Away to Home

Originally published in Mainline magazine May 3, 2017

Opening Doors Helps Refugees Land on Their Feet in a New Land

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Russul Roumani (in orange) takes a newly arrived family from Afganistan to retrieve their luggage at Sacramento International Airport. Photo by Vanessa S. Nelson | Photo Editor | vanessaneslonexpress@gmail.com

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.


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A refugee mother holds her child as she leaves the airport in her new country. Photo by Vanessa S. Nelson | Photo Editor | vanessaneslonexpress@gmail.com

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.

Hillary Clinton makes stop at City College before June 7 primary

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on June 6, 2016

Additional reporting by Maxfield Morris.

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Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage in the North Gym. Photo by Zachary FR Anderson | Managing Editor | zachanderson.express@gmail.com

Outside the North Gym, hundreds of people waited to hear Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speak at Sacramento City College Sunday, June 5 — two days before California’s June 7 presidential primary.

Clinton took the stage between 6 and 7 p.m. as Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” (Clinton’s official song) played. She was introduced by Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who also worked in the White House during Clinton’s tenure as First Lady to former President Bill Clinton. Matsui reminisced about when her husband, Congressman Bob Matsui, died, saying that Hillary Clinton was the first to call and offer her condolences.

The former Secretary of State’s speech focused on domestic policy. She shared emotional moments with the crowd regarding her time as a senator from New York during the Sept. 11 attacks as well as her experiences running the State Department during the 2011 siege on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan that resulted in the death of the infamous terrorist.

Focusing on connecting with the state’s voters, Clinton applauded California’s diversity calling it, “…as big as a country and as diverse as one, too.”

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Supporters listen to Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) introduce Hillary Clinton in the North Gym. Photo by Zachary FR Anderson | Managing Editor | zachanderson.express@gmail.com

During her speech, Clinton applauded President Barack Obama for “digging us out of the ditch,” referring to the president’s efforts to strengthen the economy during the Great Recession.

“It is a fact that the economy does better when we have a Democrat in the White House,” said Clinton, who also indicated that the recession began during the presidency of Republican President George W. Bush.

Clinton also criticized Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, on key issues, such as his ability to be a responsible and reliable as commander in chief.

“Here’s somebody who in the last few weeks has insulted our closest allies,” said Clinton, “has praised dictators like [Kim Jong Un] in North Korea. Has advocated pulling out of NATO, which is our strongest military alliance. Has said in very cavalier [fashion] that he doesn’t really mind if other countries get nuclear weapons, including Saudi Arabia.”

Other politicians at the event also voiced their concerns regarding the business mogul’s ability.

“…All you have to look at is what’s happening in this country in the past week with this guy Trump,” said Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg, “calling out a judge because of his Mexican heritage and saying he can’t be impartial, applying the same logic to any Muslim judge. This is dangerous.”

Steinberg was referring to Trump’s recent comments regarding the federal judge overlooking the California lawsuit against Trump University, Gonzalo P. Curiel.

Steinberg endorsed Clinton as the next president.

“She’s eminently qualified,” said Steinberg. “She’s going to be respected around the country and around the world.”

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Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg greets Clinton supporters outside the North Gym. Photo by Zachary FR Anderson | Managing Editor | zachanderson.express@gmail.com

Nancy McFadden, Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, took a lighter approach. She compared Trump to the “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort by referring to him as “He who must not be named.” She justified this by saying that Trump likes hearing his own name.

“Who puts their names on steaks?” McFadden joked to the crowd that roared with laughter.

Before Clinton addressed the standing-room-only crowd, the first to speak was former United States Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, a Sacramento native. Other speakers included Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, Congressman John Garamendi and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Though knowledge of Clinton’s campaign making a stop in Sacramento had been released over a week earlier, the location remained undisclosed. It wasn’t until Thursday, according to Public Information Officer Rick Brewer, that the Clinton campaign contacted City College officials about holding the event on campus.

California residents registered as either Democrats or with no party preference may vote in the Democratic primary Tuesday, June 7.

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Ballot of apathy

Originally published in the Express on May 5, 2016

Student leadership to generate involvement in Student Senate, Club and Events Board

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City College student Melody Jimenez, political science major, speaks to students in the quad during candidate forums on April 7, 2016. Jimenez is running for the position of Student Senate Secretary of Legislative Affairs. The position is also contested by Savannah Mendoza. Hector Flores, Staff Photographer. | hectorfloresexpress@gmail.com

Despite a low voter turnout and a majority of candidates running unopposed, City College students have selected a new slate of Student Senate and Club and Events Board members to serve in the 2016—17 academic year.

Current City College Student Senate president Marianna Sousa was elected by students from all four colleges as Los Rios student trustee, a position she will assume June 1.

Student Leadership and Development Coordinator Kim Beyrer released the results of the elections April 15, a day after the elections.

However, most of the candidates, including the Senate vice president, ran unopposed. No Senate presidential candidate was listed on the electronic ballot that students accessed through City College eServices.

The lack of student participation from the main campus and outreach centers resulted in uncontested positions being filled by appointment, according to Beyrer.

“There are reasonable [causes as] to why a lot of students don’t participate,” said Beyrer, “whether they have to work, they have families, they have other responsibilities.”

The Senate officers elected were Raymond Concha for vice president, Joshua Feagin for treasurer, Alan Neftali Hernandez for secretary of technology, and Melody Jimenez for secretary of legislative affairs. The five senators elected to office were Keanna Laforga, Emily Lai, Julianne Maninang, Gerardo Mendoza and Huinan Pang.

After the elections, the Student Senate voted to fill the presidential vacancy by appointment at the April 20 meeting which was held in the Student Center. At that meeting, secretary of legislative affairs-elect Melody Jimenez was nominated and appointed Senate president, pending approval of City College interim President Michael Poindexter.

The Club and Events Board (CAEB) faced similar issues with many candidates running unopposed and other positions remaining vacant after the elections.

Moises Ramirez was elected CAEB president, Leo Molten vice president, Ashley Michelle Rowe secretary of public relations, Zachary Silvia secretary of technology, and Georgia Sherman project coordinator.

To generate more interest in student government, the Student Advisory Council (SAC), a committee composed of associated student body presidents at all four Los Rios colleges and the student trustee, have discussed the possibility of recommending to the district stipends for some student government positions, according to Student Trustee Cameron Weaver at the April 13 City College Student Senate meeting.

Weaver said that three of the four colleges in the district must indicate support for the idea before it can be discussed on the district level. The student senates can do this through either an official resolution or statement of support. To date, only two colleges have decided whether to support the idea.

According to Weaver, Folsom Lake College decided against the idea, recommending that other options, such as priority registration, should be explored rather than any forms of financial compensation.

Tony Tran, the Senate president at Cosumnes River College, said that the CRC Student Senate informed Weaver that they intend to support the idea in full.

Weaver said that he is still waiting on responses from City College and ARC.

“The decision still ultimately lies with the district, however,” said Weaver.