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City Hall opens its doors to refugees
Civics Day helps displaced families navigate City system
refugee day pic 2
Haniyah Saeedi sits behind Mayor Gary Soiseths desk during her tour of City Hall on Refugee Civics Day. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Four months ago, Abdul Rahim Saeedi arrived in Turlock with his family as refugees from Afghanistan, fleeing the war-town Middle East. Saeedi, a former strategy planning advisor, fled his home country and came to the United States in search of opportunities for his children, and as he watched his daughter sit behind the desk of the Mayor’s office during Saturday’s Refugee Civics Day at City Hall, his heart swelled with pride.

“The United States is the land of opportunity, and will give us the chance to improve ourselves,” said Saeedi. “For my kids, I hope they can fulfill their plans to be doctors or engineers here.”

Saeedi’s daughter, Haniyah Saeedi, is already making the most of her new life in Turlock. The Medeiros Elementary School fourth grader was recently named Student of the Month – news she shared with Mayor Gary Soiseth as she took a tour of his office during Refugee Civics Day.

The event geared toward helping refugees understand their new city and how it works was the first of its kind, said Soiseth, and was made possible through a collaboration with Turlock’s International Rescue Committee office. Since October 2016, the IRC has been working to bring at least 400 refugees to Turlock by the end of the fiscal year, and many others have arrived in years prior.

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.

“I spent time in Afghanistan working with local natives who stuck their neck out to help American troops like myself, and when it became too unsafe to live there, a lot of them became refugees,” said Soiseth. “I want to make sure I’m a welcoming mayor to refugees in Turlock, just like I hope other cities would help welcome refugees who helped me in Afghanistan.”

During Saturday’s event, around 60 of Turlock’s refugees gathered in City Hall where they were introduced to government leaders, like Chief of Police Nino Amirfar, City Manager Gary Hampton and Chief of Fire Robert Talloni, 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.

“All of us here are public servants,” said City Attorney Phaedra Norton. “What that means is we are here to serve the members of our community, and you are very important members of our community and so we’re here to serve you.”

Chiefs Amirfar and Talloni, with the help of a Farsi interpreter, explained how to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, and emphasized the fact that as Turlock’s newest residents, they would be protected by the City’s law enforcement and fire departments. Amirfar also shared a piece of his history with the crowd, informing them that his parents migrated to America from Iran in the 1950s.

“I tell you this because I stand now in front of you in a uniform and want you to understand that I trust every single human being in our city, and I also want them to trust me,” said Amirfar.

In addition to meeting various city leaders, IRC representatives provided a presentation for those in attendance which outlined refugee rights, and the refugees also took a tour of City Hall and got an up-close look at a police car and fire truck.

“When we first came here, we had a lot of problems. We didn’t know the rules and regulations because we were new,” said Saeedi. “Our old community can’t compare with this new one…we came here today and saw all of these people who are at our service. If we have a problem, we can call them. It’s a great start.”

Soiseth hopes that Saturday’s Refugee Civics Day will be the first of many, and has been overwhelmed by Turlock’s outpouring of support for the city’s new arrivals.

“I’m so proud of the Turlock community for welcoming these individuals into our town,” said Soiseth. “It was such a great sight to see these young kids running around City Hall, sitting at my desk who used to be in Syria. It was a very proud day for me as mayor.”