There is something reassuring about Parkview Gardens Apartments, with its sturdy red-brick buildings, neat car parks and leafy little playgrounds that fill with children as yellow school buses come and go. It is a picture of a quiet American suburb, caught in the glow of a late autumn day.
Then a beat of African music thumps lightly from an idling car. A whiff of cumin and fried onion cuts through an open window. One apartment door shows off an early Christmas wreath. Another swings open to a living room lined with paper flowers in celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Down the street, a man hoists a sofa over the threshold of a newly rented flat and grunts a friendly hello. He’s an Afghan who once translated for US troops. A few doors away, a family from Iraq prepares a meal of roast vegetables and rice and clicks on a favourite YouTube video. “Walking through the centre of Baghdad” rolls on their big-screen TV with no real storyline. But its grainy black-and-white images flicker with memories.
Parkview Gardens is where hundreds of newcomers hold on to what was — and learn quickly to begin again. A 30-minute subway ride from the US capital, this is a community with 600 apartments, half of which are rented by refugees. For more than 25 years, this private housing estate in Riverdale, Maryland, has slowly engaged with a troubled world, one rental unit at a time.
David Mendick began managing Parkview in 1988 and, by chance, some resettlement agencies — non-profit groups which work with the US government to find homes for people fleeing conflict or persecution — appealed for vacancies. Mendick was intrigued. He grew up in Liverpool, lived in Israel for a few years and then married an American. New to Maryland, he knew what it was like to start over once, even twice. He figured he could take a chance on some hard-knock newcomers.
For Mendick, refugees proved a good investment. They paid their rent on time. They mostly kept the apartments, their first secure homes in years, clean and in good repair. There were mild misunderstandings over leases and rules — few spoke English — but Mendick shrugged these off. As a businessman, he saw evictions drop. As a father raising three children, he thought what happened to refugees in America — a country of immigrants — was a barometer of its values.
So Mendick decided that whatever was wrong in the world — in Bosnia, in Bhutan, in Iraq or Afghanistan — Parkview Gardens could help. He took in more refugees and, later, hired a few. Then he hired a few more. He decided to pay more than Maryland’s minimum wage — opting for a higher federal recommendation of $10.10 an hour.
“Why do it? Well, why not?” Mendick said. “I couldn’t see a reason not to help.”
Today, employees at Parkview Gardens may look, and sound, more exotic than those at most rental offices. Many came to America with the help of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian group that works in more than 30 countries, providing aid to nearly 15 million people. They settle about 10,000 refugees in the US annually. In a year of mounting refugee crises, IRC is being supported by the Financial Times’s 2014 seasonal appeal.
The woman handing out application forms to prospective tenants in Parkview’s front office once lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda. Two receptionists are from Baghdad. A knot of men at the front gate, all preparing for security shifts at this property and others, hail from Bhutan and Nepal.
Parkview’s fast-talking property manager Zemrushe Shabiu was sorting boxes of frozen turkeys, preparing a resident giveaway before Thanksgiving. Fifteen years earlier, Shabiu had been a refugee from the war in Kosovo. She remembered how she clambered over mountains with her mother and five siblings in the spring of 1999 to find safety in Macedonia. They trekked in mourning and in fear. Hours before they had buried her father, an Albanian Kosovar who was beaten to death by Serb soldiers.
Zemi, then 21, filled out paperwork in a UN refugee camp to apply for resettlement. Four months later, IRC staff met the Shabiu family as they walked off a plane in the US. A one-time law student, Zemi spent her first weeks learning the ABCs. Within a year, she was fluent in English and juggling three jobs. This year, she celebrated an American milestone. She bought a house.
“I know what they are going through, yeah,” said Zemi, now 36 and a mother of three. “We had a wonderful life and then . . . it was gone. I know.
“So I always tell them: take a deep breath. Focus on the positive. Leave the negatives back where you came from . . . It isn’t easy. But it is going to be OK.”
I saw Parkview Gardens for the first time in October, when I visited Manar Qazan and Ahmed Baiy, a married couple from Baghdad. I’ve known Manar since 2003 when I hired her brothers, Nadeem and Arfan, as a translator and driver so I could report on the Iraq war for the Chicago Tribune. More than a decade on, I rode the subway to Maryland to see how she was adapting to her new life in the US.
Manar and her family have suffered dramatic losses over the years. Her only sister was shot dead in 2006 when insurgents attacked a road checkpoint, bullets flying, as Manar, her brother and sister drove by. In June, as armed militants from the Islamic State laid siege across Iraq and Syria, Manar’s father, a much-respected English teacher, collapsed and died in his Baghdad home.
