Families create new lives in America
by Lauree Stroud Purcell
In February 1990 at age 24, Viktor Sokolyuk arrived in the U.S. alone as a Ukrainian refugee speaking almost no English. He had one suitcase and $200 in his pocket.
In 1991, Rasheed Qambari was a physics professor in northern Iraq when the Gulf War began. Humanitarian agencies came to the aid of citizens there and a U.S. agency hired Rasheed as a translator. He helped with rebuilding efforts until Saddam Hussein invaded northern Iraq again in 1996 and ordered the execution of all translators.
These two men, and eventually the women they married and their families, now call Harrisonburg home, each contributing to the rich cultural diversity the Shenandoah Valley enjoys. These are the stories of how two men from very different parts of the world ended up having their paths intertwine here.
In the ’80s the KGB (the Soviet Union’s “CIA”) threatened to imprison Viktor. As a member of the Pentecostal Church, he refused to join the Communist Party. Members of his family were already in prison and some had been killed. Denied the opportunity to attend college because of his convictions, Viktor was mistreated and brainwashed. He and his cousins paid fines equivalent to about $6000 before being given their exit visas in 1989. They waited in Italy several months before being accepted into the U.S. Refugee Program when Pine View Community Church in Albany, N. Y. agreed to sponsor them.
He arrived in Albany in 1990 and lived with a family. They took him to English and computer literacy classes. He soon volunteered as an interpreter and found a job in a film-developing lab. After six months, he moved in with cousins and together they bought a car that needed work. After fixing it, they traded it for two more damaged cars they fixed for their own transportation needs.
Separately, a woman whom Viktor knew in Ukraine, Valentina, was sponsored by a Harrisonburg church and settled here about the time Viktor went to Albany. They reconnected in Albany in 1991 and were married in Harrisonburg within three months. In the Valley, they worked separate shifts at a poultry processing plant, and by that fall, Viktor was working poultry by day and interpreting for the Church World Service (CWS) Refugee Resettlement Office at night and on weekends. After a year, that office hired him as a full-time caseworker and eventually he became Director of Virginia Immigration Services for CWS. But always used to keeping a second job, Viktor now paints vehicles in the evenings and on Saturdays for area mechanics. “If a dog wants to eat, a dog has to bark,” he explains. Viktor’s wife, Valentina, works for the Harrisonburg City Schools, and they have raised four children here.
When Viktor arrived in the U.S., he felt fortunate to find people willing to show him where to go and how to get the information he needed. “So if we are able to help someone, to simplify or eliminate some of their struggles and help them avoid difficulties so that they can become self-sufficient earlier, that’s what we are here for,” said Viktor.
For CWS, Viktor guides and assists low-income immigrants through the process of becoming U.S. citizens and helps them reunite with their families. He works closely with other community groups to secure funding for U.S. citizenship classes to help immigrants prepare for the citizenship test required by the federal government. With the help of local churches, CWS helps refugees find appropriate housing, jobs, classes to help them become informed about our health care system, schools, English proficiency classes and public safety services.
Viktor and his family are members of Slavic Christian Church. His wife and daughters teach Russian classes there so the children can communicate with their grandparents. The church has sponsored several refugee families and supports two orphanages in Ukraine. Members participate in the Harrisonburg community helping the homeless and meeting with people downtown every Thursday.
While working multiple jobs and raising their children, Viktor and Valentina have taken many classes at Blue Ridge Community College. Viktor focused on immigration law to become certified with the Board of Immigration Appeals. “God gives us time and will ask us how we invested that time. So we have always worked hard and have tried to teach our children to do the same,” explains Viktor. “God gave you health, arms and legs, therefore it is our responsibility to work and care for our families. Feed not only yourself, but others as much as possible.”
One refugee that Viktor helped resettle in Harrisonburg was Rasheed Qambari. Back in 1996, Rasheed feared for his life in northern Iraq.
With Saddam Hussein’s regime threatening to execute translators, Saddam’s military controlled the major roads. So Rasheed escaped on foot to the Turkish border. His wife, Samira, hid at her mother’s house with their two sons who were much too young to walk for 16 hours. Rasheed would not see his family again for well over a year. He worked on his English and volunteered as a translator while waiting in a refugee camp in Guam for four and a half months.
After settling in Harrisonburg in March 1997, Rasheed worked in a poultry processing plant and helped other Kurds who came to the area. Within four months, the Refugee Resettlement Office hired Rasheed part-time and soon hired him full-time.
Since 2003, Rasheed has worked his way up through many management positions in the poultry industry so he is now fully trained to run all aspects of the poultry processing business.
Rasheed also started working for a Steam Master carpet cleaning business in 2003 during the day while working poultry processing at night. He bought the business in 2006. His two oldest sons are fully trained to run the business, but he does 90 percent of the work himself. He hopes to expand to cover a larger area and have a small warehouse so he can sell and install flooring, too.
“I’ve found that even when he’s under pressure to get many units done in a very short time span, Rasheed doesn’t show that he’s under pressure. He works harder and into the late evening hours to get the job done on time,” said Danielle Smith, regional director for Copper Beech Townhomes. “He’s friendly, careful, upbeat, and willing to come out and work even if it’s an emergency water extraction in the middle of the night!”
Rasheed’s wife, Samira, prepares lunches at Keister Elementary School. They are raising five children and consider Harrisonburg their home. They are also active in the Kurdish community at the local mosque. They meet every Friday for a service in English that is open to visitors. Children receive religion and Arabic classes for two hours on Saturdays and Sundays. About 300 families from many cultures and backgrounds participate in mosque activities. “We use English for everybody because we have Kurdish, Arabic, Bosnian, African and American-born members,” said Rasheed.
Rasheed and others from the mosque are quick to help with local needs. Marlin and Christine Burkholder, Mennonite owners of Glen Eco Farm, sell produce at the local farmer market. In 2007, when the Kurdish community heard the Burkholders’ home had burned to the ground, they took up a collection to help. And when Hurricane Katrina struck, the Kurdish community contributed to disaster relief.
“This is our homeland and the motherland of our children. So we want to help,” said Rasheed. The mosque takes its turn feeding and housing the homeless community for several weeks each winter and members often clean up trash from streets around town.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Rasheed was an honor student, and his father stressed the importance of learning as many languages as possible so he could understand other people and cultures. Rasheed now supervises many employees who speak only Spanish, and he has learned enough to understand and help them when they come to him with problems.
A safe haven for both
Two former refugees with different backgrounds, speaking different languages, Viktor and Rasheed have found themselves working side-by-side serving those who found safe haven on U.S. soil.
“Despite our differences, we worked very closely together and understood each other without many words. There was never a need to ask him anything twice,” explains Viktor. “Rasheed is the kind of person who will sacrifice his own time and resources for the sake of others. I often referred to him as my ‘little brother’.”
LAUREE PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.
For refugee status, a person must have a credible fear of persecution because of race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, political beliefs or affiliation. Those affiliated with any armed group are not admissible to the U.S. Refugee status is not available for anyone involved in violence. Once the United Nations accepts that someone is a refugee, there are still over twenty different screenings and security checks that a refugee must go through before being admitted to the U.S. Eleven other countries also resettle refugees for third country resettlement. The great majority of refugees are able to return to their homes, communities and farms in their country of origin.