What began as an outreach program to help Vietnamese refugees fleeing their communist home has grown into an organization dedicated to helping people from war-torn countries across the world.
The Arlington Diocese Refugee Services organization celebrated its 30th anniversary last Thursday with a silent auction and dinner at the McLean Hilton and featured talks from two of the thousands of refugees who have received aid and placement assistance throughout Northern Virginia.
"We have worked in partnership with other groups to help settle refugees in our area," said Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Arlington Diocese, the lead agency in the Refugee Services program. "When we first started this, the refugees were mostly from Vietnam and other communist countries. Now we're seeing more and more from Africa and the Middle East."
The goal of the program is to "help people uprooted from their own lands and are deeply lonely and help them find stable homes. This is a place to exercise and provide basic human rights," Loverde said. "This has become the largest refugee settling office in Northern Virginia. We've helped over 16,000 refugees in our 30 years."
THURSDAY'S CELEBRATION was to not only see how far the program has come since it began in 1975 but to "give thanks for all these years and the talent and time provided by our staff and volunteers," he said. "There is still so much work to be done and we hope to involve even more people in that effort."
The Arlington Diocese Refugee Services program helps refugees learn English, secure housing and work, Loverde said, to eventually become self-sufficient members of the community.
"We help them with the transition into the American culture," said Abdirahman Dahir, director of the BTB employment program through Refugee Services. "We help them learn workplace ethics, especially some of the women who have never worked outside the home before. We teach them how to use the skills they already have to find employment."
In many cases, Refugee Services will cosign for an apartment to help a refugee or family of refugees become more settled in their new home, Dahir said. "Eventually many of the refugees we help will become permanent citizens."
Refugee Services will work with a family for up to five years, he said, but most people are independent after about two years.
"We will help in whatever way we are needed," Dahir said. "We connect people to resources, to others from their homeland, we'll help them get their children into schools."
The greatest satisfaction comes from seeing a family, often years later, out in public blending in with the world around them, he said. "From time to time I'll see people on the street that I taught to drive. It's a great feeling."
For Sayoum Berhe, the anniversary was a time to "celebrate the human spirit of survival and kindness. Refugees want freedom, they have the courage to survive in a society where they have no clue where our culture is going."
THE STRUGGLE they face is nothing compared to the feeling of achievement when they've become established members of their new homeland, Berhe said. "It is the children of these refugees who will ultimately reap all the benefits, so this is really about their future," he said.
It is through a network of agencies, including churches, service boards and businesses willing to give the refugees a chance that makes the program successful, he said.
Refugee Services originated in 1975, one year after the Arlington Diocese was created, Bishop Loverde said in his opening address to the ballroom filled with volunteers, staff and guests. It was "through God's grace" that the program has lasted for 30 years, he said.
"When hearts change, lives change. All of us are united here tonight so refugees can be provided a family life and a home, to ensure that basic human rights that we take for granted can be fulfilled," he said.
Only a year after coming to the United States with her son and husband, Awadia Lazarus from the Sudan told those at the dinner, in broken English, her story of struggle and hope.
"I am so happy," she said. "In 2001 my family left Sudan and went to Egypt. I buried my brother there."
In 2002, she met her husband, Francis, with whom she came to live with family in Nebraska a few months later.
"When I first came to America, I couldn't speak English," she said. "It was so hard. You helped me to find a job as a housekeeper and helped me find daycare for my son."
Life has changed for Awadia and her family. "In the U.S. you can have a nice home and a job and a bank account. You can do anything. In Sudan you have to go through your husband, you can't do anything. I am so happy," she said.
THE STORY of Fakhriya Farhadi, a young woman from Afghanistan, is much the same.
"We left because of the Taliban," she began. "After my father died, my mother couldn't support our family. She was scared for herself and for my sisters. We couldn't afford to live there."
The women moved to Pakistan to live with an uncle, but had to make the trip by bus, which was almost impossible for women traveling without a male companion.
"There were 11 of us living in two rooms and it was hot and crowded, especially at night," she said. "We learned to cope with it because we didn't have a choice, but eventually we went to the U.N. to try to come to America."
After three years and her mother becoming very ill, Farhadi and her sisters were able to secure travel to the United States.
"We made friends from Pakistan here and my brother and sisters are now going to high school here," she said. "There are so many opportunities for women to do whatever you want here. In our country, people say you are too old to do things or get an education. In America, there is no limit."