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2011 Utah Refugee Conference

Imagine that you have just left a war.  You have seen people that you know die, you have seen homes you’ve walked passed everyday bombed and destroyed.  Everyday you have been afraid for your safety and the safety of your children.  You have stayed in, stopped working, stopped school.  Maybe your father has been tortured, or maybe it was you.  You forget things because of it, you can’t lift up your arms from the scars.Imagine now that the country that was your country’s enemy has accepted you and your family as refugees.Imagine that you speak none of the language that is spoken in your refugee country.  What money do you have with you?  You spent it all to get away from war.  How are you going to provide for your family?What if your mother falls ill, in your new country or back home?  There are no doctors who can calm you when your daughter breaks her arm, there is no one you can trust to keep your deepest secrets?  When the doctors stop trying, how do you get a loved one back to her friends and family before she dies?Our Iraqi refugees don’t need to imagine any of this, it is their reality.Imagine their situation and then ask, is there one place where they can go and get help?  And the answer: other Iraqis who have been in the United States longer and who form the Iraqi community in Utah.The Iraqi community is not perfect, but it is all that Iraqi refugees have.   Today I want to show you how Iraqis are succeeding in serving one another’s needs, how they are getting educated, and how they have tried to blend in.  I also will briefly talk about the reasons for their difficulties in organizing.My name is Samira Harnish and I an Iraqi-American women who is humbled and proud to talk on behalf of my country women and men.I moved to Utah on 2008, after living in America for more than 30 years and this is the 1st time I see many Iraqi refugee here in Utah.  I have done many kinds of volunteering in my life but when I saw the 1st Iraqi refugee I was so happy, sad, and worried.Happy: because I didn’t go Iraq for 30 years & now I see the Iraqi citizens are here close to me; worried: because I must help them as much as I can; sad and guilty: because I never shared their horrors of the war.I want to tell you a story about one lady, I was her interpreter for 2 years, she asked me why you are doing all this work for me & the others & before us you helped Americans as a volunteer & what do you get from all this?  Nothing!!I told her that in America there are a lot of people that volunteer because it makes them feel good and that’s what I feel. I told her that when I help you, you pay me with a beautiful smile & a thoughtful prayer. She told me I love to be like you one day.Was she true to her word, is she using my example and serving the community? This woman went thru many surgeries, is a cancer survivor, and don’t want to say more, and guess what?…  She learned how to drive & with her pain and her many problems she continues volunteer for the new arrivals.She is supportive in any way she can, baby sitting, cooking for sick families, and taking patients to the hospital.  Now her whole family serves unconditionally and lovingly in the Iraqi community!  She is one of many women that’s helping the Iraqi community this way.Others in the community serve as a different kind of example.  Have ever tried to transfer credits between universities?  Do you know how few credits are applied to your new school?  Now imagine the credits transfer between Iraq and America.  Impossible.  It would be easy to give up, frustrated and over-qualified, right?  Not for Iraqis, we are very proud of our education.Instead of frustration, the lack of credit transfer is seen as an opportunity, to refocus our attention on what we might have missed the first time around.  As an example there is a gentleman that had his bachelors degree but was not granted the same status in America.  He quickly completed his undergraduate work and is completing an advanced degree in a very challenging profession.For the littlest kindness, the Iraqi refugees return a far larger gift.  In return for a Christmas gift for an ill girl, the family invited the entire apartment’s Iraqis over for dinner and conversation.  Even though their ESL Driver’s License teacher doesn’t speak Arabic, the students make him feel like family.  Iraqi men shake hands and afterward hold their hands to their hearts; women kiss on the cheek.  The Iraqis in Utah believe in family and treating others fairly and they prove it every day.Issues that challenge the Iraqi service community are:First, we must communicate through all levels of the organization.  In order to ensure the best service to our clients, we must have board meeting minutes published and our events on the web.Second, in small organizations, everyone has many tasks to do.  A title does not give a social standing, instead the actions prove the most about a person. It is hard to explain the difference between a service organization and a social organization to someone who has only seen a social club.Lastly, women are the cornerstones of society — their dreams are the dreams of society — peace, family, and friendship.  As Gerald Brown says, “If you want to support refugee organizations, support women.”  My new organization, Women of the World, will empower women to new heights in their own businesses, in academics, and in service.But with all of these difficulties, hope survives.Hope comes in small packages.  People trust you when you are there for them, when you do what you say.  People trust your actions, not your words.  I think that, by being positive and consistent, many Iraqis have opened their hearts to their Utah neighbors and their Iraqi community service organizations.My mom used to tell a story of the yogurt maids that would carry 5 to 10 trays of yogurt on their heads.  The lesson was humility and concentration, stacking no more on your head than you could safely balance and focusing on taking one step at a time until you reached your destination.  In the delicate act of balancing culture and progress, the Iraqis in Utah must be open to helping others and learning about their new neighbors, but with diligence so their culture is preserved.  This will ensure that the dessert is delivered sweet!Thank you.

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