Immigrants from Kurdistan find their place in the valley

Story by Rachel Petty

Photos by Tori Riss

When Gulala Hassan moved to Harrisonburg from Kurdistan, a northern region of Iraq, in 2010, she wasn’t so sure about it.Now, six years later, “Harrisonburg is a second home for us,” she says.

Hassan and her family moved to Harrisonburg because her husband, Osman Ahmed, was working for an American company. The U.S. also holds more opportunities than their city in Kurdistan did. With four children ranging from ages 4 to 16 at the time they moved, Hassan came to Harrisonburg when she was 42 to join her husband who had been living in Charlottesville for a few months.The Harrisonburg Refugee Resettlement office, a branch of Church World Service, helped Hassan and her family when they first moved to Harrisonburg. “They provided us with financial assistance, school registration, social benefit and finding jobs,” she says. “We really appreciate CWS.” 

After American troops went to Iraq in 2003, Hassan and Ahmed began working for American companies in Iraq. Ahmed worked as an administrator assistant for Fluor, an engineering construction company, in Erbil. Hassan was working with the United Nations in Erbil (UNAMI) as a human resources assistant. “I also worked for an American NGO [non- governmental organization] named RTI,” she says. “We were teaching people what is democracy in Kurdistan. And the consequence was my husband was not safe because he worked for American companies and he was granted a special visa to immigrate to here.”

A refugee office resettled her husband in Charlottesville. “He didn’t like the area because he couldn’t find Kurdish people, Kurdish community, there,” Hassan says. “Then when he heard about the big Kurdish community in Harrisonburg, he came here.” According to Jim Hershberger, director of the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service in Harrisonburg, Harrisonburg is home to around 300 Kurdish families. “The number is increasing actually,” Hassan says. “Many Kurdish families from other places in [the] states are coming here because of the community and the city—Kurdish people like the city.” Hershberger says that Kurdish people feel safe in the city. “If you’ve been here a while, people realize that the cost of living here is relatively cheap compared to some places,” he says. “Wages, on the other hand, tend to be high compared to some places.”

Harrisonburg didn’t compare in size to the city of 2 million people Hassan and her family previously lived in. At first, they wanted to move somewhere bigger. But after seeing big cities in the United States, they decided to stay. “We visited a few cities for vacation and were able to compare them to Harrisonburg,” Hassan says. “My kids love Harrisonburg and would not agree to go to another place. There are no reasons for them to not like other cities, they just felt that Harrisonburg is their home.” Hassan has visited New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Canada — but Harrisonburg is her favorite by far. “We like almost everything about Harrisonburg,” she says. The “schools are great, people are friendly and welcoming, and very nice and polite. It is a small, quiet, safe place to live.” The transition wasn’t difficult for Hassan and Ahmed because they spoke English and worked for international NGOs before moving here.

“I used to work with multi-culturally diverse communities, so it was easy,” she says. “But it was [a] little bit harder for my kids.” Her children began studying English at school and were doing well. “When we adjusted and when my kids started school and they were doing great at school, I was happy,” Hassan says. Hassan and her family became American citizens on Sept. 15, 2015. She describes it as “the greatest event in our life.”

Her oldest daughter, Jyar, is a student at James Madison University. Her second oldest daughter, Shad, recently graduated early from high school and is hoping to attend Eastern Mennonite University. Hassan’s youngest daughter, Rozin, is in fifth grade, and her son, Roz, is in fourth grade. Hassan works as an interpreter for hospitals and medics in the area. Kurdish people have their own language, but Hassan also speaks English, Arabic and some Turkish and Farsi, the most widely spoken Persian language. “I grew up with three languages spoken at home and [in the] community as my parents were trilinguals, and I learned English at school,” Hassan says. “I like interpreting. Sometimes you feel you’re doing a great job when you help people communicate.”

Hassan has found that her job expands beyond hospitals. “When I interpret for Kurdish and Arabic people, I’m involved [in the people’s lives] indirectly,” she says. “People come to my home to ask for translation.” Hassan helps people in the community for free, but sometimes charges to translate formal documents. “Refugees that are here create jobs here, they create business here,” Hershberger says. 

When Hassan isn’t interpreting, she’s working on completing her master’s degree in English as a Second Language from EMU. She’s hoping to graduate in May. “It’s been a long journey,” she says. Hassan’s family still lives in Kurdistan, and she has returned to visit just once. “I didn’t want to come back [to the U.S.], but my kids forced me to come back,” she says. “I just wanted to stay with my family, with my mom. But kids were like, ‘No way, we are going back.’” Since it’s difficult to get a visa, her family in Kurdistan has not been able to visit the United States. Despite not seeing each other often, Hassan and her family keep in touch every day.

“When we came it was little bit harder [to stay in touch], but now because of social media, Viber [an instant messaging app], it’s easier,” she says. Hassan’s favorite things about the U.S. are the education, access to special items like food and the freedom and personal independence. Finding a second home isn’t an easy task, but Hassan was fortunate enough to do so in Harrisonburg. There must be something special about the Friendly City.