I Left Behind My Fear

One of the frustrations in our work with migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Istanbul is that we can't publicize what we do. We can't put the refugees' stories on the internet. We can't make public the names and faces of the people who are desperate for food, clothing, and medical care. We can't share with the world the adventures and tragedies of the many people you have helped through your support of our work with them. The tales we want to tell you are simply not for the mass media.

One of the frustrations in our work with migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Istanbul is that we can't publicize what we do. We can't put the refugees' stories on the internet. We can't make public the names and faces of the people who are desperate for food, clothing, and medical care. We can't share with the world the adventures and tragedies of the many people you have helped through your support of our work with them. The tales we want to tell you are simply not for the mass media.

Why? Because the people we serve in the Istanbul Inter-parish Migrant Program are highly vulnerable and need protection. Many are without legal standing. The authorities could come down on them at any moment. They don't want to walk the streets at night for fear of being stopped. They keep a low public profile and have little defense against discrimination, persecution, and exploitation. They accept our help in trust that we won't take advantage of them.

This is why we are grateful we can now tell you the story of Mahad, a young man from Somalia. For some years we have known him as a helpful friend and client, a refugee who appeared in Istanbul and, like others, was stranded here. While waiting for the chance to move on to another country, Mahad helped us serve other refugees through his translation skills and caring attitude. Betty particularly remembers the dedicated care he gave to a Somali woman with four children, one of whom was diagnosed as autistic. Mahad became married. And finally he found official acceptance in another country, the United States, which happens rarely to the people we work with. 

We are pleased that we can share with you what he wrote about his entry to US culture.

Mahad finally feels free after years of ostracism and discrimination.

"I feel like America is really the home and the land of opportunity for refugees and immigrants. Despite the barriers I have faced and the things that have made me lose hope, despite the desperations I lived with and all of the ways that I was stressed out about as a refugee in the past, now I have gained a feeling that I will not be labeled as a refugee any more, and I am not excluded from the many social activities. Now, I can participate in every aspect of my life like any American. I got my legal papers, I have my own bank account, and I can own property. I can pursue my education."

"I got more freedom; I left behind the fear about my future, the fear of being called illegal. As undocumented aliens, people live – as I used to live – without these kinds of protections. Now, no one, from normal citizens to the government, stops or asks my identity and where I came from. The only thing required is to abide by the rules and the law of the country, no matter if you just moved in, whether you are a resident, or a citizen. I arrived in a country where no one claims superiority or more rights than the other. No one says, I'm American and you are an alien or a refugee. I'm more prestigious than you. You just come, as a refugee, and no one distinguishes you from the rest of the society. You share the same rights and equality of opportunity with the rest of Americans."

This doesn't mean life is easy in America for Mahad.

"When it comes to the hardest part of my life, it is the common challenges I share with every new refugee immigrating to the US. It's the long process of getting adjusted to a new life. It's literally a new life, a new culture, and a different lifestyle. I worked in a store that sells Halloween supplies to make extra money, and I didn't know what Halloween is about, so I was searching, and I got some information. It's amazing when you see people – especially the teens and the young people – shopping for Halloween. Scary stuff is hung on the houses and working places: masks, animals, and skeletons. It is all very interesting.

"Since most of the US cities are large and metropolitan, there is always a long distance between working places and your living area. Going to work on time and following your schedule is important, and you may risk losing your job if you can't keep your working hours. Using your own transportation for going to work and for your daily activities keeps you on time and not late for your work. Public transportation is available, for instance, coaches and rail trains, but you need to know their schedule, and try to catch them two or three hours before your assigned working hours. Most of the working places are a couple of hours drive because public transportation is slow, with more stops. Missing your rail train or your coach will make you late, and you have to wait for the next one. I can say that depending on public transportation for going to work was one of the hardest parts of my life."

What does Mahad recommend for his refugee friends still waiting in Turkey to be accepted somewhere?

"Knowing the fundamentals – especially speaking, reading, and writing in the English language – enables you to get hired for a job. Higher education, certification and experience are also a privilege and a key for getting a well-paid job.

"I know that many refugee community members have different skills, but I would like to emphasize and remind them (especially the members of my Somali community, most of whom don't speak English) to improve their English language skills.

"Smiling, self esteem, good communication and making a little conversation (like 'Hi, how are you doing today,' etc.) is vital in American culture. America is a big nation with many different ideas, perspectives, and cultures. Don't compare your culture with other cultures, which might be a way that can lead you to consider yours much better than others. Be open-minded and equipped to evaluate and carefully discern thoughts."


It's intriguing how quickly Mahad has taken ownership of some American values that have universal appeal.

"When Obama won, I was like 'UHOOOOOO, UHOOOOOO,' like any one else. It's very exciting really. It's a huge move forward: A New America. I'm very glad and proud to be in the USA and especially at this time when we get this tremendous change of history.

"If my friends from Istanbul could see me on my bike from my job back to home that night, waving my American flag, they would say, 'Oh, Mahad has gone crazy.' I know you guys are surprised, too, and I'm really curious to know how this election is viewed in Turkey...I am hopeful that we will be a good example for the rest of the world and show them how our principles of democracy and equality of opportunity are ideal and worth accepting. What we showed and displayed in the election is really a good thing."


Mahad's wife and baby are still waiting for permission to join him in California.

Peace, --Betty & Ken

(Note: the full article on Mahad is in the Spring 2009 Refugees Voices newsletter produced by the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly Refugee Advocacy and Support Program (RASP) in Istanbul: http://www.hyd.org.tr/staticfiles/files/refugee_voices_spring_2009.pdf. Excerpts have been used above with permission from RASP.)

Ken & Betty Frank serve with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey.  They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board.  They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).