Lana is a 22 year old Iraqi refugee woman who arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan almost four years ago with her parents and two brothers. She is kind, soft spoken, beautiful, and frequently mentions her gratitude for the freedom she has found in America. Her name has been changed and details have been removed to protect the family's privacy. This interview features Lana and her friend, Ruth, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, who befriended Lana's family after their arrival as a volunteer through Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.
"When I was a little girl growing up, I didn't have any freedom. We were always afraid to go out, we always stayed home. I'd only go to school and go back home, it was really hard. So my life in Iraq, it was not very good, I didn't like it. My dad was constantly calling my mom asking about us. We never went anywhere but work and school. It's not like here. I can drive, I can do anything I would like.
We were living in Mosul in Northern Iraq. We left our home three different times. After we returned the last time, the bombs were near our house. They were bad days. My mom was in Church when a bomb went off and she got shrapnel in her leg. My dad decided to leave Iraq. He said ‘There's no more safety here, especially for Christian people.’ We left and went to Turkey. We stayed there for one year and three months and we came to the U.S. by IOM. We came here and we see there's safety here; it's good for me and my family.
The first few days when we were in Turkey my dad would tell us we'd go back to Iraq. It was really hard. My dad's whole family all stayed in Iraq, it was just my family that left, so it was hard."
“When I came here I saw so many good things, especially the freedom. We don't have freedom in Iraq. But here we have freedom for everything, even clothes. You can wear anything that you would like. It’s not like in Iraq. But here, everything is good.
When I came here I started high school. It was hard for me, the first year especially. I wasn't speaking any English, I understood some. In Iraq we only had grammar classes for English. The first year was really hard.
It's not like in Detroit. If we went there, there are a lot of Arab people. It's not like here in West Michigan. But it was good for me because I learned English. Some of my friends in Detroit don't speak as well as me because they are often speaking Arabic or Chaldean, where I'm forced to always be speaking English.
We were nervous when we came. I'm still nervous until now. In America, you need someone to be strong. If you're not strong and you don't have money you will not live well here, so I'm still nervous. I'm trying now to find a job and I hope to find one soon. I'd like to work at a clothing store.”
“My mom misses her family and my dad also misses his mom and his brother. They're all still in Iraq. They can't come here because now it is hard. Especially for Christians fleeing from ISIS. All of the people are in Iraq or going to Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, or Jordan. They've had to sign into the UNHCR. Now there are too many refugees there.
My family members in Iraq live in a caravan now and don't have a home, because of ISIS; they took all the houses, all their money, everything. It's hard. All of the time I just thank God because we are here with my family. I think most of the Churches are gone, they've all been bombed.”
Advice to Newly Arrived Refugees
“Start school. She can work and go to school, she will learn English more quickly at school. She has to be strong. Read a lot of books and listen to a lot of music, it'll help her English, especially the books.
People will help you. When I came here I didn't speak English well so people were helping me. They always told me, 'It's okay if you don't know English yet, you will learn.' So they speak positively toward you. Comstock Park Schools was so good for me, they were all helping me with everything."
Lana: "Someone from Lutheran Social Services brought Ruth to our house shortly after we arrived."
Ruth: "I had lived in Mozambique for two years with my husband and two children in 1996 and 1997. Experiencing the joy of discovering a new culture and learning about it and getting to know people in a different context, I'd missed that. I just had a desire to spend some time with people outside of West Michigan, that's what prompted my call to volunteer with a refugee family."
Lana: "Was it hard to live in Mozambique?"
Ruth: "Yes. We had electricity some of the time, we didn't have running water in our house. But, that wasn't the hardest part about living there. The hardest thing about living there was to be people of privilege living in the midst of desperate poverty, where daily you're faced with decisions about who to help and how to help and actually whether or not there is anything you can truly help with. In retrospect, you think, 'I learned so much more and was given so much more than we were able to give.
It was just a huge learning experience, and one that I really wrestled with, with my experience and understanding of God. Your picture of God forms in a particular way in Jenison, Michigan when you're a privileged family. And when you're there and you're living with such poverty all around you you have to do some real struggling of who God is, who He blesses, and how He works. It tremendously challenged my faith and then upon our return, ended up pushing me toward seminary."
Lana: "We are Catholics, but I don't see any differences. All of us belong to God and Jesus."
Ruth: "Another rich experience is realizing how big the Christian faith is in the world and how we have brothers and sisters through Jesus in other places; to experience a gracious loving family who loves each other so much and you realize that they have the same needs and wants and desires as your family."
Lana: "I'd also like to do that like you in the future, to help people. I felt that help from you when we first came, so I want to help people too."
Ruth: "There is something wonderful about experiencing the hospitality of another culture and what has struck me about this family is how hospitable they are, with food, warmth, kindness, and generosity. Offering food is a very big part of their cultural welcome. Your family has been wonderful to us."
Lana: "And yours too."
Ruth: "One of the best things about this experience is Lana. I think it surprised me that our friendship grew so quickly."