In war-torn Syria, 50 families are forced to flee their homes every hour of every day. Nearly 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of a civil war in 2011, and as families struggle to survive in their country’s harsh conditions, many have made their way to the United States, and specifically, Turlock.
So far, 17,000 Syrian refugees have resettled into new, safe homes. The International Rescue Center is one organization that helps oversee their transition into America, from picking refugees up at the airport to helping them earn their citizenship. The US is home to 26 IRC offices; there are six offices in California, one of which opened in Turlock in 2004.
“Turlock was an ideal spot for an office because of the city’s affordability,” said IRC Development Manager Maggie Hicks. “There have been refugees coming to Turlock for years, and it’s been a very welcoming community.”
Since Oct. 1, 2011, over 1,800 refugees have resettled in Turlock thanks to help from the IRC – just over 10 percent of the total number of resettled refugees. Though the refugees arriving in the city come from a variety of places, such as Syria and African countries like Uganda, Hicks explained that a majority of Turlock’s refugees – around 35 to 40 percent – are Special Immigrant Visa holders from Afghanistan. These refugees are primarily men who have worked alongside US Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving as translators or interpreters.
“Their lives are specifically in danger because of that connection,” said Hicks. “The SIV program was started to ensure that those who have risked their lives for us are not being left behind.”
Many refugees who come to Turlock as SIV holders are already fluent in English as a result of their time spent working for the military. Both Republicans and Democrats have resoundingly supported the SIV program, said Hicks, and the program will continue in 2017 thanks to recent Congressional approval.
“The military needs its interpreters to trust them and to have their backs, so this is their way of earning that trust,” said Hicks of the program.
For refugees who arrive in Turlock, the IRC’s main goal is to help them become self sufficient. From the moment they arrive, refugees are placed in a variety of programs meant to help them assimilate into American culture. The IRC enrolls refugees in vocational English classes and early employment programs, and within just two weeks of arriving in Turlock, many are already hunting for their first job.
“Refugees are extremely hard-working and oftentimes entrepreneurial,” said Hicks. “They’re very grateful to be here – you see men and fathers who are just chomping at the bit to be able to provide for their family again.”
The IRC also helps refugees become accustomed to American culture through cultural orientations that are given very soon after arrival. Refugees learn everything they need to know about their new home: how to access public transportation, what different traffic signs mean, how to use an American calendar, social customs and more.
“They learn all of the things that they’ll need to be able to navigate everyday life here in America,” said Hicks.
The work that the IRC does to help refugees happens primarily at the beginning of their journey, and after refugees become assimilated into the American culture, the organization has little contact with them. A majority go on to receive their American citizenship and become contributing members to society. While some do leave to neighboring cities or to be with family elsewhere, a majority of refugees that arrive in Turlock remain in the city to live, work and rebuild their lives, said Hicks.
“From what we’ve seen, refugees in general have been uprooted so many times and are so eager to have a home and build new life, where they land is where they tend to stay,” she said.
Hicks has seen firsthand through her work the impact that refugees have on the communities where they live. The IRC is working on a way to quantify the benefits that refugees bring to the cities where they land, but according to Hicks, dangerous communities have become safer following refugees’ arrival, and some cities have seen complete economic turnarounds thanks to what she describes as resilience.
“We’ve seen these things happen in multiple different offices across the country,” said Hicks. “Refugees tend to be very resilient. Only one percent of refugees are resettled, and to be in that one percent you’ve already proven yourself to be resilient – you have beaten every possible odd and pulled your family out of a very dangerous situation.”
The Assyrian American Civic Club in Turlock has experienced the resilient spirit of refugees firsthand, said President Sam David. The organization recently established the Assyrian Wellness Collaborative, delving into what they can do to aid the refugee crisis and specifically, how they can help those arriving in Turlock.
Since creating the collaborative, the AACC has seen about 30 refugees begin working at their facility, only to move on to better jobs once they’ve acquired employable skills.
“We give them employment, whether it be in the kitchen or doing something else, so that they can gain experience and learn the language,” said David.
Many refugees fleeing the Middle East were born Assyrian, said David, which has compelled local Assyrians to lend a hand.
“Since we’re a big population in Turlock, we felt a responsibility to help,” said David.
Through its Helping Hands Committee, the AACC focuses on collecting donations, such as furniture, clothes and other necessities, to give to arriving refugee families. Local families have allowed refugees to stay in their homes and even donated cars in the past – just two displays of Turlock’s generosity toward its new residents.
“I can’t brag about Turlock enough,” said David. “Overall, the community is very welcoming.”
Turlock’s IRC office is always looking for volunteers, whether it’s helping put together “welcome kits” for incoming refugees or simply donating items or money to help make their transition easier. Many volunteer activities take place during the workweek, said Hicks, making it difficult for some to donate their time.
“There are a number of special projects we need help with,” said Hicks.
The IRC is also in search of local community groups that can donate their time or storage space to the small office, and is currently in need of a volunteer to work the location’s front desk. Those who would like to donate their time, money or items to the Turlock IRC office may contact them at 209-667-2378.
“When you see a family in need that’s been displaced in a country where they don’t speak the language or know how to maneuver their daily life…when you get them to the point where they’re self sufficient, that’s the most rewarding part,” said David.