Weeks later, immigration officials phoned Manar. Seven years after applying, she, Ahmed and their toddler son, Ayham, were told they had visas to resettle in the US. The couple, both 32, were thrilled, and frightened. They could leave the violence of Iraq behind — but everything and every one they ever knew too. Manar reflected that she might never have left her father. But he was gone and perhaps that was a sign. So they celebrated Ayham’s second birthday in August in the Baghdad family home, days before they left. There were tears but no doubts about the chance they had for a better life.
Two months later in their Parkview Gardens home — a sparse one-bedroom apartment with a bed, a single sofa, a television and a shiny black dining-room table and four chairs — Manar and Ahmed were settled, if struggling. IRC case workers had swiftly arranged food vouchers and healthcare, free English classes and three months of rent payments. Social security, cash assistance — $400 for three months — as well as work papers were sorted. “It is simple and I like it,” Manar said about her new home. “I feel safe. And there are rules. I like rules. There were no rules left in Iraq.”
But now their IRC adviser was asking every few days about their job search. And they were stumped. For their entire professional lives, they had been engineers. Manar was a surveyor who worked at the University of Baghdad. Ahmed, also a civil engineer, had been a foreman on big construction sites. Engineers in Maryland, however, had to meet higher certification requirements. Even low-grade positions called for more documentation. Manar and Ahmed were urged to focus on entry-level jobs — any job that would get them in the marketplace, help familiarise them with US work standards and allow them to speak English every day. They pursued this strategy but were baffled.
To find a job in Baghdad, they would have called friends and family or sent out emails to figure out who was hiring. In the US, they knew almost no one. Their English was good but they were shy about attempting cold calls to companies. So they applied for jobs online. With one laptop between them — hobbled by a keyboard that somehow had lost the letter “Y”— they took turns filling out applications. Macy’s department store, Hilton hotels, Ikea furniture store, insurance companies, banks. Click by click, they tried to figure exactly who or what an American employer wanted.
I watched as Ahmed typed an application to Target, the retail giant. There was an opening for a pharmacy assistant. That single online form took 45 minutes to complete — with me peeking over his shoulder and advising on jargon. Much of Ahmed’s hard work was nearly erased when he clicked on the wrong tab near the end. Manar jumped in, typed a few clever strokes and was able to recover it.
Chagrined, we three — all university graduates — stared at the screen. Target’s hiring form had nearly bested us.
The IRC operates in conflict and disaster zones around the world. In the US, which every year resettles more refugees than other country, the IRC works in 22 cities. Overall, the US has accepted 70,000 refugees a year for the past couple of years — all of whom can qualify for citizenship in five years. Every week, US state department officials hold conference calls with the IRC and other aid agencies to gauge the people at risk and where they might best be settled.
Individual IRC case workers, like the men and women helping Manar and Ahmed, work with as many as 100 refugees at any one time. Their jobs are tricky. Each person or family has individual vulnerabilities. Some have acute health problems. Others know no English. Children must be enrolled swiftly in public schools. All need to learn the basics: how to ride a bus, buy a subway ticket, shop in a supermarket, find a doctor. Caseworkers ferry refugees around their communities for the first few days then prioritise immediate needs. Weeks on, IRC staff turn up the pressure: adults who can work should work. They have to find jobs.
The IRC, like other resettlement groups, judges success in part by counting the refugees who have full-time employment before federal and state assistance money runs out. (That usually translates into three to four months of cash assistance and rent payments. Some refugees, in more trying circumstances, can receive aid for months beyond that.)
What has complicated matters is the changing nature and talents of the population in need. For years, refugees who lived in camps run by the UN, from places such as Nepal, Rwanda or Sudan, arrived with little job experience. Their first jobs — in factories or restaurants — offer much-needed basic training in what constitutes a US working day.
But recent wars have skewed the refugee profile. A challenging subset — with different expectations — is emerging. Iraqis and Afghanis, some with special visas to reward prior service with US troops or businesses, are arriving with good English, some management skills and months if not years of experience with western militaries or companies. IRC is trying to adapt by seeking more corporate partners but the numbers and needs are constant.
In Baltimore, an hour’s drive from Parkview Gardens, IRC organisers have formed an employer advisory board that meets four times a year with local businesses. Conversations — with companies that have jobs and refugees who need a chance — help percolate possibilities, said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC’s Baltimore office.
