What’s It Like to be a Refugee in Lowell?

This is the second in a series of posts exploring immigrants and refugees in Lowell.

As Chris and I have been exploring, Lowell’s decision to be open to refugee resettlement raises tough questions. Do the financial benefits outweigh the costs of social services? Does it benefit or stress Lowell to have these waves of new folks with different cultural backgrounds and heavy emotional baggage join our communities? Chris did an amazing post analyzing the research that’s been done on these tough questions. But let’s look at maybe the most important perspective of all: what is it like to come to Lowell as a refugee, and how might they answer the questions some raise?

We spoke with Farouk Ali and his daughter Rafal, who came to Lowell in 2010 from Iraq. Farouk and Rafal are warm, joyful people, and we felt fortunate to be able to speak with them and learn their story. They, along with the rest of their nuclear family, fled Iraq for Syria after getting death threats and losing family members in the war. How many family members? 23. That is not a typo. Twenty-three. They were in Syria for four years applying for refugee status and waiting to hear what country might accept them.

The family originally hoped that they would be able to relocate to Lichtenstein, where Farouk could use his fluent German. But after more than a year of waiting, they decided to consider another option: Lowell. This part of their story makes me angry on their behalf. Image being fluent in German, and the frustration of learning that no German-speaking country was open to you. That instead of even that small head start on a new life, you’d have to learn another language.

We asked Farouk and Rafal what they knew about Lowell before coming here. “When they proposed Lowell, Massachusetts, we checked on the Wikipedia.” They saw that Massachusetts was a prosperous state, and they hoped that meant it might be easy to find a job. The reality wasn’t so simple, of course. Adjustment was a process, and arriving in 2010, in the midst of that economic downturn, was a stroke of bad luck. In Iraq, Farouk had college level degrees in Mathematics and German, and worked building databases in the Ministry of Oil. Here, it took time to find something that was a good fit, but he now works helping several nonprofit organizations to do outreach and translation for Iraqi families.

The family had to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a new life. We asked them what helped them get adjusted. Farouk had a quick response: “The main help was the International Institute of Lowell. Without them, it would have been very difficult or impossible to adapt to our new surroundings. They provide us with a house, furniture, other necessary items, for free.”

The International Institute helped in other ways too: there’s a lot of paperwork new arrivals have to do, and you can imagine how difficult that might be with a language and cultural learning curve. Slowly, they got adjusted to their new lives. Rafal started school at Lowell High. Farouk remembered, “When everything was finished, and I said, ‘Okay I am going, to leave,’ she cried. She said ‘How can I communicate with the other students?'”

Rafal continued the story, “I was crying, I was like, ‘Just let me stay home, I will cook for you, I will clean the house!’ I just wanted for him to let me stay home because it was like a difficult feeling, you know? You don’t know the school, you don’t know the people. They just put you in the school, and then here you go! That’s your school, and then you have to learn and all that, and it was kind of difficult for me. Especially like the first few months.”

Farouk: “I said, ‘Are you speaking in English with them?’ And she said just one word, ‘Hi.’ ‘Hi! Hi! Hi!'”

Rafal: “Yeah, like I didn’t have friends, I was just like, ‘Hi!’ and then they’d ‘hi’ back. That’s all!”

It’s hard to imagine being a young teenager and having to deal with so many things at once, but Rafal must have found a way, because the young woman we met was confident and seemed ready to take on the world. She just graduated from Lowell High, and now she’s on to college, first to Middlesex and then transferring onward. She’s considering double majoring in Dental Hygiene and Business Administration. She won a statewide competition for high schoolers presenting business plans, and October, she went on to nationals in California. She even works at that most Massachusetts of institutions, Dunkin’ Donuts.

I asked if Lowell felt like home, if they thought they would continue to live here. Rafal thinks she will stay in Lowell. Farouk agrees: “For me, it’s a perfect place to live. A fantastic place. ”

Chris and I wondered what they expected when they came to America, and whether they found Americans friendly and welcoming.

Farouk: “We had the wrong image about American society. We were thinking that Americans are chain-smokers, reckless drivers, violent. But we found, no. The American people are quite lovely and helpful, and they provide us with whatever we needed, actually. A peaceful people as well…

“We find that American Society people are more aggressive to get in touch with you. Our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and so on. So they try to approach us, to make friends with us, and so on. So we didn’t find any problem. We use the bus, I found that Americans are all talking without knowing another one.”

I was really happy to hear that they had found Lowell to be a welcoming place. I wondered how they would respond to the question at the heart of this series of posts Chris and I are doing: Why should Lowell take in refugees?

Farouk responded, “…I feel like all the Americans society are immigrants. It’s something different from Iraq. We have a civilization or history that goes back to 7,000, 9,000 years, but the history here in America is not more than 300. So I consider that all the society is from immigrants, but the difference is that you came 10 or 20 years before me. All of us are immigrants, so we don’t feel like we are strangers here… There is admirable harmony in dealing between society, between the immigrants. No conflict whatsoever, which is good.”

What a lovely vision of Lowell, and of America. I felt energized just speaking with them about their story. To me, abstract questions about the economics of immigrants and refugees disappear in an instant when you hear a story like theirs.

Does Lowell have a moral obligation to take in refugees? I would say not only does it have the obligation, it has the privilege. Refugees may require extra help as they start over, but they have so much to offer our community. Besides, becoming a home for new Americans is one of Lowell’s defining characteristics and most important traditions. What would Lowell be without the generations of immigrants and refugees that literally built the city and dug the canals? East Chelmsford. And pretty boring, I would imagine. No offense, Chelmsford!

In the next post in our series on refugees in the community, we visit the International Institute, and learn more about how they help welcome new Lowellians like Farouk and Rafal.

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2 thoughts on “What’s It Like to be a Refugee in Lowell?

  1. While it was a while ago, after WWII Germany (all the Zones) accepted over 6 million German speaking refugees, expelled from various nations East of the new, smaller, German Borders.  Then there is the absorption of all those Guest Workers (Gastarbeiter) from the 1960s and 70s.

    And Germany has worked to change its view of citizenship, from one based on ancestors to one based on where you are born (as it is in the United States).  I would think this would be a big deal for Germans.

    But, yes, we should provide refuge, especially for those who have endangered themselves by working for the US Gov’t in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.  State (DOS) has been painfully slow about this.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  2. Pingback: How Lowell Welcomes Refugees: The International Institute | Learning Lowell

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