Story by Sarah Lockwood

Photos by Brandon Payne


Two men – insurgents – tied him up while a third held a pistol to his head. Monther “Bruce” Hamid, an Iraqi Army linguist, was held in a small room and beaten for working with the U.S. Army. I’m dead dead. That’s it, he thought. While he was ultimately rescued from this 2007 kidnapping, the incident confirmed Hamid’s belief that he needed to leave Baghdad. “It’s the only way I can live,” said Hamid. “It’s choice between life or death. That’s it.” On Jan. 25, Hamid arrived at the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program’s Harrisonburg branch on Elizabeth Street just north of U.S. 33.

The program, based in Richmond, began hosting refugees in Harrisonburg in the early ’80s and opened a Harrisonburg branch in 1988. In those days, the program resettled about 35 individuals each year. In 2011 the branch resettled close to 80 refugees, people fleeing their countries fearing death or persecution. The Harrisonburg branch has resettled refugees from more than 20 countries. Recently most have been from Iraq, Eritrea, Burma and Cuba. Hamid left Iraq with his wife, Dhuha, and 2½-year-old daughter, Aaya, in 2012.

Arriving in Harrisonburg was just the beginning. The program provides refugees with basic needs: Apartments must be secured and furnished with beds, bedding, chairs and a stocked fridge. Eighty-five percent of these amenities are funded by federal and state funds. The rest comes from donations in the form of furniture, food and money, said Jim Hershberger, the program director.

Newcomer Class

Derrick Charles’ Skyline Middle School 7th and 8th grade class is part of the Newcomer program, which is crucial to English language learners (ELL) students’ successful integration into mainstream classrooms.

“They’re here, not because of an academic need, but because of a language need,” said Charles. “It’s an enormous change … a different culture, a different school system, a different language and coming into this world, especially at the time of middle school, too.” The target is for each newcomer to reach a second grade English reading level, which Charles called “a pretty monumental feat.” “Think about going from Kindergarten to second grade in one year,” he said. So the program, even during science and social studies, is constantly focusing on literacy through identifying unknown words from context, footnotes and glossaries.

Newcomer typically stay in the program for two semesters, at which point, the student will join mainstream classes with varying levels of support. But it’s a case-by-case basis. While a variety of backgrounds, academic levels and developmental levels can cause challenges, most newcomers have one thing to their advantage: enthusiasm. Most experience a “culture shock curve where you start and everything’s exciting and achievable,” said Charles. Like Life Skill class teacher Rebecca Sprague, Charles tries not to speak Spanish, which 10 of the 14 students speak. “While we’re in here the language we all share is English,” he said. But it’s also important for students to continue to develop their native language. “First language literacy is important for long-term academic success,” said Charles. “I want us to look intentionally about how we’re going to do that in the future.” Skyline does not currently offer a native Spanish speaker class. Charles has tried to fill that hole for some of his students.

Every day, when some students from across the division take an early bus home, Spanish speakers are left for half an hour. Charles has been using this time to read short Spanish stories and work on the students’ Spanish writing accuracy.

Charles has spent three years working with the Newcomer program, and it’s been about constant adaptation. “It’s a never-ending experiment.” But refugees’ main task is to hunker down and learn English, a key to success in job searches and classrooms. English is a second language for 35.6 percent of Harrisonburg public school students, according to the superintendent’s office. So the school system is prepared for refugees. But adults also need to learn the language. Hershberger encourages new arrivals to participate in the program’s new Life Skills class. The four-week course, 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday, teaches English and the American ways of finance, health care, safety and education.

Jackie Cramer, who coordinates these classes, said there are many myths about teaching English as a second language (ESL). For example, some think that an ESL teacher needs to know the students’ native language. But English is the only language needed to teach ESL, the only one used in this classroom. Hamid breaks this rule as he turns to an Arabic-speaking volunteer. “You can speak Arabic after class,” instructor Rebecca Sprague scolds amiably. Sprague shows Hamid the Daily News-Record, flipping to the weather. Moving to the blackboard, she draws a thermostat. The class joins in as she laughs at her first attempt. They spend the next couple of minutes discussing the conversion from the familiar Celsius to Fahrenheit. In the corner, a James Madison University student volunteer works with an Eritrean man individually. “Today is Thursday,” she said. “Thursday,” he repeated.

