Transitioning to a new community
*Names have been altered to protect anonymity.
If I stay in Iraq, they will kill me.”
This was the thought that remained permeated in Sam’s* mind as he continued to live in his home country of Iraq. Stay, and be killed, or flee.
The root of Sam’s decision stemmed from the unrest following the Iraqi insurgency beginning with the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sam began working for the U.S. Army in 2003, and would continue for the next five years. However, tensions as well as resistance to the U.S. occupation escalated, leading to the formation of the Sunni and Shiite militia. A threat had emerged, threatening Sam’s very life and the lives of his friends and family. Sam’s position working with the U.S. military only served to exacerbate this threat.
“Just in our area, in our city, in Iraq, anyone who worked with the U.S. army, must quit his job or he will get killed,” he said.
A sense of fear and heightened worry began to fester, and Sam moved from the capital city of Baghdad to the city of Al-Kut, nearly 100 miles away. Six months later, Sam moved back to Baghdad. However, the threat was still ever-present.
“We still have a threat from this, and they sent us message because they told us we have to quit, and we quit after that but we still so worried and we scared because you know, you don’t have a safe in your house or when you go for any place,” he said. “Because any time, maybe they will kill you.”
During this time of heightened fear and worry, the Sunni and Shiite militia continued to kill civilians, including 12 of Sam’s friends.
In 2006, the country saw a civil-militia war between the Sunni and the Shiite, this all occurring along with the ongoing war and resistance with the U.S. military occupation in Iraq. Yet Sam continued his work with the military amidst threats from the civilian militia to quit his job.
“They think about us people as enemies,” he said. “But you know we just want help our people because they need to live better and they need some service for the cities, so we did that for our people.”
With rising violence, Sam quit his job in 2009, and began the process of coming to the U.S. in 2011. Out of a family of seven brothers, three, including Sam, were given the ability to transfer to the U.S. Two of Sam’s other brothers made a similar decision: the oldest arrived in the U.S. in 2013, followed by the middle brother in 2014.
Sam and his wife arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2015.
He settled in Ithaca, reuniting with one of his brothers and began his transition into U.S. society. Sam said his brother helped him with social security as well as the search for a place to live. Sam and his wife were eventually able to find temporary housing in a refugee house in Ithaca.
The couple also looked to the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services to help them with their English. The couple takes English classes at the First Presbyterian Church every morning from 9 a.m to 3 p.m. Julie Coulombe, a coordinator for the Adult English as a Second Language classes at BOCES, works with many refugees and immigrants in the area.
“We are the education piece so when people need to study English or they need to study for their high school diploma, we are the place where the refugees and immigrants get the education piece,” she said.
Along with the ESL and BOCES program, two other programs in the Ithaca area provide various services to refugees and immigrants in the area. Tompkins Learning Partners provides volunteers to help adults and young people improve upon particular skills, such as computer literacy, English or even getting a driver’s license. The next organization, the Immigrant Services Program, assists immigrants and refugees with legal issues, such as applications for social services.
Sue Chaffee, program director for the Immigrant Services Program, said ISP serves immigrants and refugees in the Ithaca area by providing legal immigration services and job development. Chaffee said ISP also works in collaboration with the adult BOCES program by offering grants to students to attend ESL classes. She said one of the biggest challenges refugees face when they move into a different country is the language barrier.
“A lot of times people don’t wanna leave their home country and they left under very traumatic circumstances,” she said. “So it’s that whole adjusting to a different culture, a different language in most cases.”
As Sam continues to improve his English and settle into Ithaca, his plan is to continue to pursue his dream of learning more about the study of aquaponics.
The atmosphere in Iraq was one which cultivated fear, anxiety and impacted the very freedom to go about one’s daily activities. It was this dangerous environment that fueled Sam’s move to the U.S. After a month of living in Ithaca, one thing Sam recognizes is how this greater amount of freedom has impacted his life.
“We come here we can do anything — we feel free our planning for the future and to study or to work,” he said. “I think it’s changed my life.”
Celisa Calacal is a sophomore journalism with an interest in human interest. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.