Her family fled violence in Iraq. Now this woman helps other refugees in Fort Worth

·8 min read

Marwa Al Ibrahim never imagined she would be living in the United States.

But violence in Iraq forced her to apply for refugee status. Her father lost one of his arms from a sticky bomb. Her anxiety over the safety of her young son and husband grew.

“I felt like death was approaching,” Al Ibrahim, 35, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram while holding her one-year-old daughter in their home.

In 2014, Al Ibrahim and her family became among the thousands of refugees who have resettled in the United States. For some like Al Ibrahim, the Fort Worth area is now their new home — giving them hopes of better opportunities and a safe place.

When arriving in the United States, Al Ibrahim realized many people in this country were just like her.

“We have so much in common. That’s what surprised me,” Al Ibrahim said. “We look forward to being safe, self-sufficient, and supporting our families.”

According to the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees, there are 82.4 million people forcibly displaced worldwide and 26.4 million are refugees. The agency reported there were 340,881 people in the United States considered refugees in 2020.

Texas is one of the top states refugees may be relocated to in the U.S.

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth and Refugee Services of Texas helped resettle 393 refugees in Tarrant County in 2020. Many people came from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar.

Before leaving Iraq, Al Ibrahim knew she wanted to help others in her situation. She is now working as a supervisor for the employment program in the Fort Worth office of Refugee Services of Texas. She helps other refugees adjust to lives in the U.S. and receive the services they need to flourish.

How does someone become a refugee?

The United Nations Higher Commission on Refugees decides how an individual can be considered a refugee. An applicant is screened by the international agency and is referred to a country for resettlement.

Natalie Nanasi, a professor at SMU Dedman School of Law and the director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women, said coming to the United States as a refugee is extremely difficult.

“Coming to the United States as a refugee is about the hardest way for one to come into this country,” she said.

Nanasi said the screening process is extensive and can take years. Many refugees don’t have a say on where they are relocated and to which state in the United States.

The President of the United States consults with Congress to determine the amount of refugees that will be allowed to come into the country for the following year. Refugee admissions declined under President Donald Trump’s Administration.

President Joe Biden signed an Emergency Presidential Determination to raise the resettlement goal to 62,500 for 2021 after initially saying it would keep the previous administration’s limit of 15,000, NPR reported.

In the United States, the State Department will approve a person’s application and then they will be screened by the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, like the FBI. A person’s family and other connections will be looked into by the government agencies.

Nanasi said the entire experience of being a refugee can be challenging. A person experiences leaving their home, living in limbo for years and restarting in a new country where they may not know the language.

“Refugees by definition are people who have experienced terrible things,” Nanasi said.

Many refugees also experience culture shock, trauma and deal with raising their children in a new place.

In the late 1980s, Nanasi’s family left Hungary and relocated to the United States when she was a young child. Nanasi’s paperwork labeled her country of citizenship as “stateless.”

“Refugees can do things that are great benefits to our society,” Nanasi said.

From Iraq to Fort Worth

It took six years from the time Al Ibrahim and her family applied for refugee resettlement and arrived in the United States. She worked as an interpreter for a French newspaper while living in Iraq.

Years later, her skills led Al Ibrahim to her career today helping other refugees navigate American culture.

A resettlement agency greeted Al Ibrahim and her family at the airport when they arrived in Texas and took them to a furnished apartment which had essentials like food in the refrigerator and dishes in the cabinets.

Like many resettlement agencies in the area, the organization immediately gave the family an orientation on the public transportation system, helped schedule doctor appointments, provided career counseling and guided them through enrolling in public assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid.

Al Ibrahim said the process was overwhelming at first because being told about the many details of the various programs is different than physically experiencing them first-hand. When living in Iraq, she didn’t have to schedule a doctor’s appointment before walking in.

Resettlement agencies also help enroll refugees into ESL (English as a second language) classes, children in school, and provide orientation on budgeting, US laws, and cultural adjustment.

Before relocating, refugees have an orientation on their destination country. Al Ibrahim said she learned about American culture and the role of case workers who would help her family when they arrived.

The role of the case worker sparked an interest in her. She became curious on how she could help others in her situation when arriving to the United States.

“I wanted to do the same, to help people stand on their feet,” the mother said.

After arriving in Texas, Al Ibrahim’s family realized childcare was too expensive for their young son. She decided to stay home to take care of him while her husband worked. According to the United Way of Tarrant County’s 2018-2019 Community Assessment, the average childcare cost for a toddler is almost $800 per month.

When Al Ibrahim had to go on errands, she would take her son in his stroller and navigate the public transportation system.

Members of her community began asking her for help with paperwork because she knew how to speak English. This led her to become a certified interpreter in the United States. She said that refugees with language barriers can have more challenges due to having trouble with filling out applications for jobs. The federal government expects refugees to find jobs as soon as possible.

“Once they find jobs, they feel really safe and secure,” she said.

A refugee may still be dealing with trauma after arriving in their destination country. The first few years may be focused on employment and adjusting to their new lives. Some refugees in Tarrant County have been able to buy homes within five to 10 years after arriving, according to resettlement agencies.

Al Ibrahim eventually got a job with Refugee Services of Texas’ Fort Worth office. She started off as an employment case manager and has worked as a supervisor for two years.

Zoe Wilkerson, area director for Refugee Services of Texas’ Fort Worth office, said Al Ibrahim is a powerful asset to the organization.

“Marwa’s desire to go above and beyond and help staff stem from her heart for our client populations and an understanding of where they have come from,” Wilkerson said. “Marwa has experienced hardship but her positive outlook and constant smiles would make it hard for anyone to know.”

Al Ibrahim’s typical day involves checking in with her team and helping them with any challenges their clients may have, and providing guidance and training. As an employment case manager, she helped clients with their job search, took them to potential employers and provided career counseling.

Overcoming challenges

When Al Ibrahim arrived to Texas, she had family members who lived here. However, not all refugees have family in their destination country. Last year, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth helped resettle 34 single people who arrived alone.

Al Ibrahim said it is important for refugees to have opportunities to meet others to form a community. Refugee Services of Texas provides a program to connect members of the community with their clients. Some participants cook with each other, practice their language skills and develop strong friendships.

In 2019, Al Ibrahim became a U.S. Citizen. An individual isn’t able to have refugee status for very long. Al Ibrahim said she is proud to say she is an American because the United States is her home, it provided her a safe place, opportunities and chances for her children.

“This is why I came here, to give back to the country who supported me,” she said.

For Al Ibrahim’s children, she hopes they will appreciate the sacrifices their family had to make to come to the United States safely, diversity and their history.

Al Ibrahim said her experience has taught her a lot about herself: She’s independent. She’s strong. She’s patient.

“Flexible enough to learn and go through situations that did scare me,” Al Ibrahim said.

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