To breathe free

Le Moyne sponsors Iraqi refugee resettlement talk

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

The man with closely cropped, silvering hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and a thick cream sweater shuffled some of the papers in front of him, looked up at those gathered on the Le Moyne College campus, and began by thanking the American people.

And then in impeccable English, Samer Shawqi, a banker from Baghdad, told those gathered of seeing people gunned down in the street, of homes where the doors were padlocked at three in the afternoon, of kidnappings, violent attacks and a life of constant fear.

But Shawqi and his wife left that behind when they moved from Iraq to Syracuse about two months ago. They were helped by the Northside CYO, a neighborhood center of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County.

Shawqi appeared in the Panasci Family Chapel at Le Moyne as part of the college’s “Welcoming the Stranger” series of talks. He was joined by Felicia Castricone, director of the Northside CYO, and Catherine Garrone, a senior at Le Moyne College who has worked at the CYO helping refugee children.

The three took part in a conversation on Oct. 21 about the experiences of Iraqi refugees who have resettled in the Syracuse area.

Castricone said that 10 years ago, her organization resettled mostly Vietnamese families. Those families have since gotten jobs, established themselves in communities and moved to the suburbs.

Now the Northside CYO is seeing different populations and having to deal with different languages, cultures, customs and levels of education. Refugees are now Bhutanese, Burmese, Iraqi, Somali, Burundi and Congolese.

“The experience is really different across the population but for everyone it’s really kind of a shock coming here,” Castricone said.

Some of these refugees have never lived in an urban environment, Castricone said. Some may never have seen traffic, stoves or elevators. “We have refugees, for instance, who have never even climbed stairs.”

Castricone said that the Northside CYO learns of the arrival of new refugees from one to six weeks before they arrive. In that time, the team needs to find apartments, furnish them with everything from soap to furniture, and arrange for English language classes for adults and schools for children.

She said that while schools are usually eager to include refugee children, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has brought with it concern over how the children will affect the schools’ results. “Refugee kids have to take these English language tests after one year and schools’ test scores drop,” Castricone said.

Then there is the jungle of social services and health care bureaucracy to help the refugees navigate. Often when refugees first arrive, they suffer with undiagnosed illnesses or malnourishment. Case managers spend hours on end waiting with refugees in emergency rooms until primary care physicians can be assigned.

Castricone said that when she started, there were about 75 refugees a year who needed to be resettled. Now, her staff of four or five case managers, along with a handful of volunteers, deals with approximately 600 refugees arriving in the Syracuse area each year.

The success of the Northside CYO resettlement program is judged in large part by the percentage of refugees that are employed within four and a half months of arrival. For the last two years, that percentage was at 90 percent. “Unfortunately, with today’s economy, that has dropped significantly. Americans can’t find work and neither can we,” Castricone said.

Shawqi said he searches the Internet daily for jobs. “I didn’t find much out there,” he said. Although he had earned a high position at the bank where he worked in Jordan, his qualifications don’t transfer to this country. He has decided to apply for lower positions in banks with the hope of just getting a foot in the door.

Another significant challenge faced by the Northside CYO has been the increased need for mental health services. “A lot of the refugees are coming from situations in which there was torture, from situations where they saw a lot of violence,” Castricone said.

This was an experience that Shawqi said he faced.

“Walking in the streets of Iraq is like being on the front-lines of a war,” Shawqi said. “A person would be killed for just passing through the wrong area.”

“We left Iraq when kidnapping for ransom became a common thing,” Shawqi said, “when my father-in-law couldn’t visit his daughter anymore because she lived in a Sunni neighborhood.”

Then there came the even more terrifying moment when, he said, “finding a dead body or witnessing a murder was not as bad as it was.”

He said he believed the sectarian violence in his country arose from the need for security. “The average, simple-minded person, when he lacks security he reaches to a community for security. So they reach to their sect or their family or whatever,” Shawqi said. “They find someone to hold them and get them into groups where they find security. Hopefullly, when Iraq will gain security again they’ll reach their stability.”

But for Shawqi and his wife, they have found that security in their new home.

“We now feel safe,” Shawqi said. “Thank God we are not illegal aliens anymore.”

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