Meet Hager Ahmed, your neighbor from Sudan. In 2001, she came with her family to the United States from a refugee camp in Lebanon after fleeing Sudan in search of peace and safety.
Her family stayed in Lebanon while they awaited official UN refugee status. “It was a long process, to wait for [refugee status],” Hager said in a recent interview. “You can’t leave the house. It’s frightening for a few years because you don’t have papers in that country, and you might get caught and sent to jail and they’ll deport you back.”
Initially, the family resettled in Waynesboro, moving around over 12 years before choosing Harrisonburg as their permanent residence four years ago.
Adjusting to life in the United States was not easy for Hager because of the language barrier and lack of support. “The Refugee Resettlement Office brings you here, gives you things for two months, and then that’s it. You don’t hear from nobody. You don’t see anybody. You’re on your own.” Hager did not talk to anyone for four years after the initial move to Waynesboro, unless she ran into a problem and needed help.
Because Hager grew up in a tight-knit community where the whole neighborhood felt like family, moving to the United States was frightening by comparison. “Suddenly you wake up and you don’t know who’s your neighbor, what’s their name, how to say hi to them, or they don’t speak back to you and it’s really scary.”
She began taking English classes to combat the language barrier. Rosetta Stone helped her immensely, so much that she joked the program became her friend and family. “You’ve gotta face it. This is your life and you’ve gotta find a way to deal with it. If you just sit and cry, you know nothing will happen.”
Hager felt disconnected from her community until last April when she decided to reach out and meet new people, getting to know the American people around her. “I was tired of being worried, and scared, and frightened of everything,” she explained. “I decided to go out and see why we have to live in fear for so many years. We’re not doing anything bad, so we’ve gotta figure out why we’re so afraid, and why the other side is so afraid of us, too.”
Hager stays actively involved in the local community, sitting on many committees and building new relationships with those around her.
As a mother of four kids, with three in the county school systems and one at home, Hager is passionate about immigrant children’s experiences in schools. Communicating with schools presents the most difficult challenge for Hager and other mothers like her, she said. “We can only try to help the school, tell them what we need and hopefully one day they will pay attention to us. We just have to be patient, I think. Things get better.”
The main issue arises from language and cultural barriers between parents and the school system. “The American system is really hard for people just come and dropped here, knowing nothing,” she said. On top of not knowing how the system works, parents often work long hours, juggle two jobs, and struggle to find time to check on their child’s homework, much less go to parent-teacher conferences.
“If the child gets an F, the parents don’t call. I think the school system’s job is to figure out why, why they don’t care. These parents don’t speak English, these parents don’t understand the school systems. They don’t know what’s A and B and F and if [the letters] hurt the kid or not.”
American kids, by contrast, have parents who know the system and can explain it, especially about education and life after high school. Many immigrant children switch into find-a-job mode when they graduate.
Hager explained, “American kids go to 8th grade, and their parents already talk about college with them. They plan for them or give them an option. When you come to the immigrant child with their parents working all day, where are they going to get that support? The schools just hand them paper and say go make your decision. So basically when they finish, they don’t know what’s next.”
Hager feels like the school systems do not hear voices of immigrant families. Parents can complain, but the schools will brush the complaint aside. “You go to the school [about a problem], and nothing.” They feel helpless.
Hager remains positive despite communication obstacles. She tells her kids, “Do your part. You be good. If they label you as bad, don’t be bad. Show the opposite, how good you are, how good of a citizen you are.”
To her Rockingham-Harrisonburg community, she encourages people to see each other’s humanity, the similarities between people. The best way to do this is to simply say hello. “I’m sure if you knock on their door and say I want to know you, they will never shut the door in your face because that’s what they’re looking for,” she said. “They might just not know how to ask for it.”
– Liesl Graber