By Wasan Abu-Baker
I was born and raised in Palestine, in a highly-educated household. My father was politically active and outspoken for the civil rights of Palestinians through non-violent action. This upbringing, faith, family, and friends have instilled in me a desire to motivate others to do good and to advance their opportunities. My exposure to diversity at a young age has also driven me to seek understanding and communication with the different members of society.
Attaining a Bachelors in Medical Technology and master in Childhood Special Education have given me the tools necessary to approach the technical and humanitarian side of all issues. These skills have allowed me to use science and art to design programs to build understanding and communication between people of all ages and backgrounds. I have worked as a volunteer at area elementary schools, board member of MyDeen Center and the Central Valley Islamic Council, and has worked with various charitable efforts in the Fresno area to build support and understanding of the most vulnerable segments of our society.
My most recent contribution has been to support and seek justice for Syrian Refugees escaping their war-torn nation. She would like to further lend her support to the community by advancing her academic accomplishments and pursuing a Doctorate in Counseling and hopes to publish on the suffering of women and children in the world. Guided by my experiences as an immigrant, she has been helping the Syrians adjust to life here in Fresno.
Prior to arriving in Fresno, my story with Syrians started in New York where she and other active friends from the community started to collect monetary donations, clothes, and medical supplies to send to host countries in the Middle East to help the Syrian families. At the beginning this was a very simple effort, however, within a year the community activists had created a Facebook network to exponentially increase their efforts.
When I moved to Fresno in 2014, I engaged myself in community work as a Weekend School teacher at MyDeen, active board member at MyDeen, and most recently as a member of Central Valley Islamic Council (CVIC) which consists of leaders from all the Islamic centers in the Central Valley. My work with the Syrian community in Fresno began when I met and became friends with Iman Akroum. Iman and her family had been living in the U.S. since their visa expired approximately four years ago and had submitted a request to seek asylum in this country for fear of returning to Syria. Asylum has, to this day, not been granted for Iman and her family.
As their relationship grew stronger, Iman asked me for help. The Muslim community mobilized to assist Iman and her family in getting the resources needed to secure a living in Fresno. This involvement with Iman and her family revealed the great needs for new refugees and asylum seekers in the Central Valley. I wanted to do more and pursued an 18-month fellowship with the American Friends Service Committee, Pan Valley Institute. The fellowship focused on mentorship of leaders in their communities in order to build bridges and understanding to serve new Americans in the Central Valley. I took this opportunity to build relationships between my community and other communities, organizations, and foundations.
Late in 2016, Fresno welcomed a number of Syrian refugee families who had been initially settled in Turlock through the International Rescue Committee (IRC). They had requested to be moved to Fresno because they had heard about the larger Muslim and Arab community and wanted to be more connected with those who shared the same culture, faith, language, and history. Other Syrian families also moved from San Diego and Los Angeles for the community, but also due to the high cost of living in those cities. Grassroots efforts were established to help the families resettle gradually.
The community as a whole mobilized to help with finding housing, furnishing apartments, enrolling the children in schools, connecting the family with healthcare institutions with the help of Clinica Sierra Vista. In Fresno Unified School District, efforts have been made to hire Arabic interpreters and tutors to help kids adapt to their new environment. On their journey, these families have withstood a lot of trauma while trying to protect their young children. They have faced mental health issues, behavioral and education challenges with their children, and separation anxiety. Fresno Teacher’s Association is trying to get more social/emotional supports in schools for students with these needs.
Leaving their homes in Syria is not something they can forget, and staying in refugee camps in the host countries; Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt was not easy for them. The experience has affected the families a lot. I continue to be a volunteer and advocate for refugees in Fresno. The work has ended up being more than equivalent to a full-time job. As a board member and outreach committee member of the MyDeen Center, I organize cultural events and guest speakers.
In my work with the refugee families, I work to integrate them and help them obtain basic services. I have loved the opportunity to help people in great need for the sake of God and believe that when people do good for others it opens the door for so many wonderful things. In order to raise awareness, look for services and resources in the community, many meetings have taken place to gather all of the community leaders and professionals from a variety of backgrounds. Cultural gatherings have also been arranged to introduce the new families to their new neighbors.
I have made an effort to let the wider Fresno community know about the challenges that our new neighbors are facing through invited presentations and by working with local faith-based and non-faith-based organizations. A Facebook page (Fresno Support for Syrians) has been created to directly hear from community members who are interested in helping in any way possible. Donations are also being accepted by Central Valley Islamic Council (CVIC) and Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM). I hope that the families will find Fresno to be a peaceful place for them after a long journey and a new beginning to a good life.
Wasan Abu-Baker lives in Fresno where she is a board member of the MyDeen Center and Central Valley Islamic Council. She may be reached at (518) 505-3145 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.