Ghada Bayati lost nearly everything in Iraq. Now she has 24 families in Houston, Texas.
Bayati and her three children came to the U.S. eight years ago as refugees. She witnessed her husband get murdered in front of her during the Iraq War in 2003. She was pregnant with her third child when a mob struck their car and killed her husband. She went into a coma for three days after the incident.
“They even tried to kill me in the hospital. My last straw was when they attempted to kidnap my son, who was nine years old then,” she told Fusion in Arabic.
Now Bayati, 48, is a client service assistant at Amaanah Refugee Services, a nonprofit in Houston, Texas. As part of her job, she is helping 24 newly arrived refugee families from Iraq, Syria, Burma, and elsewhere to become-self sufficient in the U.S. She shared with Fusion her best advice for people starting over in a new country.
According to the U.S. Refugee Processing Center, in 2015 Houston received 1,869 refugees, more than any other state.
As a refugee in the U.S., Bayati started from the bottom up. She had to learn the language, find a job, and raise her three children alone. “I had to start from zero. I had to worry about paying the bill and rent. I needed to learn the language and get acclimated in society. I was worried 24 hours a day on how to provide for my kids,” she said.
Bayati quickly realized that some on the streets were looking at her in a different way, and she did not like that. As Muslim single mother and Iraqi refugee, she had to change her appearance to fit into society. “I started to change little details to get people to accept me as a Muslim refugee woman in society here. For example. I stopped wearing dark hijabs and started wearing colorful ones,” said Bayati.
She did not change her beliefs. Rather she found a middle ground that best suits her new home in Texas. “I didn’t change my personality or my beliefs, but rather I changed little details that would help Americans understand more about me and not be afraid of me,” she said.
As a single mother of three, Bayati found herself lonely without any help after the federal assigned aid ran out four months after her resettlement. She reached out to Amaanah Refugee Services for post-resettlement help. She was enrolled into the group’s single mother program, where she received language and social support. The primary objective of the program was for Bayati’s positive integration into society.
Amaanah’s mission is to integrate resettled refugees into their new homes and communities. “We believe that refugees are one of the most underserved and most vulnerable group out there,” said Ghulam Kehar, the CEO and founder of Amaanah Refugee Services. After their government assistance runs out within the first six months or less, there are not many places that they can go for additional help.
“Now I am trying to help refugees heal and become an effective part of society through my work at Amaanah,” said Bayati, who has a university degree in business management from Iraq.
Bayati has a couple of tips to help new refugees get acclimated faster in the U.S.
Cultures and traditions can clash during resettlement, but to avoid that refugees must accept positive changes in their way of life, she said. “Always remember that you are coming from a different culture to a new one. So don't expect people to change for your sake. You as a refugee need to change and be accepting of the new culture you are now a part of,” Bayati said.
Learning the language will help, but one needs to take it a step further. “Try to learn the language and the accent of the state you live in. That will help people relate better to you,” she said. “The minute I signed the U.N. papers to become a refugee in the U.S. nine years ago, I started learning the language and the culture. That does not mean that I forget my language or my culture, but rather I carried it with me to my new homeland.”
Show your children the best of both cultures, she advised. “Plant the positive seed within your children, show them the positivities in both cultures.” said Bayati.
And Bayati’s golden rule is:
“I join my neighbors during all the holidays, whether they are Christians, Jews or people with no religion,” she said. Bayati and her family join their neighbors in celebrating all holidays. “My neighbors reach out and invite me to their celebrations and holidays. Of course I attend,” said Bayati.
Bayati’s family and friends will be celebrating Memorial Day this weekend. “We will fly the American flag outside our house just like everyone else,” she said.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."