“I am confident now. I found myself here,” Sawsan, an Iraqi refugee single mother with three kids, says one year after she arrived in the United States.
When she first married her husband, the owner of a successful construction company, their home and family in Baghdad were her whole life. But her husband began to receive threats after taking on contracts for the U.S. military. Their nephew was kidnapped and held for ransom. “We were very worried for our children’s safety,” she explains.
They left Iraq for Jordan where they planned to set up a new home while her husband commuted to Baghdad to support the family. He called home every day when he was away so when she didn’t hear from him for two days, Sawsan knew something was wrong.
He’d been fatally shot.
Left alone to care for the children, unable to find work in Amman, and unable to go back home, Sawsan felt hopeless. She applied for refugee status to go to the United States, hoping there would be more opportunities there. “All I could think was my children would be able to go to school, and I would find a job. We would resettle and have a happy life.”
Sawsan was approved under the Preferred Communities Program, a result of the Lautenberg Amendment, which Congress first passed in 1990 to facilitate resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union out of humanitarian concern. The amendment was expanded in 2004 and now includes other religious minorities as well as Iraqis, like Sawsan’s family, who are targeted for their associations with U.S. troops.
For most people, arriving in the U.S. is just the beginning of new challenges.
Sawsan, like most of the women in this program, didn’t have U.S. ties and was entirely reliant on the resettlement agencies. “At first it was extremely difficult for me here,” Sawsan recalls. “But I reached a point when I realized I would have to face the challenge. Sitting at home receiving money from the government is not my way.”
In addition to a support network and cultural orientation, HIAS’ local partners provide newly arrived refugees with referrals to English-language training, health services, schools, child care, and other necessary services.
Most important for Sawsan, the program offered invaluable motivation. “The first days I was here, I was thinking about giving up because it was too much for me to handle alone -- three kids, no father, a new society, a new culture, working for the first time," Sawsan says. But day by day I got stronger and stronger,” she says.
Soon, she found her first-ever job -- in the food-preparation industry, working full time, and supporting her family. “When I close my eyes," she says, "in five years I see my kids attending university, getting their degrees, and striving for their goals.
Now I believe in myself much more than before, and I am proud of myself. I am happy I came here.”