Refugees Build an American Life
Central Virginia has become a second home for hundreds of refugee families resettled here after being forced to flee their home countries because of war or political unrest. NBC29 is beginning a decade-long project looking at the evolution of three families from around the globe as they build their American life.
There are millions of displaced people in the world; families forced to run by war, political persecution, or ethnic cleansing. Sometimes they flee to a refugee camp, sometimes to a nearby country where their legal status is in limbo. That is where the International Rescue Committee (IRC) comes in. Harriet Kuhr is the director of the Charlottesville office of the IRC.
"People are only able to come as refugees if there is no way for them to stay in their home country," Kuhr explained.
Only a fraction of refugees have a chance to rebuild their lives as legal residents.
"This is the only solution for them to have safe lives for themselves and their families," she said. "We are like your quick-start guide to starting your life in America."
There are offices all over the world, 22 in America. The IRC provides families a place to live, and helps get kids enrolled in school.
"Most important thing is getting someone in the family employed so they can be self sufficient," said Kuhr.
Since 1998, about 2,000 families have been resettled in the Charlottesville area, families including the Bwisezes from Tanzania, the al Malhams from Iraq, and the Bhandaris from Nepal.
Bwiseze Bahane is a pastor and his family used to sing in a choir together. They practice together now, grateful they made it out of a desperate situation.
"Since they've come here they feel like there is more stability everything is very different they are starting to get used to this place," said Bahane through a translator.
Chhabi Bhandari says life in America is different but he feels a freedom here he has not experienced in a long time.
"The hardest thing is English," said Bhandari. "Here if I want I can get a chance to study if I want I can do everything here."
Afrah al Malham is in America with her children.
"Because of school they are adjusting so fast," she said. "They are getting the language so good, they interact with other children so good, they like it."
Getting kids enrolled in school in their new community is a top priority for the IRC and it makes a huge difference in helping children get to know a new culture and a new language.
"We have some kids who have schooling but when families flee it is lost or a situation when been living in refugee camp there is school in the camp but they are usually overloaded," she said.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important lessons but students have to tackle the English language first. Adnan al Malham is in 6th-grade.
"In Baghdad they didn't teach us a lot of English," he said.
But he is learning English now and his mom says he gets good grades. He is also part of an all American tradition; he is on a swim team.
"I was nervous first because I thought I couldn't swim," he said. "Then they teach me and now I can swim."
Samuel Bwiseze is a 6th-grader at Jack Jouett Middle School in Albemarle County, plays the guitar and takes school very seriously.
"I feel good because in my country we didn't speak English or learn English but here we have to know," he said. "I like to do my homework, I don't like to play too much outside."
Thanks in part to the IRC's presence in central Virginia for more than 10 years, many resettled students go to the same school. Rabina Bhandari is a 5th-grader at Walker Upper Elementary in Charlottesville and is in class with one other girl who is also from Nepal.
"It's good for me because I can speak Nepali to them," she said.
Even if students do not speak the same language, just sharing a conversation in English is a good experience.
"We learn English and no body laughs at each other," explained Bwiseze.
"We do a lot of speaking, listening, sharing, writing, practicing using English," said Catherine Gray, an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher at Jack Jouett. "I feel like you have to be motivated to do well in school but especially for ESOL students who have even more to overcome."
But with the right support, students are making progress, one lesson at a time.
"I feel so happy," said Bwiseze "I promise I'm going to teach my mommy."
Families growing together with new found safety and freedom, living their American life one day at a time.
If you would like to find out more about what the International Rescue Committee does, click here.