Community bands together to serve refugees

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Community bands together to serve refugees

Hezbullah Akmal skims fiction novels at the Champaign Public Library on Monday. Akmal, an immigrant from Afghanistan, came to Champaign-Urbana last year when he was being threatened after working with the American government.

Hezbullah Akmal skims fiction novels at the Champaign Public Library on Monday. Akmal, an immigrant from Afghanistan, came to Champaign-Urbana last year when he was being threatened after working with the American government.

Hezbullah Akmal skims fiction novels at the Champaign Public Library on Monday. Akmal, an immigrant from Afghanistan, came to Champaign-Urbana last year when he was being threatened after working with the American government.

Hezbullah Akmal skims fiction novels at the Champaign Public Library on Monday. Akmal, an immigrant from Afghanistan, came to Champaign-Urbana last year when he was being threatened after working with the American government.

By Vishesh Anand, Staff Writer

Hezbullah Akmal started his professional career as a veterinarian in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province.

After working with animals for five years and seven months in the war-ridden country, he embarked on a long career of working with developmental organizations to rebuild the country.

It turned out to be a career move with fatal consequences.

Following the NATO invasion in 2001, many international organizations introduced development projects in the region. Akmal, who also holds a master’s in business, was employed by various foundations financed by the United States Agency for International Development to help with implementing civil service reform and education programs.

In 2005, Akmal was contacted by the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led battalion at the forefront of the War on Terror, to monitor a basic education program for Afghan soldiers. He sympathized with the problem. At 31 percent, the literacy rate in Afghanistan is exceedingly low.

Akmal was not directly involved in ISAF’s primary mission of attacking insurgent groups, but frequently visited their camps and maintained open lines of communication with them. As a result kept contact information of many military commanders.

“That put my life in danger,” Akmal said. “In my community, people who work with the U.S. military are at higher risk of being killed by the insurgency and other parties that oppose the government. And for insurgents, the U.S. government development projects were also U.S. military.”

In addition, Akmal was forced to make a tough decision. He began doubting the reliability of an employee in his command. He believed this subordinate could leak important information about the soldiers to insurgent groups.

To mitigate risk, Akmal decided to fire him. Unfortunately, his suspicions proved true when the disgruntled former employee passed Akmal’s name to the Taliban, the predominant insurgent group in the region.

It was a turbulent time, Akmal recalls. He resided in Kabul at the time and received death threats in the form of letters and phone calls. His family in Wardak was harassed by the Taliban-backed police officers.

His father was taken and detained by the police for three days as a part of the ‘investigation’ of Akmal.

After his release, his family fled Wardak fearing persecution and left everything behind.

“Then they never went back,” Akmal said. “Our garden, our orchard and lots of our farmland were just left behind. It was not in our control. This was the real scenario.”

With his family in Kabul, Akmal felt safe. After a few peaceful years, he remembers thinking that he had a good life in Kabul, including a very good job, his own car and his own house.

But his troubles were not over. “I didn’t have life security,” he said.

On a mundane September afternoon in 2015, Akmal received a call from his distressed wife. He ran out of his office and arrived home to barren rooms and tormented family members.

Earlier that day, a group of armed men impersonating police officers invaded his home under false pretenses. They insisted it was essential to conduct a search of the premises for an ongoing investigation. They even brandished their guns to scare the family to obey.

The robbers then locked Akmal’s family in one room and pillaged his home.

“They broke my tables. They stole my computer, all the cell phones, the TV,” Akmal said. “But the worst part, my small daughter was there. She was like three years old, and she was wearing earrings. And it was a gold earring, so they took it from her ear.”

He added that he was accused of being a spy for the American government. All he wanted was to contribute to governmental reform and assist with rebuilding infrastructure that was devastated by a civil war persisting since 1978.

Fearing for his life and safety of his family, Akmal applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, a program available to those who have worked with U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His visa was approved in April 2017 under the U.S. Refugee Admission Program. On Oct. 20, 2017, he arrived in Champaign-Urbana with his wife, Sosan Dorani, and five daughters, as a special refugee.

