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Ali Kadhum, MSW '14

ali kadhum.

Ali Kadhum at a local Iraqi American Society community meeting.

“This is now my country, it gives me respect and love and opportunity. ”

Ask Ali Kadhum, MSW '14, when he arrived in Buffalo, and he gives the exact date: May 7, 2008.

He and his wife, Emaan Saad, and her daughter, Noor, were lost and a little panicked that day in the Buffalo Niagara International Airport at the end of a journey that had begun two years before when they fled Iraq, and included stays in Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

But when they found their way out of the arrival area, here was a little crowd with a banner reading “Welcome Ali, Noor and Emaan.”

For a refugee, Kadhum says, arriving in a new home is “the moment of hope and future.” The welcome committee from the Church of the Nativity in Tonawanda, N.Y. was his first impression of Buffalo.

Six years later, almost to the day, Kadhum participated in the School of Social Work commencement where he was honored with the Hazeltine T. Clements Memorial Award recognizing a graduating MSW student who demonstrates exceptional concern for human dignity and cultural competency in field placement.

At the same hour Emaan was receiving a nursing degree from D’Youville College. He raced from his ceremony to hers.

Kadhum’s story is more than the story of one refugee family settling successfully in a new land. It is the story of a compassionate newcomer using his considerable organizing skills and energy—and now, critically, his training as a social worker in the UB School of School of Work MSW program—to do what he can to make life easier for all refugees arriving in Buffalo.

He is a care coordinator with Jewish Family Services and a case manager with Lake Shore Behavioral Health’s Lower West Side Counseling. After work, he’s a tireless community organizer.

Recently, some 1,500 refugees a years have been resettled in Buffalo—coming from Bhutan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congolese, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cuba, Burma, Vietnam, Liberia, and French- and Swahili-speaking African nations, to list recent places of origin. Most arrive traumatized by the events that uprooted them.

Journey’s End Refugee Services helped Ali and Emaan get oriented in the months after they arrived. Everywhere they turned people were smiling. Even that took getting used to. “We came from a difficult life. We never saw smiles,” Kadhum says. He found a job making portable planetariums at Science First.

A community activist in Iraq—he’d been organizing a charitable foundation before the murder of a colleague finally forced him to flee—Kadhum wanted to volunteer in his new home. He was introduced to Voice Buffalo, an interdenominational community organization. Voice sent him to a weeklong leadership course in New York City sponsored by the Gamaliel Foundation. Kadhum proudly says Barack Obama once attended the same course.

Back in Buffalo, because language felt like a barrier—he speaks good English, but with an accent and not as fluently as he speaks Arabic—Kadhum found a base for volunteering with the Buffalo Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment Coalition, where everyone’s English is a second language. In 2009 he became its president, a post he still holds.

The coalition had been focused on six broad areas such as education and housing that affect all refugee communities. When Kadhum polled refugee community leaders about their priorities in late 2013, they responded with 32 specific issues, ranging from how to translate and transfer academic degrees from the homeland to the need for embassy services such as obtaining birth certificates and visas to educating parents about children’s rights and what is considered neglect or abuse.

Kadhum believes that ideally each newcomer community would have its own organization to address its own particular needs.

“We don’t have money and we don’t have resources, but we have time,” he says. He used his time—juggling his MSW program, jobs and volunteer work—to found the Iraqi American Society (IAS), now a 503c organization. He credits his SSW faculty advisor, Kathleen Kost, for guidance through the steps of formalizing the nonprofit’s status.

The organization—it welcomes all Arabic-speaking newcomers, not just Iraqis—is pursuing four community-specific priorities that the Iraqi community identified. IAS has organized committees of volunteers to provide case management beyond the six months that settlement agencies can provide; Arabic language instruction for children, because they won’t be receiving that instruction in school; social programming for the purpose of community-building—such as a Thanksgiving celebration for 200 this past fall; and, lastly, a women’s empowerment committee, the first such in any local refugee community.

Kadhum recognizes that the refugee experience is incredibly complex. In instances of forced migration, the newcomer has likely left behind a life of fear, anxiety and trauma. The new life in Buffalo would seem to be less stressful but it requires adjustments to a radically different (or completely novel) social services system, different culture, food, weather, people, language, concepts of health and health care.

“Many refugees, when they arrive, have no hope,” Kadhum says. “They had an identity and then one day lost everything.” He has recently referred a destitute physician who had come to Buffalo as a refugee and was now facing eviction from his lodgings to a job counselor who found the man work as a cleaner, which he was grateful to have.

“People start to build again from zero. They want to recapture the dreams they’ve been pursuing since childhood in three or four years,” Kadhum says. “Opportunity here is good.”

For the social worker, no matter how culturally competent, the challenge of making a useful intervention to solve a refugee’s problem will probably start with language. Because he works with people from outside the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds, Kadhum often needs the services of a translator to help a client. And when communication is established, the next impediment may be a cultural reluctance to discuss almost anything with a stranger.

Ali says that he often sees clients at Lower West Side Counseling first as a case manager only. If those interactions lead to trust, he may be able to offer counseling services when needed. He might find himself working with a woman who says she’s never before talked with a man outside her family. Kadhum takes care to explain the professional obligations of a counselor; that what is said in his office, doesn’t leave the office.

All this before the real work of counseling can begin. And then the counseling itself may be fragmented and slowed by the need for translation and by how unnatural it is to have a client-counselor relationship after a lifetime in a cultural that has no comparable point of reference.

At the community level, Kadhum sees refugees making successful adjustment to their new surroundings, but he also sees refugees settling into communities of their countrymen and women, where they can maintain a semblance of familiar life and speak the home language and not English.

He’s sympathetic: the community support is good. He says his wife, Emaan, who was a medical student before she was uprooted, would have been utterly lost beyond the confines of her neighborhood in Bagdad. That was the way of life there. But it doesn’t work as well here. For one thing, the children grow up speaking fluent English and are comfortably familiar with the larger community; inevitably they will clash with parents who stay isolated in their home communities.

Emaan Saad learned to drive. Now she commutes from Amherst to her job in Buffalo in her own car.

What works (and what doesn’t) to help integrate refugees into Buffalo is a topic that research may begin to bring light to. Kadhum plans to be an active consumer of research services offered by the School of Social Work’s newly formed Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute of which he is an advisory board member.

Kadhum hopes to see each refugee community start it’s own self-help society. To that end, he and others are working with the Buffalo mayor’s office to secure a building to house the groups in what would be the Buffalo Community Culture Center.

“This is now my country,” he says. “It gives me respect and love and opportunity.” He hopes all families who find refuge in Buffalo will one day enjoy the same sense of belonging. He’s working to see that they can.

-Judson Mead, Mosaics, Spring 2015