Chandrasekar had some successes this year. Foundations and corporate partners donated $150,000 for two programmes that promised tangible results in two years: classes on early childhood education that would stoke much-neededay carere and a homebuying scheme within the city. The childcare course ran on weekends so refugees who had full-time jobs could attend. In eight months, more than a dozen women were certified as early childhood educators. They can work in day care centres or even, with financial counselling included in their course, launch small businesses.
The homebuying initiative has been more complicated. The IRC held workshops for refugees to learn the logistics of buying a home and found city officials and property brokers willing to work within some financial constraints — including a six-month savings programme for refugees. Ten newcomers are on their way to home ownership and Baltimore will be adding new taxpayers. “And why is this important? It sends a message about refugees. They’re helping rebuild the city. That’s good for everyone,” Chandrasekar said.
I recounted Manar’s and Ahmed’s early job woes to Chandrasekar. Their counsellor was rightly urging one or the other to secure a job soon because it would speed their transition. Ahmed rode the bus to the IRC office in Silver Spring and did some role-playing to prepare for an interview. (He learnt, with some practice, to perfect a firm American handshake.) He told his job counsellor that he was willing to work in construction if it would get him closer to an engineering job. But Ahmed also seemed to know that this dream was deferred. He went home, back to his laptop, to trawl bank and insurance job listings.
Chandrasekar listened politely. It turns out he knows every bump of an immigrant’s journey. He and his mother moved from India to the US when he was a teenager. His mother, then in her forties and a nurse and teacher for 25 years, could not work as a nurse in the US until she passed multiple certification exams. For two years, she worked at a far lower wage as a home aide — then spent the rest of her career in a much-coveted job as a nurse on a cancer ward.
There is a mismatch between jobs and some refugees, Chandrasekar said, and private business and the government could address this. “The federal government has not really looked into the skills of the refugee population here or figured out a way to match jobs and their potential,” he said. “It’s an issue. I always say refugees can be productive — and more productive — if we can use the skills they have.”
Immigration reform is a hot political issue in the US. The IRC, as one might expect, supports President Obama’s sweeping plans to allow millions of unauthorised immigrants with long-term ties to the US to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law”. Refugees show what immigrants, when helped, can achieve. Refugee numbers are swelling to historic proportions but those who arrive in the US are more likely to add to its strengths, not its burdens, Chandrasekar said.
“We will have 70,000 people come to this country this year as refugees. In months, we will see those same people finding jobs, paying taxes,” he said. “Helping them now, that’s not charity. It means we are welcoming people who want to contribute.”
Lydie Kujuru is celebrating her first anniversary at the Uptown Bakery, a bread factory near Parkview Gardens that produces 10,000 loaves a day. The striking 22-year-old is one of IRC’s success stories. She arrived, with five siblings, from a refugee camp in Rwanda in September 2013. She spoke French, Swahili and a local dialect — but almost no English. Her mother ended up in hospital soon after their arrival, an episode that unnerved the family. “Our first month was too hard,” Lydie said, with a small laugh. “We didn’t speak the language. We didn’t have people here who were close to us.
“I expected our life would change from Africa. But this, this wasn’t easy. I rode the bus to go somewhere and every day I was lost. I ride the bus for an hour and then I can’t remember where the bus stop is. I was too scared to ask people.”
Her IRC caseworker became the family’s guide. She made sure Lydie, her brother Pilote and her sister Caroline enrolled in intensive English classes. She made sense of the family’s medical bills. Within two months, Lydie and her brother went to work at the Uptown; her sister was hired to cut vegetables at a packaging plant.
“Work really helped me,” Lydie said. “No one spoke French at the bakery but the manager, when he wanted me to do something, he showed me. The other people, they help, but actually I can say my boss is my friend.”
Alfredo Estrada, the bakery’s operations manager, said Lydie is his role model for what refugees can do. He manages 200 employees and “I always tell [IRC], send me more like Lydie. Her attitude? She’s willing to learn.” She also works hard: for eight hours a day, and more during the holiday season, Lydie is on her feet, lifting hefty boxes of baguettes and challah. Her brother Pilote is a mixer. “I have the bakery in my hands,” he says with a grin. “If I don’t do right, the bread doesn’t happen.”
Pilote and Lydie point out that the Uptown, which pays each sibling about $500 every two weeks, is just a beginning. In November, Pilote bought a car, a 2007 Chrysler, on a payment plan and he now drives to computer classes in Washington — “I want to be an IT man,” he says enthusiastically. The car also helps Pilote and Lydie meet what they see as a very American demand: being on time.
