Finally arriving in the U.S. after a long and challenging process, 243 refugees have settled in the Tukwila area where rent is most affordable. As they do every Saturday, toddlers to grandparents gather in a community room in the modest apartment complex in where many Syrian refugees live after arriving in the U.S. The adults learn English and practice conversation, attend a class in first aid or how to fill out forms, while the children participate in art therapy and yoga classes. A dozen folks from Congregation Kol Ami and Bear Creek United Methodist Church Interfaith Partnership recently visited the center to meet the families and learn their stories.
Rita Zawaideh talks with knowledge and concern about the 243 Syrian refugees she is helping to resettle in the Puget Sound area. She started the center as part of a program to help families adjust to life in the US and become self-supporting.
“When I visit the refugees here in Wash., families rent a small apartment and they get donated furniture and other items, but they make sure to tell me that this is not them” said Zawaideh. “They had a nice house and a business that was theirs, or maybe they worked for someone, but they had a good life. They had no choice but to leave - flee their country” she added.
Zawaideh is the founder and CEO of SCM Medical Missions, a registered non-profit organization focused on bringing relief and aid to people affected by conflict and natural disaster, both here in Washington and in the Middle East.
She spoke to the Woodinville group gathered in the community room, as children noisily learned Arabic at the next table. She explained that the families don’t want their kids to lose their first language, while their parents are working hard to learn English.
“Some women have lost their husbands and have suddenly become heads of households, and not knowing much English they must now find a way to provide for their families. Some have newborn babies or their children need medical procedures, but they don’t know how to navigate the medical system here. Women have experienced harassment and bullying and are afraid to ride public transportation,” Zawaideh said.
Through donations, SCM runs the weekly center, provides gift cards for food, rental assistance in emergencies, clothing, shoes, and school supplies. They also assist families with trauma support, medical expenses, help to find a job, and other immediate needs.
“They are trying to save money to file for resettlement, to move to a normal place and have normal lives for themselves and their children. They managed to escape the bombs and constant warfare, but in the camps in Jordan and in Lebanon they do not even have the bare minimum they need to live a dignified life. Many are still living in tents and lack electricity and running water. Over half the children are not going to school since they need to help the family, so they are working in the streets at a very early age. They are living on the margin and have little chance of getting anywhere in life.”
SCM provides desperately needed volunteer medical staff in the camps with support programs like basic infant care and education for children that help to restore a sense of normalcy after experiencing the horrors of war. Their goal is to help restore dignity to those who have lost everything, treating each person as an individual with a history and hopes for the future.
For the lucky few who, after years of vetting and background checks are accepted as refugees into the U.S., families must repay their airline tickets, an expense that saddles the family with an enormous debt immediately upon arrival. After three months, their sponsoring agency discontinues assistance and the refugees are expected to make it on their own.
Zawaideh said “The refugees that we deal with are resilient and hardworking; they are trying to make it in this world. The ones that get to the U.S. are learning English, both adults and children. The adults are going to school and learning new careers, the women are using their skills teaching, or cooking and selling their products.“
A young woman spoke up, “I have five children. My husband got a job finally this week. I loved to cook for family and friends in Syria but had no training. I was just offered to help cater for 125 people! I can use my love for cooking Middle Eastern food to help us with our expenses.”
After speaking to the families, the Woodinville group understood what a monumental task the refugees face to learn a new language, find a job, and support a family after only three months in a new country. One of the biggest challenges is for the women to feel comfortable interacting with other people here, and to empower them to earn money for their family.
There are two upcoming events in Woodinville where you can help and purchase some delicious homemade delicacies.
December 3rd at 10:30 a.m. – Bear Creek United Methodist Church
December 16th at 10:30 a.m. – Congregation Kol Ami
December 16th at 10:30 a.m. – Congregation Kol Ami
For more info call 425-788-2953.