Rashidi Byaombe wasn’t used to peace.
After living most of his life in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and a refugee camp in South Africa, Byaombe and his family arrived Sept. 13, 2013 in Greensboro. Byaombe hadn’t found a job, nor had he secured a place to live. Fortunately for the family, the North Carolina African Services Coalition had prepared for their arrival.
The coalition is a nonprofit resettlement agency that helps refugees and asylum-seekers in Greensboro find places to live, employment services and information on settlement and assimilation into American life.
In the United States, refugee status or asylum is granted to people who have been oppressed because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. Asylum-seekers are those whose claim as a refugee hasn’t been evaluated according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Since the coalition formed in 1997, it has helped about 200 new refugees a year from around the world adjust to their new lives.
“If there’s some question I don’t understand, I can run to the coalition and ask what to do,” Byaombe said “They’re like my parents here in the United States.”
Before moving to Greensboro, Byaombe lived in a refugee camp in South Africa for about 10 years. But in 2008, it was no longer safe for the Byaombe family while xenophobic attacks erupted across the country, resulting in at least 60 deaths.
Byaombe began to apply for resettlement.
“We didn’t know if we were going to the United States,” he said. “We explained our problem, that we were not safe in South Africa.”
The family boarded a plane in September 2013 to take them to safety. When they touched down at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a member of the coalition was waiting for them.
Welcome to Greensboro
Million Mekonnen, executive director of the North Carolina African Services Coalition, is one of the nine employees who works to help the refugees, or “immigration clients” as the coalition calls them, adjust.
“When new clients come, I go to the airport and pick them up myself, so I know them from the first day they’re here,” Mekonnen said. “They want to change their situation and make it better.”
The coalition will have an apartment picked out, rent paid for and other services provided by the time its clients arrive. It will continue to provide services for up to five years after the individual or family first arrives in Greensboro.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Center for New North Carolinians expands on programs offered by the coalition by picking up where the coalition leaves off, according to Holly Sienkiewicz, interim director of the center.
The center offers health access programs to educate refugees on the American healthcare system, in addition to tutoring services and English language courses, so clients can walk to them.
“Public transportation isn’t the best in Greensboro,” Sienkiewicz said. “We do all that we can to build bridges so they know what the city of Greensboro has to offer.”
Although the people the coalition serves start off in the United States on a level playing field, every case is different.
The time it takes for clients to arrive from their home countries varies. Mekonnen said refugees from the Middle East can take about five years to be cleared to travel to the United States, while some in refugee camps there or in Africa, wait up to 20 years to leave.
“There are people, actually, who have been in refugee camp 20 years or more,” Mekonnen said. “There are people who have never been outside of the refugee camp who don’t know anything other than that refugee camp.”
Mekonnen, who just returned from a Rwandan camp in September, said camp dwellers can be left in limbo.
“Either they cannot go back to their country because it is a complicated issue or they cannot integrate to the local community,” he said. “How can we better service them? We need to see the situation.”
Mekonnen knows from first-hand experience what it’s like to be an outsider. Originally from Ethiopia, he moved to North Carolina in 2004 to attend graduate school at North Carolina State University. While working at Research Triangle Park (RTP), he met the previous director of the coalition, and shortly thereafter, began working for the coalition in September 2011.
“I lived in RTP for seven years, but I always felt like a stranger,” Mekonnen said. “Within two years I started calling Greensboro home because it’s very diverse, and I see people like me all over the place.”
To make sure immigrants and refugees feel welcomed by the community, Sienkiewicz and the Center for New North Carolinians work to build the relationship between natives and immigrants.
“A lot of new arrivals are isolated civically, linguistically, socially,” Sienkiewicz said. “Our mission is to bridge immigrants and refugee communities with the local community.”
A highly populated refugee community isn’t new to Greensboro. For decades refugees and immigrants have been moving to the city to start a new life.
Major shifts in the ethnic population began after World War II. In the 1960s, West African nations like Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia began sending students to North Carolina A&T State University.
Later, the Vietnam War caused a flood of refugees to enter into the United Sates in the mid and late 1970s. One reason for this influx was that the U.S. sponsored an evacuation of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees, most of whom were educated professionals. A second wave of poorer, rural dwellers followed a few years later.
That flood has since dwindled to a steady 400 refugees coming into Greensboro every year, with roughly 750 entering Guilford County. But unlike in previous decades when refugees typically came from one country, the inundation has recently changed to a mix of people.
“The refugees used to come in waves,” Sienkiewicz said. “At one time — Vietnamese. Another time — Cambodians. Now, it’s much more diversified.”
The conglomeration of peoples from various walks of life has made the adjustment easier for Byaombe, who said his biggest surprise about Greensboro was how much people like each other.
“They don’t care where you are coming from,” Byaombe said. “They talk to you like a friend, like a brother or sister.”
The influx of refugees prompted Greensboro’s City Council to establish it a “Welcoming City” to immigrants and refugees. In conjunction with the announcement, the American Friends Services Committee — a Quaker group working for social justice — released a report detailing steps to allow equal access to opportunities for all city residents.
