After fleeing from the ravages of genocide in their native land, three refugees from Darfur are now crafting new lives in the MetroWest community with a large assist from the Jewish Vocational Service, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Thanks to a $88,532 grant from the federal State Office of Refugee Resettlement, JVS has helped the men find transitional housing in the area, while providing caseworkers, translation services, English classes, vocational training, job coaching, and other support.
The men are the first wave of Darfuris to arrive in New Jersey, ahead of several families and 25 young men expected to be coming to this area in the next few months. JVS and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society hope to resettle 25 or more refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region, which suffered under genocidal attacks by the Sudanese government.
Seated around a conference table at the East Orange office of the JVS, the men shared stories of their past and their hopes for the future.
“The best message for people to get educated about Darfur is to learn through the people who have been victims of this sad situation and get to know the root causes,” said Hisham Osman, a physician.
He fled for his life four years ago when officials of the Sudanese government accused him of being a subversive.
“I was medically helping some people who the government regarded as rebels,” he told NJ Jewish News.
In 2007, Osman was jailed and tortured for six weeks, as government forces tried in vain, he said, to “make me confess to having a relationship with the rebels. They regarded many doctors as part of the rebellion, so we had a lot of trouble with the law. They regarded this as treason, which can lead to execution.”
Osman managed to escape to Egypt with the help of Physicians for Human Rights. He was granted asylum in the United States. His mother and brother remained behind in Africa.
“They suffered a lot, but now they are doing well. It is rough to be separated from them, but this is the only way I can be safe,” he said.
Osman lives in Paterson, where he is currently working as an emergency medical technician as he studies for his medical licensing exams. He hopes to fulfill his dream of becoming a cardiologist.
Joining him at the table were Philip Abiballa and Musa Aluga — two of the three young Darfuris being helped by JVS.
Abiballa fled his wartorn village in Darfur in 2003, then survived in a forest and a series of refugee camps. He spent five years in Kenya before arriving in the United States four weeks ago.
At the age of 23, he and his 21-year-old friend Aluga have had little formal education apart from a few hours of evening classes after long days working as cow herders.
“When we were in Kenya we went to school for five years. This is how we know to speak English,” Abiballa said.
“In this country I want to make my life better,” said the soft-spoken Aluga, who managed to flee after government militia forces rampaged through his community.
“They attacked my village. We heard the guns. Then they came and burned the houses. This happened many times,” he said.
Aluga and Abiballa, with the help of JVS, are now studying for general equivalency diplomas so they can attend college. While Abiballa’s plans are uncertain, Aluga dreams of becoming a doctor.
For the present, Aluga and Abiballa are guests at the Chatham home of Joyce Reilly, coordinator of the JVS Darfur Resettlement Project. Living in a New Jersey suburb is a major lifestyle change for two young men unused to electricity and indoor plumbing. “But they learned very, very quickly,” she said.
Both young men were promoted instantly to the high level of the English-as-a-Second Language classes at the JVS.
“When they came here they had never touched a computer,” said Nancy Fisher, the agency’s assistant executive director for education and training. “Within one hour they were working with the computer and playing with the mouse.
“They are not on Facebook yet,” she joked, “but they are writing e-mail and using an educational program.”
One big concern the Darfuris and their hosts share is housing.
“There are major issues,” said Fisher. “Each refugee is given $1,100 from the federal government when they arrive in the United States. For a family of five, the $5,500 can tide them over. But for the single guys, the $1,100 is not enough. We need to find them transitional housing at reduced rates. Housing around here is not cheap.”
To help out, JVS board members provided goods, services, and contributions for the refugees. The Sleepy’s mattress company donated five beds to a temporary housing facility in Newark for new arrivals.
“This is a huge expense we cannot pay for ourselves,” said Fisher.
JVS is looking for donated space for transitional housing.
“Maybe a large house or something connected to an old church or synagogue that is not being used, where they can spend a couple of months and get used to this country and its customs, then save a bit of money and move into their own places,” said Reilly. “For now, it would be helpful for some families to be willing to take in people, especially others who are coming soon” (see sidebar).
His Jewish agency is offering assistance to the Darfuris, said JVS executive director Leonard Schneider, because, “In addition to a primary obligation to help the Jewish community we feel an obligation to help our friends and neighbors in the general community.”
“We have been operating a worldwide resettlement program for many years,” he added. “We feel we are continuing a long-standing tradition of helping others who are fleeing from persecution and horrific situations to make a life for themselves here.”
To Reilly, playing host to the two young men from Darfur has been a broadening experience.
“We are working with a community that is really quite amazing with their focus on the future and their eagerness to give back to the community,” she said.
“It is not just about building skills and getting a degree; it’s about relationships. We are trying to reach out into the community so they can meet people more their age. It has been a real privilege to have them with me. Here at JVS we are really impressed and hopeful for their future.”