by Wasan Abu-Baker
You can check out part one here.
New stories will begin, new futures will start, new hopes will appear, fears will be overcome, challenges will melt away; this is what newcomers face when they begin their path in the United States.
Mental health is an important aspect of life that needs attention to help the Syrian newcomers in Fresno adjust and adapt to American society. It is a real challenge to preserve their mother language of Arabic, their Muslim faith, and their own culture in the face of a new world. This struggle, and sometimes inner conflict that most new comer immigrants and refugees struggle with in the beginning, takes time for them to be clear about where they are. Yes, they will still be Muslims with Syrian origins but with a new identity in The United States. For me as an Immigrant with Palestinian roots, it wasn’t easy for me to build a feeling of belonging right away. I asked myself this question a lot, “Who am I?”
After meeting many immigrants like me, I was able to identify myself as an American Muslim who immigrated to the United States from Palestine. I have kept my Arabic language and have progressed in my English language which was very basic when I arrived here. I could hold on to my roots and what I learned from my parents. Being part of the Muslim community in the USA is different from my childhood home because the needs and hopes and challenges the American Muslims face are completely different from what Muslims face in the Arab world. While all of this is going on, we, immigrants and refugees, still stay in touch with our families because we worry about them, so we watch the news and monitor social media to make sure they are safe. We want to focus completely on our new lives in the US, but we can’t because there is an entire world that we continue to think about, we are living here but our hearts and minds are still there. Immigrants and refugees have fears, hopes, dreams, challenges: those fears need to be broken, the challenges must be overcome, and hopes and dreams will be built. They need from us, who came before them, organizations, agencies, and community centers to help them build their new future here.
The Islamic centers in Fresno spend their efforts to support the Syrian families from the initial stages such as furnishing their houses, providing necessities, clothing, medicine, transportation, food, social and psychological support. Our prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) encouraged us to feel the sadness and happiness of our sisters and brothers in need, and in that spirit the Muslim community in Fresno stepped in to help these refugees at an early stage. The interfaith Alliance Coalition, from many faiths and congregations, provides tremendous support: sponsoring families, collecting donations, giving English and sewing classes, and organizing many events to show their caring and solidarity to the Syrian families.
The American Friends Service Committee of PAN Valley Institute in Fresno organized a welcoming event for the Syrian families in Fresno at MY DEEN center sharing their stories with other refugees who have been here longer. The Syrian refugees had an opportunity to learn from other refugees, their journeys during wars, and their life in the US. They shared that life in the US is about working hard, learning English, earning an education, and being good citizens in this country. This activity was meant to encourage newly arrived refugees that sharing stories is a way to cope with the challenges they face.
Through my work with the American Friends Service Committee and connections with the Muslim community, we worked to encourage families to share their stories and connect with the services they needed. This effort provided safe spaces for the Syrian families and all refugees, including immigrants, to share their own stories and experiences through meetings, events, and cultural gatherings. These opportunities also help build the skills to express their feelings and talk about the challenges they are facing here. The American Friends Service Committee Tamejavi Cultural Organizing Fellowship Program which I am a fellow of works to provide that space where diverse cultures converge to express and share their stories, music, food, and traditions to strengthen bonds between different communities in the Central Valley and help build self-belonging. Also, as an immigrant participating in the fellowship program, I was able to learn leadership and organizing skills to help me identify a purpose and bring these valuable lessons back to my community.
When I work with Syrian families who feel that they lost everything and sometimes unmotivated to work towards a better life, I have an opportunity to bring my skills to use and bring the community to help support to increase their confidence. One of the strategies I use with the Syrian families is using support groups to help them share their knowledge and skills through cooking classes, knitting, sewing, bead work, and gardening to reveal to them and those in the community the rich value they bring to the US.
Some examples of the support group projects are: celebrating their Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr in America by decorating the house, making Eid cookies together with friends and neighbors, the first Mother’s Day, and first Fourth of July in the US with fireworks. And now, because we are in the summer season, we have lots of fruits and vegetables that Syrian families like to pick and make jams and juices out of. Although these activities may not be considered mental health treatments, they come a long way toward helping Syrian refugees think positively about themselves and raise their self-esteem. The community must understand the Middle Eastern culture that these families come from and support them by opening their hearts and minds to our new American friends and neighbors.
Check out more immigrant and refugee stories in KRL’s Tales of Diversity category. If you would like to learn more about how to help Syrian refugees in the Fresno area, one way would be to visit Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM)’s special webpage.