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The weight of the world: Despite hardship, refugees find hope in the Bay Area

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NOVEMBER 13, 2015

Just before midnight, a young refugee from Iran finishes his shift and walks an hour and a half home from his job at the Trader Joe’s in Danville, California. He is opening the store tomorrow morning, walking another 90 minutes to a job he is grateful to have and always pretends to enjoy. But now, as he climbs the windy road to his temporary housing at the San Damiano Retreat in Danville, he is dreaming of a different future.

“Someday, I will laugh at these times,” he says. “But for right now, I don’t have anything to enjoy.”

Like most refugees in this country, the young man, who has asked to remain anonymous to protect his family’s safety, spends almost all of his waking hours working. And like many refugees, he is alone. His family members still live in Iran, where they face the same threats to their lives as he once did. His only friends are time zones away: Daytime in Iran is nighttime in the United States, and by the time he has worked and walked and prayed and studied, it feels as if it is already time to wake up again.

Just more than six months ago, the young refugee fled his hometown of Kerman after years of violent religious persecution and a lack of economic opportunity common for many non-Muslims in Iran. He resisted pro-Islamic jihadists, who commonly attempt to convert and oppress followers of Zoroastrianism, the nation’s oldest religion. Fearing for his life and fleeing religious persecution, the young man became a refugee.

“I put everything behind my back. I’m not just talking about some memories,” he said. “I just came here to start my new life. And when I’m saying ‘new life,’ it means I started from zero. But for someone like me, I started from negative 100.”

“I put everything behind my back. I’m not just talking about some memories.”

Leaving his home and family in Iran for the unknown promise of the United States was no trivial feat and required years of preparation. The young man taught himself to read and write English after high school by fighting and trading with strangers on “World of Warcraft,” an online multiplayer video game. He developed skills as a Web programmer over the next several years in the hopes of someday gaining employment in Silicon Valley. And then, at the age of 25, after obtaining a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he said goodbye to his family and to Iran — a country that he loved but that he felt did not love him back.

He traveled to Vienna, where he spent three months cleaning carpets to pay rent while waiting for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to determine his eligibility for entrance into the United States.

Then he boarded an airplane and arrived in the United States, expecting to meet a hot meal, guaranteed housing and his sponsor — a friend of his father’s friend, with whom he had been in communication for many months.

Instead, the young refugee met only the anonymous crowd of the San Francisco International Airport. His sponsor did not meet him as planned or ever contact him, and the young man found himself suddenly homeless in a foreign country with little more than a working English vocabulary and memories of his family in a country that was no longer home.


Like most 13-year-olds, Manuel De Paz had never before seen a rifle. He had never heard the sound of an approaching army or the cry of fear in his mother’s usually kind and confident voice. The El Salvadoran army’s gunshots were approaching. She told him to run away.

His older brother stayed behind. “We haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “Why do you have to run?” But De Paz followed his mother’s advice.

Running through the sleepy streets of his small village, De Paz shouted news of the army’s arrival. “The army is here!” he cried. “Do not go to work — the army is here!” Many ignored the advice, which he himself did not understand. Like his brother, many neighbors and friends replied, “I don’t care. I haven’t done anything wrong!”

They were innocent, but that did not stop the army from killing nine of the boy’s friends and neighbors, as they had done in other villages so many times before. They were civilians, unallied with either side of El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war, but De Paz said that did not stop 25-or-so soldiers from torturing and decapitating his three older brothers, raping his sister before cutting her into pieces and burning his home and village to the ground.

That evening, he joined his parents in burying his siblings and began a long life of hiding in his own country.

First, he fled to the mountains, where he survived for a year alongside other displaced children. He then reunited with his parents and lived in a hospital for six years until his family was again forced to move on — this time to his godfather’s church, where he worked for a short time as a custodian. There, finally realizing that if he stayed in El Salvador any longer, he would surely face death, his mother asked him again to run — this time to the United States.

At the age of 22, he said goodbye to his father, whom he would never see again, and to his mother and friends, then crossed Guatemala in a bus. After entering Mexico by the cover of darkness, he traveled north to Guadalajara, hidden in a banana trailer with hundreds of fellow refugees. From then on, each new town was an obstacle: another bus to catch, another policeman to bribe, another mile closer to the uncertainty of a new language, country and home. With money from an uncle to pay for food and bribes, he made it close to the United States but not far enough.

“The last time they caught me, they asked me for more money,” De Paz said. “And I didn’t have it, so they send me back to Guatemala.”

But returning home was not an option. Tired and traumatized, he made the harrowing journey again — another set of banana trailers and buses and bribes — all the way to Los Angeles. There, he met an uncle and began his next journey: moving forward.


There are more than 19 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are children. Syria is the largest producer of refugees, but the country in no way produces the majority. Refugees come from cities, remote villages and rural communities on every continent but one. They live on the road, in refugee camps and in urban settings both large and small. And though they often seem far away, they are neighbors and business owners and taxpayers — a group recorded as comprising more than 115,000 individuals who have begun or are beginning a new life in the Bay Area.

“They’re coming from nothing,” said Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services at the Jewish Family and Community Services, or JFCS. “They come like deer in the headlights. They need help.”

