In the winter of 1990, when my family and I took our naturalization tests, my whole body felt nervous. We were Iraqi refugees who had left our native country in 1981, lived in limbo in Greece, and came to the United States in 1985, fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. I still remember witnessing the fiery collision of two planes one afternoon after school. We worried my brothers would be drafted. We had to leave.
My family passed our citizenship tests with flying colors. It was our personal Fourth of July, the moment our freedom and independence became official. Today, as our nation celebrates its Independence amid so much upheaval, I find strength in that moment. I remind myself that uncertainty can yield strength, resourcefulness and generosity. As individuals and as a nation, we are resilient.
I’m the founder of St. Rita Family Services Inc., and St. Rita Hands of Hope , social service providers for low-income refugees and immigrants across Michigan. One of our programs focuses on pregnant women and infants. We teach safe sleep and other parenting tools, help new mothers find secure housing and guide them toward resources. Doing all of this via telehealth — in Arabic and Chaldean — has been vital during Covid-19.
As every public health worker knows, we will not stop this disease unless all people, no matter who they are or where they were born, have access to fact-based information. Our clients are eager to cooperate once I explain how frequent hand washing, mask- wearing and social distancing can protect them and their neighbors.
Their response represents the refugee worldview. The pandemic is not our first crisis. We’ve lived through violence, famine and unrest; we understand that survival depends on prioritizing safety and protecting one another.
All along my journey, this has been true. Even after we were resettled here, we grappled with a new language and culture shock. Still, I received my master’s in clinical social work while working at local hospitals and raising a beautiful daughter as a single mom. I am specialized and certified through Harvard Medical School’s Trauma and Recovery program. In 2014, when ISIS displaced thousands of people in Northern Iraq, I, along with local priest Father Aram Romeel Qia, established New Hope Trauma Center of Iraq in Alqosh and Telesqoof, a mental health program.
I love contributing to the country that gave me shelter. But in light of this, and the amazing refugees I meet daily, I’m troubled by our leaders’ anti-refugee xenophobia.
Refugees give so much. They pay $77 billion in taxes and, despite humble beginnings, are upwardly mobile, making an average $67,000 a year after 25 years in the country, according to New American Economy.
My family proves this point. My brothers are all electrical engineers at automotive companies. And as an entrepreneur, I represent the 13% of refugees who own their own businesses — a proportion greater than both native-born Americans and other immigrants, according to NAE. Roughly 176,000 refugees also work in U.S. healthcare, including three friends who are fighting COVID-19 as emergency room doctors.
Independence Day means so much to refugees. American freedom has allowed us to give back to this country by learning new skills, starting businesses and creating jobs. It’s literally what saved our lives. This holiday, I urge our leaders to think of all this when they think of refugees. We draw so much strength from recognizing each other’s humanity. It’s how we’re going to survive this pandemic and thrive as a country.
By: Jihan Daman