settle here permanently are eligible for some kinds of welfare, but are under a shorter time frame. Catholic Charities encourages its clients to avoid the welfare system altogether, and provides an alternate system of cash benefits.

Zahid Siddiqi, a U.S. citizen who came from Pakistan over thirty years ago, says today’s refugee faces a tough situation - certainly tougher than the one he faced, as an educated man with a work visa. But Siddiqi says there are people waiting to help the new generation of refugees. The local Muslim Community has been helping the Afghani newcomers settle in - translating from Dari and Pashtun, driving the families back and forth to prayer services, spending time with the children, and donating money and housewares.

Zahid Siddiqi: The value is great because… the Muslims over here need friends. Catholic Charities has an infrastructure already established, with social workers. They know what needs to be done to help people.

AB: The local social service network was created at a time when most immigrant refugees came from European backgrounds. Siddiqi says the experimental relationship between his mosque and Catholic Charities is a response to the arrival of new populations.

ZS: So if this thing ever takes off, then the Muslim Community over here could benefit greatly from the systems set up, and Catholic Charities need our help in doing their good work.

AB: Much of that work is on hold, for the time being. The U.S. has committed to allow 70,000 refugees to resettle this year. However, since the September 11th attacks, heightened security has put a stranglehold on refugees. Local refugee admissions have dropped to their lowest levels since the refugee assistance program was founded. In Cleveland, I’m April Baer, 90.3.

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