Originally published in Mainline magazine May 3, 2017
Opening Doors Helps Refugees Land on Their Feet in a New Land
As the clock ticked forward, moving from one day to the next, Sacramento International Airport began to slowly shut down. Starbucks had just closed for the night, and the help desk was left unattended. A maintenance person was replacing the sign on the single-use restroom to indicate that it was now available to all gender. Lights had dimmed, and security gates had been rolled down, leaving just a few employees and agents.
I was sitting right below the escalator that passengers would descend to get to the arrivals platform to be picked up. To my left was a woman with a homemade sign that read “SON” while to the right was a young man who alternated his attention between the top of the escalator and his phone screen, eyes nervously darting up and down.
Russul Roumani’s attention was also split between her phone and the escalator, watching for a newly arrived Afghan family. She had been waiting for more than an hour and a half after the family’s flight from LAX was delayed. The plane was supposed to come in at midnight, and it was now 1:30 a.m.
For just about anyone else, it was a typical late night at Sacramento International. But for Roumani and the family coming to the United States, it was a new beginning for eight people.
Earlier that day, March 6, the White House issued an executive order that limited the year’s number of incoming refugees to 50,000 at most. According to the State Department, in the 2014-15 fiscal year that number was 70,000.
There are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees website. Under the new order, only about .2 percent of them will be allowed into the U.S. this year. The family from Afghanistan – whose names are being withheld for their privacy and protection – makes up eight of those 50,000 refugees.
They will be integrated into their new community by a Sacramento nonprofit agency called Opening Doors, which assists refugees with housing and other support services. As a caseworker for the agency, Roumani coordinates with local volunteers the family’s transportation from the airport to a hotel where they stay until more permanent housing is arranged.
Opening Doors CEO Deborah Ortiz, currently serves on the Los Rios Community Colleges District Board of Trustees after eight years as a state senator, two years as an assembly member and four years as a member of the Sacramento City Council.
Last year the Department of Social Services reported that the state had taken in 7,908 refugees. Of those, 1,299 settled in Sacramento, which has resulted in the city having the third largest refugee community in the state behind Los Angeles and San Diego.
According to Ortiz, Sacramento is also the No. 1 destination in the U.S. for special immigrant visa holders from Afghanistan – like the family Roumani was picking up.
“Once there’s a network and welcoming community here,” said Ortiz, “that really enhances the willingness for a person to identify Sacramento as a place they’d like to go to.”
At the airport, passengers and crew of the late flight from Los Angeles finally came down the escalator. Most of them went directly to baggage claim, while others went to the seating area to mingle with awaiting family. The nervous young man who had been studying his phone nearly stumbled over a duffle bag trying to reach and embrace a young woman. The woman holding the “SON” sign continued to wait.
Roumani was joined by Helen Killeen, a UC Davis graduate assistant who had volunteered to help pick up this Afghan family from the airport. Soon after Killeen’s arrival, Roumani smiled as the family of two parents and six children, including two sets of twins wearing badges marked IOM – International Organization of Migration – descended the escalator into their new city.
The family had arrived, and their two-day journey from Afghanistan to Dubai to Los Angeles to Sacramento had finally come to an end.
After greeting the family in their native language – Dari – with welcome and good faith, Roumani and Killeen went to baggage claim to pick up the family’s luggage. The father and his three sons soon followed. As they waited for the conveyor belt to move, one of the young daughters walked over to stand with her father and brothers. She looked up at the sculptures of unclaimed luggage piled high to the ceiling in Seussical fashion and smiled with sparkling eyes and open mouth.
When luggage began to flow down the conveyor belt, the father and sons quickly looked for their bags and began to stack them onto the carts with vigorous efficiency.
Roumani and Killeen strategized how they would transport the family to the hotel. But this was no challenge for Roumani. She once retrieved four families – 32 people – who arrived at the same time. The family Roumani was transporting that day consisted of 10 people.
“I started asking, ‘Who is your wife? OK, come with me,’ just so we could get all of the kids, laughed while leaving the airport.
Once sufficient housing is found for this group of new arrivals, they would likely settle in the Arden-Arcade neighborhood where a significant Middle Eastern community has planted roots.
“The markets are there, the restaurants are there,” said Ortiz. “That’s where the community resides.”
On a Saturday morning later in March, most of the faculty, staff and student body at Greer Elementary were taking advantage of the weekend. But on that day a few volunteers watched as a class of young refugee children played basketball.
The Saturday School Program of the San Juan Unified School District, run by counselor Heather Berkness, offers children of refugees a chance to improve their language and social skills.
“A lot of our kids speak Arabic, Farsi and Dari, and they are just starting at the foundational basis of language,” said Berkness.
In the 2016-17 academic year, San Juan Unified School District reported that of the district’s 5,233 ESL students, 1,311 – roughly 4 percent – spoke either Arabic, Pashto, Farsi or Dari.
“This is so exciting for them to be in a place where they’re surrounded by others doing just the same thing,” said Berkness.
Since most of the refugee community resides in Arden-Arcade, San Juan reported last year that the district had 832 students who were refugees, the largest number in all districts in the region.
The staff meets every challenge, large and small, at Saturday School. On this day a volunteer approached Berkness with a young girl wearing a hijab who was crying. She had fallen on her hand. While Berkness comforted her, the volunteer went to find someone who could speak Farsi.
