“Gemma” and her husband, Armenian Apostolic Christians, fled religious persecution in their native Iran by paying smugglers to take them to Turkey. From there, they proceeded on to Bosnia and finally arrived in Austria, their last stop before being interviewed and accepted as refugees to the United States in 2000.
“It’s hard when you start all over in a new country,” said “Gemma,” the pseudonym of a client coordinator in the Glendale office of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles (CCLA), which helped her resettle when she first arrived. She was among a handful of former refugee clients at CCLA’s information booth talking to recently-arrived refugees attending the World Refugee Day event at Glendale’s Adult Recreation Center June 12.
Partnering with the Los Angeles County Refugee Forum to host the second annual local information fair, CCLA — which has provided immigration services for over 50 years — was one of several non-profit and government agencies at the event promoting a wide-range of legal, social and health services to Los Angeles refugees, asylees and victims of human trafficking.
Last year, 1,445 refugees were resettled in Los Angeles County, with the majority being from Iran (1,029) and Iraq (323). Among the 29,484 asylum applications granted in fiscal year 2012 to foreigners already in the U.S. seeking asylum protection, 38 percent represent asylees living in California.
Sona Yaghazarian, an Armenian Orthodox Christian asylee from Iraq who has worked at CCLA since 2008, says that there has been a surge in Arabic-speaking asylees, especially from Egypt. Recently, she was the case worker for a Christian Egyptian family, whose five-year-old daughter was scarred over 30 percent of her body from acid thrown by a motorcycle rider as she and her parents walked together not far from their home in Cairo two years ago.
Now living in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Los Angeles area, where the father has found part-time work at a gas station, the family received approval for their asylum case last year, and they are grateful they can walk freely without fear of threats or attack. Yaghazarian helped to prepare them for life in their new country, including helping to enroll them in public benefits.
“When I speak their language, they feel more comfortable,” Yaghazarian told The Tidings about her many Arabic-speaking clients. “Every time, I tell them examples from my own experience, and it helps them to get through their challenges.”
Working from CCLA’s Glendale office, Yaghazarian is currently assisting refugees and asylees from Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and the Philippines. Other case workers are assisting clients from Iran, Uganda, Mexico and China.
“[CCLA’s job developer] Debra Jones helped me a lot to get job training as a dental technician,” said Merooj Vartanian, 41, an Iranian dentist who recently left his homeland due to religious persecution. “It was very difficult to [come] here, but now I’m glad I’m here,” said Vartanian, attending the event with his wife, Rita.
Ibrahim Bashara, 56, a former worker with a U.S. Army contractor in Iraq who left recently with his wife and children for safety reasons, was also attending the event. “I’m here for a new life,” said Bashara. “I have to start from the beginning [and] Catholic Charities is helping me [look for] a job.”
Amanda Doupé, community outreach coordinator for CCLA’s immigration and refugee department, told The Tidings that people can do a lot to help welcome refugees and asylees in their community.
“When someone becomes a refugee and starts anew, it’s really nice to have a friend,” said Doupé. “It can be as small as taking someone to the grocery store, or telling them how they can get these services and benefits for their children, or someone to just sit there and practice English with them. Any little thing people can contribute, it’s really helpful in helping Catholic Charities to resettle people successfully.”
For more information on CCLA’s Immigration & Refugee Department located at 1530 James M. Wood Blvd. (main office), in Los Angeles, call (213) 251-3411. Immigration & Refugee services are also available in the regional offices in Glendale, (818) 409-0057, and Rosemead, (626) 236-6818.