By Madison Bell
Every day, as Khaleed Haji sweeps the floors of a retirement home, he imagines he is still teaching Kurdish, English and science to high school students in Baghdad, Iraq.
He wasn’t fluent in English, but even before he arrived in America he knew the language fairly well.
Now, as a refugee living in Lincoln, Nebraska – because Sunni extremists from Al-Qaeda bombed the three houses next to his and forced him and his wife and four children to leave – he is taking the advanced English as a Second Language course at the Center for People in Need.
Haji said his only dream is to once again become a teacher. He knows the only way that dream can come true is for him to become fluent in English.
The Center for People in Need provides help for a wide variety of people in many different areas, subjects and skills. The center often hires refugees and immigrants, all of them bringing their own experiences and reasons for attending or having their job. English is one of the main classes taught there, and frequently the people helping others succeed today are people who have been helped themselves.
Before entering the center, Haji thought his dream could never be a reality. Now each day leads him closer to accomplishing his dream.
After working with his teacher, Salan Darwish, and practicing English on the computers and at home, Haji has almost completed the last English course he can take at the center.
“Oh, yes, I am very grateful for all the help the Center for People in Need had given me,” Haji said. “I am, in my opinion, now fluent in English.”
Darwish agreed and said Haji would be a great teacher.
“Many people in my class are already fairly fluent in their English, some even more than me,” Darwish said. “I am still learning new words all of the time, but everyone works together, and we really accomplish a lot.”
Haji said he would also love to be able to teach English to other refugees – like Darwish does. Luckily, the center provides options for refugees who want to work there or need jobs.
Darwish – similar to Haji – learned English in Iraq before coming to America and immediately applied for a full-time position as a teacher, because the spot was open at the time. He has been teaching for eight months and plans to work there as long as he can.
Darwish was a Kurdish teacher before he left Baghdad with his wife and two children. He said he didn’t want to leave, but he had to for his family’s safety. The primary school where his two sons attended was bombed. His children were not in school that day because he had taken them to a market to get some food and other items, but after the bombing, he feared for his family’s life. He said it wasn’t long after that bombing that houses and stores around where he lived began to be attacked, vandalized, burned and bombed.
He could not be more grateful to be teaching again.
Darwish gives all the credit to Deb Daily for helping him get a job only eight months after arriving from Iraq.
“It is possible for anyone who is willing to work hard and needs a job to get one,” Darwish said.
Daily, the director of operations at the center, said four positions are currently open, and the application process is very simple. The open positions include jobs in the food assistance program, the conference center, the bonus point assistance program and as a supervisor coordinator position for the food program.
The center almost always shows preference in hiring a refugee, immigrant or AmeriCorps worker, because it is beneficial to have employees who truly understand where other refugees and immigrants are coming from.
There are three ways to work at the center: be hired as a full-time employee, be hired through AmeriCorps or volunteer for either. AmeriCorps is a corporation for national and community service. Any refugee, immigrant or person in need can work or volunteer in any department that needs more staff.
The only requirement for an applicant is that the person be able to speak or have an understanding of English; however, if the person applying doesn’t know English well, they can take ESL classes while working.
The classes at the center, such as the advanced English class Haji currently takes, also have more benefits than just the class itself: a person can also earn points while taking a class.
The point system allows anyone who is taking classes, working or volunteering at the center or AmeriCorps to continue to add up points to buy food, drinks, toilet paper, paper towels, clothes, blankets or almost anything else a person might need, including gasoline for vehicles.
On certain days, which change during the season, people can come in and wait in line for food or other products if they have saved up enough points. Then, a person is given a shopping cart and can walk throughout an entire warehouse of items to get what they need. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday are the current days for shopping. A bar of soap, sponges, toothbrushes, tampons and hair ties are all examples of items that cost only one point. A person can earn up to 10 points by going to one ESL, citizenship or any other offered class at the center. Typically, one point is the equivalent of one dollar.
