By Christine Kim
Channel 2 News
3:37 PM AKDT, May 5, 2011
There's an old saying that goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
Catholic Social Services’ Welcome Center for refugees centers around that proverb. In a setting that resembles a kindergarten classroom, the center distills the American lifestyle to its basics. How to tell time and how to count money are skills Americans often take for granted, but are crucial for new arrivals to learn.
“We really have to start with them with scratch, so we really have to start the basics with them like money,” said Laura Smith, an instructor’s assistant at the Welcome Center. “Some of them have been here as short as five months and up to two years -- and they still struggle with concepts of money, like the difference between a penny and a nickel.”
The refugees, who hail from countries as far-flung as Somalia, Bhutan and Myanmar, are joined by the common thread of learning a new culture.
“They want to work as soon as they get here,” said the Welcome Center’s Mirna Estrada.
The center’s Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program focuses on job readiness. Refugees face language and cultural barriers that make it hard to find a job similar to ones they had in their home countries -- but to them, it's about being self-sufficient.
“They will adapt. These are folks that know how to survive. They are resilient; they can adapt to change,” said Estrada. “They will be happy to get any job if it’s going to give them a better life in the United States.”
The transition into the U.S., however, takes time and adjustment.
“Really, that entire first year is a year of extreme grieving, ambivalence, and gratitude,” said the State of Alaska’s refugee coordinator, Karen Ferguson.
Ilyas Mocalin, who came to Alaska from Somalia, is going through that first year. Recalling his first visit to Downtown Anchorage, the 18-year-old says the rules took some time to learn, after a difficult journey to the Last Frontier.
Fighting in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu -- site of the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident that killed 18 U.S. soldiers -- forced thousands to flee. What Mocalin remembers of his home country is an image he wants to forget.
“We don’t have a lot of buildings, because all the time they fight -- they destroy all the building,” Mocalin said. “It’s not good. It looks ugly. It's different.”
In a three-month journey, Mocalin traveled by car from Somalia to Libya, then traveled by boat to a refugee camp in Malta. He was later given refugee status and came to Anchorage in November 2010.
“I was surprised that time when I see snow, because I’ve never seen that,” said Mocalin. “I've never seen snow before.”
He repeatedly told Channel 2 that his life is very different now.
“I feel good. I feel better life. Better, yeah, I feel free, a lot of things,” he said.
It's a future much brighter than the one Mocalin and other refugees have left behind.
“A lot of them already have jobs, but a lot of them want to be more than what they're doing right now,” said Estrada. “They want to be nurses, they want to be mechanics, they want to go to school.”
And instead of counting on luck, these refugees are hoping that their hard work will add up to a better life.
Contact Christine Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org
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