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City Hall makes refugees feel at home
Refugee Civics Day 1
Mayor Gary Soiseth chats with his temporary city manager, Pitman High School freshman and Syrian refugee Mohammad Al-krad, during Saturdays Refugee Civics Day at City Hall. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

When Awad Al-krad arrived in his new home of Turlock 18 months ago, he was happy. His family was safe, away from Syria and the war-torn Middle East, and he was looking forward to beginning a new life.

Al-krad spoke from the heart during Saturday’s second annual Refugee Civics Day, when Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar posed the question of “What does the United States mean to you?”

“For me and my family, it means we can make a future,” he said.

Life hasn’t been easy for Al-krad and his family of 10 since coming to America, but he is grateful. He enjoyed a lavish life as a lawyer in Syria and even owned two homes, he said, before his family was forced to flee. But now, he has next to nothing, working as a janitor to make ends meet and acting as the sole provider for his large household.

Part of that struggle has been coming to an entirely new country without knowing how many of America’s systems work – something that Refugee Civics Day aims to remedy in part.

The event, geared toward helping refugees understand their new city, was held through a collaboration between the City of Turlock and Turlock’s International Rescue Committee office. A statewide grant to the IRC for Syrians made the event possible, with a portion of the $22,600 that the Turlock office alone received going towards the Civics Day. 

From October 2016 to October 2017, the IRC worked to bring close to 400 refugees to Turlock, and many more have arrived in years prior.

Around 60 of Turlock’s newest residents gathered at City Hall for the event on Saturday, where, with the help of an interpreter, they were introduced to government leaders, like Amirfar and Mayor Gary Soiseth, and were taught about the city’s inner workings, like how parks throughout Turlock are operated and where they can sign their children up for Little League.

Soiseth has worked to make Turlock a welcoming home for refugees, and his desire to help the city’s newest residents stemmed from his time spent in Afghanistan, where he worked to rebuild the country’s agricultural sector as first a United States Department of Agriculture Senior Advisor, then as the Director of Economic Growth for the United States Army.

“This city is very special, and we have people, parents and grandparents, who have been here for over a hundred years, and then we have new people that have come, just like you,” said Soiseth. “Today is about you. We want to make sure you feel as welcome as possible here in the City of Turlock. We want you to realize this city hall, this building, is yours, just as much as it is ours. You might come downstairs to pay your water bill, or you might come upstairs to meet with myself or the city manager, but we always want to make sure you feel welcome.”

Amirfar also gave the group a lesson on how to dial 9-1-1, and, coming from a family of immigrants himself, had some words of advice for refugees like Al-krad who may feel helpless in their new, unfamiliar environment. Amirfar told the former lawyer that just as he went to college to become a lawyer in Syria, he can do the same in the United States.

“When we came from Iran, my uncle was a surgeon. He came here and lost everything,” said Amirfar. “Fifty years later, he is a surgeon in New York. His daughter is a lawyer in New York. His son is a surgeon in New York.

“I tell you this because each and every one of you have a future here. What do you want? What are you willing to do to sacrifice – and you have sacrificed to come here, but you have opportunities and I want you to know that.”

Amirfar, Soiseth, and other City officials all echoed to the group the same sentiment: One day, the seats that we sit in to govern could become yours.

Al-krad’s son Mohammad got a taste of what it would be like to serve as City Manager when Robert Talloni gifted him a seat right next to Soiseth for the event, complete with a name placard that read “Mohammad, City Manager.”

Mohammad and his sister Nervana are both students at Pitman High School, and have been settling in well since they arrived, they said.

In addition to meeting the City’s leaders, Mohammad, Nervana and other children in attendance also received an up-close look at a police car and fire truck, with many taking turns firing the engine’s hose into the sky.

“We love it here,” said Nervana.