A Warm Reception for Refugees

At a celebration of World Refugee Day in June, staff members and clients mingled at the office of the International Rescue Committee in Silver Spring. At left is case manager Kristin Rhondeau.
At a celebration of World Refugee Day in June, staff members and clients mingled at the office of the International Rescue Committee in Silver Spring. At left is case manager Kristin Rhondeau. (Photos Courtesy Of International Rescue Committee)
By Julie Rasicot
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Whenever Ahmed Maalim sits down with a newly arrived refugee at the Suburban Washington Resettlement Center in Silver Spring, he follows the same routine.

"First thing I tell them is my own experience," said Maalim, an employment training coordinator and a native of Somalia, who fled his country's civil war and spent years in refugee camps before resettling in Prince George's County with his wife and five children.

"You have to take any job. This transition is very difficult," said the former teacher and diplomat in his homeland. "Look, you have to start somewhere -- get a job, get some money, get a car."

And that's where the resettlement center comes in. The center, in an office building on Georgia Avenue, houses several agencies that offer programs to help refugees and people who have been granted asylum establish independent lives here.

Opened in August 2006, the center is a partnership of the International Rescue Committee, the Maryland Office for New Americans, the social services departments of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and the refugee resettlement and employment services of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area.

Putting the various agencies in one center to provide help with housing, finances, job placement and other support services is a "revolutionary idea" that has eased the stress and difficulty of resettlement, said Martin Ford, deputy director of the state Office for New Americans.

"Essentially, we help them to rebuild their lives," he said.

Before the center opened, refugees and people granted asylum would have to travel from agency to agency to get the assistance they needed, said Vu Dang, regional director for the International Rescue Committee, a global emergency relief and resettlement network, which has resettled more than 20,000 refugees in the area since 1975.

"The whole point of having a center in one place is that it really becomes a one-stop shop," he said.

Dang noted that the agencies provide a center of reference for refugees who arrive with none of the documentation needed to work or rent in this country.

"You can imagine, if you're a property owner, you're going to give an apartment to someone who has no credit rating, no Social Security number?," he said. "It's a leap of faith."

Since its opening, the center has resettled 133 individuals, and there's been "not one single eviction," Dang said. Many of the clients attended a celebration of World Refugee Day at the center in late June, where they ate sandwiches and salads and chatted with staff members.

In addition to showcasing its programs, the center celebrated World Refugee Day "to focus global attention not only on the plight of refugees and the causes of their exile, but also on their determination and will to survive and on the contributions they make to their new communities in the United States," according to Myat Htun Lin, a case manager with the International Rescue Committee.

Unlike immigrants, refugees are brought to the country under the sponsorship of an aid agency and are eligible for federal benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid, center officials said. About 70,000 arrive each year, many coming from Burma, Ethiopia, Burundi, Afghanistan and African countries. Refugees are usually fleeing threats to their safety in their homeland.

The center is expecting about 60 refugees to arrive in September, said Dang, who left Vietnam as a refugee when he was a young child.

Zainabu Sangarie, 69, of Germantown, who attended the celebration, described the horrors she had witnessed before escaping to the United States in 2001 from Sierra Leone. The atrocities and bloodshed committed by teenage boy soldiers in the 2006 movie "Blood Diamond" were accurate depictions of what she and her family and friends experienced, she said.

"I love to come here because I know I'll be safe here," said Sangarie, who has nine children, five of whom live in the United States.

Among the center staff members are a number of former refugees, like Maalim, who use their personal experience to help new arrivals. Rachel Mogga of Rockville, a refugee from Sudan, is a program specialist for the International Rescue Committee. Since arriving 13 years ago with her young daughter, Mogga has become a U.S. citizen, and her daughter has graduated from college.

Mogga said she has hopes for her clients at the center. "I want them to get the dream of being in a place of freedom, where they have the right to speak out, the right to vote, where they have peace and tranquility," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company