Marjan Moshiri, an Iranian refugee who came to America in 2007, is thankful for what the center did for her. She said the point system literally saved her life when she first arrived in Lincoln.
Moshiri was homeless when she arrived in Lincoln during a March blizzard after living in Texas for about three years. She arrived with her 3-year-old son, and she didn’t know what to do upon arriving. She stayed in an alley for about two weeks until a man told her about the center.
She cried as she told her story about her and her son, who said at one point that he could not feel his hands any more from the cold.
Moshiri needed a way to make a living in a place she didn’t know a lot about. She originally left Texas to find cheaper living and a place that offered better help than what she was receiving.
She found that help with the center.
Moshiri has worked at the center for five years – the longest of anyone there currently.
Even though she is proud of her time at the center, she said she still feels embarrassed that she didn’t know any English for the first five years in the U.S. except for “Hi, how are you?” She knew, however, that she was determined to keep learning and that the center would help her. She worked as a volunteer at the center for two years, from 2010 to 2012, and then was encouraged to apply to AmeriCorps.
Once a person is hired through AmeriCorps, she can work with the corporation for a maximum of four years on salary. Then, that person must be let go to allow for more people to be offered work; however, AmeriCorps will work with their employees to find them jobs before leaving. If people are hired at the center, they can work there for as long as they would like.
“I left Iran because women could not work. We had to stay home and could not have freedom of religion or opinion,” Moshiri said. “I always sat quietly there. I could never work like I wanted to. When a kind man saved me and my baby from freezing and I got to the center, I knew I was saved. I quickly learned I wanted to help others the way I was helped.”
A translator helped Moshiri get a job at AmeriCorps, where she worked for two years before applying for a full-time job at the center as a person who helps unload and build pallets for the “Truckloads of Help” program. Moshiri said she took English, forklift and citizenship classes through AmeriCorps, and then through the center, while she worked. She is now a U.S. citizen, can speak fluent English and has her forklift license. Moshiri works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and gets paid $12.75 an hour.
“For any refugee out there, do not be afraid to apply. I waited too long, and I wish I would have applied even sooner,” Moshiri said. “People will help you through every process.”
The center has many programs, including ESL, computer, janitorial, fork lift, food service, construction, receptionist, citizenship, social adjustment, financial assistants and more. The center also currently has 37 staff members who can collectively speak 17 languages and are from about 25 different countries, according to Daily.
“It’s quite an experience working with people from so many different countries, religions, backgrounds and whatever else, but it’s always worth it,” Daily said. “People always think it’s just the students here that are learning so much, but really the staff is learning and growing every day, too.”
Moshiri agreed that it can be bizarre working with so many people of different backgrounds, but she said that it is never a problem. Many refugees actually care more about the fact that they are not alone in the hardship they faced from their home countries.
Adnan Mizrahi, a Syrian student in Darwish’s class who sits next to Haji, said he is thankful for his teacher Darwish, because he is from a similar war-torn country. He is not happy that anyone had to go through a similar experience, but he’s glad he is being taught by someone who understands some of his struggles.
Mizrahi said he had to sleep in a forest for two months with his pregnant wife and three children as they ran from bombings and murders of Syrian people around where he lived. He said he felt embarrassed when he arrived in America, because it felt like no one understood his life or what he needed help with. He said Americans would ignore him on the street and sometimes even the simplest concepts of American life would confuse him, but he didn’t know how to ask for help.
Darwish, the center and similar experiences helped Mizrahi feel more comfortable and knowledgeable about American culture.
Darwish said he has heard many similar stories like Mizrahi’s. He said he gladly shares his story of leaving his home country to anyone who asks, because it can help people feel like they are not alone.
“I am not ashamed of what happened to me and my family. I want to help others more than just teaching English, and I want them to know I am here to help in any other way I can,” Darwish said.
“I felt alone when I arrived, other than my family, and I want them to know they are not alone.”