The JFCS resettlement program, like others of its kind across the country and the Bay Area, provides refugees with an array of services ranging from locating housing and employment to orienting them to American culture, laws, welfare programs and public transportation. For the first three months, refugees who secure employment receive $325 a month in benefits from the federal government and $230 a month for the five months after.

“That’s nothing,” the anonymous refugee from Iran said. “Do you live in the Bay Area and think that’s enough money to pay for food and rent?”

The 65,000 to 80,000 refugees admitted by the United States each year must already contend with the challenge of finding employment, housing and transportation, but the Bay Area’s high cost of living presents a unique obstacle for refugees who resettle here.

Hisham Zawil — who works as the resettlement manager at the Oakland office of the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, a humanitarian and refugee resettlement organization — said that given the unique challenges of the Bay Area, a refugee’s placement here is often “based on an assessment of how tenacious they would be when they get here and their chances of success in the Bay Area.” For example, Zawil said, an English-speaking refugee with a small family, good health and a willingness to work is more likely to be resettled in the Bay Area than somewhere such as Sacramento, where finding affordable housing and stable employment may be less difficult.

Within one month of arriving in the United States, the young refugee from Iran had already proved his tenacity. He found a job at Trader Joe’s and a temporary housing arrangement at the San Damiano Retreat through the JFCS resettlement program.

When strangers ask him how he found employment so quickly, he likes to reply, “It’s all about your potential  — what you really want to be, what’s your desire. It’s about ‘How do you look to your future?’ and ‘How do you look to your life?’ ”

This sentiment seems almost universal among refugees first arriving in this country. Zawil said that while their expectations are not usually met upon arriving in the United States, “refugees have an aspiration to work. They’re coming from outside to start a new life here and not to live on public benefits. They want to get themselves jobs. They want to be self-sufficient.”

“They’re coming from outside to start a new life here and not to live on public benefits. They want to get themselves jobs.”

A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute found that refugee men are statistically more likely to work and seek employment than their U.S.-born counterparts and that refugees’ participation in public benefit programs declines as their length of residence increases, with a sharp drop after 20 years of residence. Even so, refugees are more likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to receive public assistance, even after 20 years of residence.

But freedom from public benefits and the acquisition of housing and employment are only the first steps in a long adjustment process further laden with obstacles. Without English language proficiency and formal education, refugees are less likely to assimilate to American culture and more likely to slip below the poverty line. Without family and friends in the United States or access to an automobile, the process of assimilation is often slower and more painful. Escaping the cycle of routine tiredness and loneliness often feels impossible.


Almost four decades later, the young boy from El Salvador now has graying hair and a new life in the United States. De Paz has learned English, bought a home and secured a job as the community development and education program director at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, which provides walk-in, free or low-cost legal services to refugees who are seeking asylum in the United States.

Asylum seekers, like refugees, are granted legal status in the United States for demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country or for presenting another compelling reason to stay, such as severe or atrocious past persecution. More than 25,000 asylum seekers — and often their spouses and children — enter the country illegally and then, within one year of their arrival, apply and argue for their asylum.

After waiting in administrative backlogs that can sometimes take years, asylum seekers will argue their case through a federal asylum officer or in front of an immigration judge. In both processes, the asylum seekers often rely on the legal assistance provided by groups such as the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, which also assists asylum seekers with the process of obtaining work-authorization documents, Social Security numbers and public assistance programs.

The lives of asylum seekers in the United States are complicated by their uncertain legal status, but the challenges they face are largely the same as those of refugees who entered this country through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Asylum seekers must find housing and employment, learn English and the intricacies of American culture, and maintain a sense of hope, dignity and possibility in a country whose majority believes that the United States should further limit the number of refugees and that slightly favors a view of refugees as strengthening rather than burdening the country.


This country is the land of opportunity, the land of the American Dream. Yet for many refugees, it does not start out that way.

“When you come to this country with no education, you don’t think about expectations. It’s about surviving,” De Paz said. “I started with little, little goals.” Only after years spent working and waiting for asylum status and a green card could he begin envisioning a future.

 “When you come to this country with no education, you don’t think about expectations. It’s about surviving.”

Before a refugee can begin to dream, the first months and years in the United States can often be what the young refugee from Iran called a life of “just working.”

The refugee says that though he is always tired, you would never know it. In his checkout line, he holds himself to two simple rules: First give a smile, then a high-five. He smiles to cope with the reality of his situation. And often, he smiles to hold back tears.

“It’s not really easy,” he said. “The cause of those tears can be happiness and sadness. I choose the happiness. Right now, I am tearing for my better future.”

Though he will never return to his family or the country he loves, and though he does not have a friend or a car, the young refugee has hope.

“When I’m closing up at Trader Joe’s,” he says, “I’m laughing at my past — because in my past, I had no future.”

But someday, he says, “someday I will laugh at these times.”


The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant is located at 2362 Bancroft Way in Berkeley and welcomes student and community volunteers, as well as financial contributions. Its website can be reached by visiting www.eastbaysanctuary.org.

The Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay welcomes financial contributions and student and community volunteers. Its website can be reached by visiting www.jfcs-eastbay.org.

The International Rescue Committee welcomes donations and volunteers. Its website can be reached by visiting http://www.rescue.org/us-program/us-northern-california-ca.

Contact Adam Iscoe at 


NOVEMBER 13, 2015