by Wasan Abu-Baker
I was born and raised in Palestine. I was brought up in a highly educated household with a father who was politically active and outspoken for the civil rights of Palestinians through non-violent action. This upbringing, faith, family, and friends have instilled in me a desire to motivate others to do well and to advance their opportunities.
My exposure to diversity at a young age has also driven me to seek understanding and communication with the different members of society. A Bachelors in Medical Technology and Masters in Childhood Special Education have given me the tools necessary to approach the technical and humanitarian side of all issues. These skills have allowed me to use science and art to design programs to build understanding and communication between people of all ages and backgrounds. I have worked as a volunteer at area elementary schools, board member of MyDeen Center and the Central Valley Islamic Council, and have worked with various charitable efforts in the Fresno area to build support and understanding of the most vulnerable segments of our society.
My most recent contribution has been to support and seek justice for Syrian Refugees escaping their war-torn nation. I would like to further lend my support to the community by advancing my academic accomplishments and pursuing a Doctorate in Counseling and hope to publish on the suffering of women and children in the world.
Guided by my experiences as an immigrant, I have been helping the Syrians adjust to life here in Fresno. Prior to arriving in Fresno, my story with the Syrians started in New York where other active friends from the community and I started to collect monetary donations, clothes, and medical supplies to send to host countries in the Middle East to help the Syrian families. At the beginning this was a very simple effort, however, within a year the community activists had created a Facebook network to exponentially increase their efforts. When I moved to Fresno in 2014, I was engaged in community work as a Weekend School teacher at MyDeen, active board member at MyDeen, and most recently as a member of CVIC (Central Valley Islamic Council) which consists of leaders from all the Islamic centers in the Central Valley.
My work with the Syrian community in Fresno began when I met Iman Akroum as a friend. Iman and her family had been in the US since their visa expired approximately four years ago and had submitted a request to seek asylum in this country for fear of returning to Syria. Asylum has, to this day, not been granted for Iman and her family. As our relationships grew stronger, Iman asked me for help. The Muslim community mobilized to assist Iman and her family in getting the resources needed to secure a living in Fresno. This involvement with Iman and her family revealed a great need for new refugees and asylum seekers in the Central Valley. I wanted to do more and pursued an 18-month fellowship with the American Friends Service Committee, Pan Valley Institute. The fellowship focused on mentorship of leaders in their communities in order to build bridges and understanding to serve new Americans in the Central Valley. I took this opportunity to build relationships between my community and other communities, organizations, and foundations.
Late in 2016, Fresno welcomed a number of Syrian refugee families who had been initially settled in Turlock through the International Rescue Committee (IRC), but they requested to be moved to Fresno because they had heard about the large Muslim and Arab community and wanted to be more connected with those who shared the same culture, faith, language, and history. Other Syrian families also moved from San Diego and Los Angeles for the community, but also due to the high cost of living in those cities. Grassroots efforts were established to help the families resettle gradually. The community, as a whole, mobilized to help with finding housing, furnishing apartments, enrolling the children in schools, connecting the family with healthcare institutions with the help of Clinica Sierra Vista. According to Fresno Unified School District, huge efforts were made to hire Arabic interprets and tutors to help kids adapt to their new environment.
On their journey, these families have withstood a lot of trauma while trying to protect their young kids. They have faced mental health issue, behavioral and education challenges with their children, and separation anxiety. Leaving their homes in Syria is not something they can forget and staying in refugee camps in the host countries—Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt—wasn’t easy for them and has affected the families.
I am a volunteer and advocate for refugees in Fresno and work hours more than equivalent to a full time job. As a board member and outreach committee member of the MyDeen Center, I organize cultural events and guest speakers. In my work with the refugee families, I work to integrate them and help them to obtain basic services.
I loved the opportunity to help people in great need for the sake of God, and I believe that when people do good, it opens the door for so many wonderful things. In order to raise awareness and look for services and resources in the community, many meetings took place to gather all of the community leaders and professionals for a variety of backgrounds. Cultural gatherings have also been arranged to introduce the new families to their new neighbors. I have made an effort to let the wider community know about the challenges that our new neighbors are facing through invited presentations and by working with local faith-based and non-faith based organizations.
One of the recent successful events I organized with my friend Kathleen Chavoor was The Syrian Refugee Learning circle at The Big Red Church. Kathleen and I talked about our stories with the Syrian families in Fresno focusing on their needs, history of Syria, ways to help them integrate gradually to the American society. Kathleen, as a therapist, talked about the importance of mental health, respecting their culture, and validating their journey.
There are different ways to help the families. The Wesley United Methodist Church in Fresno will host a dinner at the end of February by asking families to cook Syrian food for their guests.
A Facebook page—Fresno Support for Syrians—was created to directly hear from community members who are interested in helping in any way possible. Donations are also being accepted by Central Valley Islamic Council (CVIC) and Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM). FIRM also has a special webpage about their efforts to help the Syrian refugees, and you can donate and volunteer there.
I hope that the families will find Fresno to be a peaceful place for them after a long journey and a new beginning to a good life.