“Time, it’s important. Most of the American people are on time — so you have to be in the mood too,” Lydie said. She thinks out loud about what she could do after the Uptown. She is looking for a bigger, better-paying job and talks about nursing. With a mischievous laugh, she raises the idea that she could be more than a role model at the bakery. “Why not a real model?” she said, giggling. “I love fashion.”
By 7.30 every morning, Suk Rai is on a school bus, headed to ninth-grade classes at Parkdale High School. And at 3pm every afternoon, she is rushing back to a two-bedroom flat in Parkview Gardens, her first home with running water.
Suk, 19, was born in a refugee camp in Nepal. She lived in a one-room hut until she arrived in January. She is the youngest of eight children but she has a special role in this new country: she is the daughter, still at home, who must navigate much of day-to-day life for elderly parents. She also has to watch over younger relatives.
Her father, Tika Man Rai, is 71. Through an interpreter, he speaks about his travails in Bhutan as a member of the Kirati people, fleeing discrimination against minorities. “We never hoped to come to America. We had been living in Nepal for such a long time.” Suk, in slow but understandable English, shares the challenges of the past 11 months.
“The first days are hard. I was shy. I didn’t know English. And my parents don’t speak English now.” But she considers herself lucky. She can go to public school until she is 21. That should be enough time to improve her language skills. She pulls out a report card: 100 per cent in English, 91 per cent in algebra, 97 per cent in music. Her worst subject? American history, 69 per cent. “I have to do better,” she says. She rolls her eyes, good-humouredly, as she points out that she has teachers in school and at home. Two nieces, six and 10 years old, emigrated to the US four years ago. She cares for them every afternoon and the girls chatter nonstop in English.
“Every day, I come home, to cook with my mom, to help. Because I worry about them, yes,” she said. “The good thing is we are comfortable here now. We have heating and cooking . . . And at night, I can study.”
Ahmed’s phone was ringing. He was breathless when he hung up. An insurance company wanted to meet him. It was his first chance at a face-to-face job interview.
That night, he didn’t sleep from excitement. In the morning, as he scoured the internet for the right bus connections, Ahmed realised that he had a two-and-a-half-hour journey ahead of him. He scrambled to the front office of Parkview Gardens to see if anyone could help. David Mendick, by chance, was just dispatching a security guard on an errand that would take him near the same address. The two men headed off in a car together.
Hours later, Ahmed returned crestfallen. He had been on time. But he could barely make sense of what the interviewer wanted. She spoke quickly — something about a sales job. He was nervous and too embarrassed to ask her to repeat her questions. Afterwards, he boarded the wrong bus and missed his next connection. Confused and anxious, he called a taxi and handed over a fistful of dollars.
He and Manar reassessed their options that night. America was going to be tougher than they imagined. They had to make choices: who would get a job first, could they trust someone to watch over Ayham? “Really, I don’t understand what women in the US do with their babies,” Manar said. “In Baghdad, I worked five hours a day and my mother helped. Here, it is much harder.”
The next day, Ahmed was bouncing back. He had decided he should find a job that was a single bus, or subway, ride away. He had to improve his language — “people here speak very fast, too fast” — and his English lessons were a priority.
And he was also reconsidering whether he should try walking into a store with his résumé in hand. “I can’t be a salesman, no,” Ahmed said, laughing ruefully. “But really, I learnt. I learnt I must start, somewhere.”
Christine Spolar is the FT’s investigations editor.
Photographs: Charlie Bibby
Syria’s refugee crisis
Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis in Syria, providing safe haven to more than 3.2 million people spilling across their borders. On December 9, the UN held a conference in Geneva to confront the unrelenting humanitarian crisis caused by the four-year civil war. Dozens of countries beyond the neighbouring states pledged to take in more Syrians. Appeals for additional funding continue, and all money raised by the FT seasonal appeal will be donated to the International Rescue Committee for their work with victims of the crisis.
Germany has so far accepted the most Syrian refugees resettled in Europe — about 20,000 — and has agreed to take another 10,000. The UK has accepted 90 Syrian refugees. The US, which has accepted 306 refugees for permanent resettlement since 2011, has been sent more than 9,000 referrals this year from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and expects arrivals to increase dramatically next year.
The number of Syrians leaving the Middle East has been small to date, in part because rescue agencies were trying to keep people close to their homeland. But as the war rages on and groups such as the Islamic State spread between Syria and Iraq, there is a realisation that peace is unimaginable any time soon.
According to Anne C Richard, US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, “What is clear to everyone now is . . . the country has been so damaged and the economy has been so damaged that people won’t be able to return.”