Yesterday and tomorrow are next on the schedule. Hamid spoke English for four years as a linguist, but still attended Sprague’s class with his wife, who is just learning. “It’s a lot of material,” said Hamid. “New things like jobs, new rules, things of culture.” While Hamid, like many refugees, got a job at a local factory and hopes to save money to attend college, other refugees hope their degrees will cross the border with them. “It’s pretty easy to find a job, but a job that fits into someone’s skill set is much more difficult,” said Cramer.

Hershberger agrees that engineers, physicians and lawyers have trouble getting their skills recognized in the U.S. But refugees had to get into the states first. In May 2010, Hamid began the visa application process. He and his family arrived in Harrisonburg on Jan. 25, 2012. Others have waited even longer. Iraqi linguists working with the United States are in a dangerous position, as Hamid’s kidnapping made clear. Many look to flee the country.

Hamid received the nickname “Bruce” on his first day with the Army. And that’s all his battalion knew him as. “They can’t just use Arabic names,” said Hamid. “[Insurgents are] going to kidnap you, or come to your home.” In 2008, an opportunity opened for translators and linguists looking to flee the country through the Defense Authorization Act, which allowed Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) for Iraqi translators and interpreters. Under the act, 50 SIVs may be issued per year through 2012. Spouses and children are not included in the quota.

“This is my friends,” said Hamid, clicking on a picture of himself and fellow linguists. “They’re all waiting to come over here. They’re all applying for visa.” But it’s a complicated process involving many steps and mountains of paperwork. The requirements include a recommendation letter from a U.S. citizen, verification of 12 months employment with the U.S. government and demonstration of an “ongoing, serious threat.” One of Hamid’s friends applied in April 2009 and has not received a visa yet.

“I saw people came from Egypt here in four months, from Turkey in one year,” Hamid observed, frustrated. “In Iraq, it takes years. What’s the system?” Hamid was the first of his friends to receive the visa. Despite the waiting game, Hamid has hopes his sister and her family are able to make the move as well. Once in the states, many refugees’ goals include higher education for their children. At 2½ years old, Aaya Hamid would have no trouble picking up English, but education is difficult for refugee children entering the public school system.

Fortunately for many refugees, who comprise a small portion of ELL students, Harrisonburg teachers are experienced in teaching English. (ELL, for English language learners, is the new ESL term, because English is often the third or fourth language.) “The nice thing in Harrisonburg is that this has been a gradual increase,” said Harrisonburg City Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner. Kizner, who moved to Harrisonburg nearly two years ago, applauded the school board’s ability to adjust to the influx in ELL students.

This progress includes bi- and multilingual intermediaries as well as a Welcome Center for new families. Based on Limited English Proficiency Levels 1-7, ELL students are placed in small Newcomers classes or regular classrooms with varying levels of support. Because about 37 percent of Harrisonburg’s elementary, middle and high school students are Level 3 and 4, ELL training for all teachers in all subjects is crucial. “Getting ELL-endorsed teachers is a challenge,” said Kizner.

“But, really, I think the greater challenge is getting all our teachers ready.” Kizner pointed out that ELL children in Harrisonburg typically also face poverty; refugee children often struggle with even more. “What we take for granted, they can’t believe,” said Kizner. “And what they tell us, we can’t believe.” Some come from communities without running water or cars. Children from war zones face post-traumatic stress. Most had little notice of their move. Despite challenges, Kizner believes that Harrisonburg’s high ELL population was part of the school system’s success. Back in Hamid’s classroom, he reads a worksheet about professionalism in the workplace. He reads that in America his boss could be any gender, ethnicity or age. “What? That is different.” It was a big adjustment. And refugees need time for that adjustment, Superintendent Kizner says. “I mean, one day you’re in Tehran, next day you’re in freaking Harrisonburg.”


photos by Brandon Payne
Sarah Lockwood