Still, he grieves over the livelihood of those left behind.

“This was not only with me, but several people are also in the same situation I was. They are stuck,” Akmal said. “I saw a lot of my friends lose their life. Or they were arrested and dropped from a car on the highway.”

For him, it was depressing to resettle here. He worried about how his family would assimilate in the new environment.

With no one else to turn to for help, Akmal turned to the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, casually known as the Refugee Center.

The non-profit organization assists thousands of refugees arriving in Champaign-Urbana every year, according to Anh Ha Ho, director of client services for the Refugee Center. Since July, the center has processed cases of 1,300 incoming refugees.

The Refugee Center receives the bulk of their funding from the state government on a per case basis. Additionally, they are also sponsored by Champaign County Mental Health and the City of Urbana.

To appropriately serve all incoming refugees, they also collaborate with other organizations in the community including Three Spinners, and the University service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega.

Founded in 1980, the Refugee Center was established to appropriately serve the considerable influx of Southeast Asian immigrants coming to the community. Since then, they have begun serving refugees from all over the globe from Nicaragua to Russia, Ha Ho said.

At the Refugee Center, the staff strives to provide all inclusive services to refugees.

“I’ve seen how vulnerable some of our clients are to being taken advantage of,” Lisa Wilson, executive director of the Refugee Center, said. “They sign documents without knowing what the consequences could be. Fortunately, we are able to assist the clients and say, ‘Well, this really isn’t how it should be and you need to take these steps to protect yourself.’”

Wilson joined the Refugee Center in September 2018 and uses her experience as a lawyer to help refugees through their financial problems, legal proceedings and cutting bureaucratic tape.

She also assists them with obtaining necessary benefits that range from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a monthly supplement used for purchasing food, to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides financial assistance for pregnant women and families with one or more dependent children.

Ha Ho provides refugees with auxiliary emotional help. She’s known around the office as “the Mother Teresa of Champaign-Urbana,” for going out of her way to help other clients.

Ha Ho also has led the Saturday Children’s Program every weekend for 20 years. Refugees ranging from preschool age to high-schoolers attend the program to improve their English and interact with other children.

“Our goal is to help them with the homework, to help them with the transition from language one to another and also teach them the proper way of behavior,” Ha Ho said.

Ultimately, for Wilson, the Refugee Center’s goal is to help families become self-sufficient.

Three Spinners Inc., also a non-profit organization, shares this goal. However, they operate on a small scale and focus on specific goals, Tim King,  secretary and marketing director for the organization, said.

The organization was founded in January 2016 by Meagan Smith and Alex Van Doren. Their flagship program, Education for All, provided over 100 children with school supplies. The organization is currently focusing on providing $1000 scholarships to students for tuition assistance and $500 for additional academic expenses.

Since 2016, the organization has provided resettlement services to 33 refugees, from four countries, in Champaign-Urbana as a part of their Housing for All initiative.

Three Spinner’s influence reaches the University campus as well. Project Connect organizes events to raise awareness about the refugees in the community.

Melanie Rohla, a junior in LAS, co-founded the RSO with Heather Aubrey, junior in LAS, in fall of 2017 when she noticed there were not any refugee assistance organizations on campus.

Project Connect mainly assists Three Spinners with their programs, but they also have a mentorship program that helps at risk high school students.

However, in the past year, Three Spinners had to discontinue their Housing for All initiative. King cited a decrease in the number of refugees being admitted into the country and ultimately coming to Champaign-Urbana as the reason.

The Refugee Center has also faced financial difficulties as they receive funding on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, Ha Ho believes it’s imperative to not lose hope and focus on helping the refugees who are here.

“We are their voice,” Ha Ho said. “(Refugees) have so many issues. They arrive and receive a stack of paper. They have no clue of even knowing what it is. So it’s our responsibility to explain to them and to lead them step by step.”

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