The report touched upon transportation, language barriers and access to services, among others.
“Resettling refugees is not a one-agency job — it is everybody’s job,” Mekonnen said. “Agencies have limited resources, so without the help of the community we wouldn’t really support any of the refugees that are resettling.”
Today, there are some parts of home to provide comfort for the various immigrant communities. An abundance of international markets have appeared, and Byaombe has taken full advantage of it.
“There’s an international market here that we enjoy,” Byaombe said. “We can go there, and I can find some food I saw many years in Congo. I say, ‘Oh, oh my god, this food is here.’ Then I enjoy it.”
Not every person has transitioned as well to his or her new living situation.
According to Mekonnen, it might take up to a year for immigrants to adjust to their current lives. Some of the challenges they face are setting their expectations too high and struggling to make ends meet.
Occasionally, this leads to some refugees returning to their home countries.
“I know this client (from Iraq) who came in August 2012, and he went right back after two months,” Mekonnen said. “This person had a job over there, and he was living a decent life.”
‘Legs on the ground’
The struggle to find jobs has been a problem for agencies that work with refugees.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a program within the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, named Greensboro a national resettlement site in 1980, which factors in the cost of living and job availability, among other things.
Historically, Greensboro has had a strong manufacturing base. Sienkiewicz said jobs in warehouses and factories are traditionally easier for non-English speakers to pick up, but there have been some logistical issues.
“The calculation is a little behind because typically, in the past, Greensboro had a large manufacturing base,” she said. “Since then, manufacturing has been abroad, but we still receive the same numbers because that calculation isn’t updated regularly.”
The North Carolina African Services Coalition has begun to combat this shortage of jobs with expansions in the last few years. One of its major additions is the Microenterprise for Refugees in the Triad (MERIT).
The program, partnered with the Center for New North Carolinians, helps refugees become self-sufficient, develop capital resources and build credit scores.
Asmerom Ghebremicael is one of MERIT’s recipients.
Originally from Eritrea, a county in Northeast Africa, he immigrated to Greensboro in 2011. He also lived in Sudan, Libya, Tunisia and Romania.
When Ghebremicael first lived in Greensboro, he worked at a chicken processing plant, but it was his previous experience working as a mechanic that helped him receive a MERIT Grant, which is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Ghebremicael used the grant to open El Hadj Auto Sales, a car dealership and maintenance shop, which he co-owns with three other people.
“When you come, you don’t have anything,” he said. “The coalition lends you some money in order to grow. They make you put your legs on the ground.”
Loans average about $4,500 over three years, and there have been about 25 recipients so far. In addition to giving people a jump-start on a business, the program also allows them to build credit scores, which will help make outside financial resources available.
“We’re really proud that this organization provides this service,” Mekonnen said. “This is very unique, not only in Greensboro, but North Carolina as a whole.”
The coalition plans for more than 100 additional people to receive loans in the next four years. One of those might be Byaombe’s wife, Lindavome.
Byaombe, who is currently employed at a Jacobson Company warehouse, said he is hoping he and Lindavome will be able to open their own hairdressing business in the future. Lindavome is a trained African hairdresser, but is currently learning the American style.
But people who don’t have a specialty, or don’t have aspirations to start a business, will still receive the coalition’s help with seeking employment. If the client can’t find a job, the coalition will check in on the individual or family every day, according to Ahmed Abdullah, MERIT Coordinator.
“For a client, anytime they’re not working, we have someone who can help them look and profile a job for them,” he said. “Every day we’re working with them, and there’s no complaints.”
For Mekonnen, the long hours are more than made up for by simply seeing the people the coalition is helping. Returning from the refugee camp gave him additional perspective.
“There’s no worse place than a refugee camp,” he said. “If people existed in that situation, they could exist in any situation. They’re really working hard to change their situation. They are resilient people and so this is a difficult job, but actually it is really rewarding.”
Even after clients of the coalition have reached a point in their lives when they no longer need its services, more often than not, they tend to stay connected.
“Once they become independent they move to a better location which they can afford,” Million said. “They come in and say hello. They call us. It’s like a family.”
As for Byaombe and Ghebremicael, both have goals set in mind. Byaombe will continue to work at the warehouse and work toward opening a business he and Lindavome can operate.
Ghebremicae said he is hoping his wife will join him in North Carolina soon. She is currently in Uganda, waiting on a visa that may take up to five months to arrive. While he’s waiting, he occupies his time helping other newly settled refugees, which he said he enjoys.
“When they come, I show them the place,” Ghebremicael said. “When they need a car and start a job, I give them a car. Later on, when they make money, they can give it back to me.”
As Byaombe and Ghebremicael wait for the next step in their lives as official Greensboro residents, they both said life is better.
“Before we came, we didn’t know if we were going to make it,” Byaombe said. “When I came, we had someone who showed us how to live, what to do. It would be very difficult without them.”
Videos and aditional reporting by Eric Halperin, reporter.