Since the program takes place on weekends, Berkness said that it is difficult to find faculty and staff to teach classes for the children. As a result, volunteers – including Berkness’ mother – fill the gap.
To best serve the diverse age range of children, Saturday School emphasizes different skills for different age groups. Berkness said they ask the oldest students what they want to learn and what they think is important. The group of older students that week wanted to focus on applying for jobs and properly preparing resumès.
The adult refugees have their own version of Saturday School – though it takes place on Friday. Opening Doors offers refugees the chance to attend cultural classes to learn about American society and the Sacramento region.
It’s not all fun and games, Ortiz pointed out. The students require more resources due to their experiences in their home countries.
“Because these children are coming from trauma and violence, there are emotional issues that [school districts] are seeking more guidance and support for,” Ortiz said.
In a Saturday School classroom for a younger age group, the children made collages to help identify what is important in their lives.
“We’re doing some really positive character building,” said Berkness. “We want to continue to have those positive affirmations so kids know that we want them here.”
Berkness, who had to leave to attend to the girl who had fallen on her hand, walked down the hallway as children inside the multi-purpose room sang, “This Land is Your Land,” which they would perform at an open house the following week.
“They’re an asset to our system,” said Berkness of the refugee children. “We’re glad that they’re here.”
After meeting the new arrivals at the airport, on the drive to the family’s hotel, Roumani described her own experience with Opening Doors.
It wasn’t long ago that she had someone waiting for her at the bottom of the escalator. In 2008, after a co-worker in Baghdad was killed by unknown assailants, Roumani and her children fled Iraq and were resettled by Opening Doors. In 2011, the agency hired her.
“[Opening Doors] was small when I first started, but now we’re getting bigger and bigger,” said Roumani, one of five employees – including the department head – in the agency’s Refugee Resettlement Department who were also once refugees.
Ten days before picking up the new arrivals, Roumani had returned from a visit with her parents in Baghdad. The house she lived in, she said, was gone.
“The situation hasn’t changed,” said Roumani.
She became a citizen in 2013 but chose not to vote in last year’s presidential election, believing that both candidates would continue conflict in the Middle East.
“I know what war is like,” she said, “I don’t like war.”
Though the Trump administration twice tried to impose a travel ban to the U.S. by nationals from six Muslim-majority countries, SIV holders are exempt regardless of country of origin, according to Ortiz.
Ortiz said that SIV holders differ from other refugees in that they have worked for the U.S. government or military in a capacity, such as translators, that would put them and their families in danger.
“They are at greater risk because they helped our government,” said Ortiz.
Ortiz also said that SIVs are typically skilled as engineers or medical professionals in their home countries. In the case of the arrivals Roumani was picking up, the father of the family was a cook for the U.S. government in Kabul.
Opening Doors was founded in 1993 by the Interfaith Service Bureau as the Sacramento Refugee Ministry to resettle refugees from the former Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. It wasn’t until a decade later that it changed its name to Opening Doors.
Ortiz came into her role as Opening Door’s CEO when her predecessor, Debra DeBondt, stepped down to volunteer in Africa for the Peace Corp.
“Refugees especially during this time in history are a really vulnerable population,” said Ortiz. “It’s a passion to serve, and this is the organization that fuels this passion.”
The staff at Opening Doors are not the only people in the region concerned about refugees. In late March a group of former and current state workers and lobbyists hosted a picnic for about 200 recently arrived families that was catered by local businesses. It was originally supposed to be held at Land Park, but due to rain, B’nai Israel, a nearby Jewish synagogue, volunteered its recreation area so the event could take place.
“I still feel people across the country are compassionate and feel the need to do something and be welcoming,” Ortiz added. “Real people have a sense of goodness and compassion, and we’ve seen it every day here in Sacramento.”
At the hotel, Roumani headed for the front desk to get the family checked in. While the new arrivals waited in the lobby, the father went across the room to get coffee for himself and his wife. As Roumani finished at the front desk, a man pushing a cart full of boxes of baked goods came into the lobby. After asking Roumani if the family spoke Arabic, the man welcomed the family in Dari before pushing the cart into the back.
After checking in, Roumani and I assisted the father and his sons in bringing their luggage up to the room. Roumani gave them a cell phone as well as a few take-out boxes that contained hot food from a local Afghan restaurant before saying goodbye.
I asked Roumani how to say goodbye in Dari.
“Kuda Hafez,” she said.
I repeated the phrase as best I could to the father of the family, and immediately the hotel room filled with laughter. The father patted me on the shoulder and said, “That was good.”
Then Roumani and I left the hotel and went out into the night, which was actually a new day for us all.
Two weeks after picking up the family – by this time sleeping in their new home – Roumani was back at the airport waiting for more new arrivals. This time she was not alone.
“A lot of families are coming tonight,” she noted, observing the large number of Afghans and caseworkers below the escalator.
This time the flight was not late, and the escalator soon filled with people wearing IOM badges. Roumani smiled and walked up to greet the new Afghan family of six she was picking up. After getting their bags, the group of seven headed out the doors to Roumani’s van. Gripping their parents’ hands, the young children occasionally fell behind, lost in wonder of the new world that the wings of a dream had taken them to.
Roumani and the newcomers walked out the airport doors and headed for a friend’s house to begin their lives in what Walt Whitman called the “center of equal daughters, equal sons.”
Volunteers make a big difference to Opening Doors. For more information, click here.