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Q&A: Former Refugee Now Helps Other Immigrants Get Settled in Columbus

Courtesy of Us Together


Over 10 years ago, Bashar Salem and his family fled their home in Iraq. As members of the country’s Christian minority, the Salems felt unsafe. So Salem left the electronics-repair shop he owned and opened a café in Syria. Less than two years later, they came to the U.S.

Salem got a job as a contract case worker at Us Together, a Columbus refugee resettlement agency, in 2009. He was hired on the following year and worked his way up to the resettlement coordinator position.

We recently spoke with Salem to learn more about his resettlement work and his experience as a new American in Columbus.

How did you end up in Columbus?

I came to Columbus with my family in December 2008 as a refugee. I came from Syria, but I’m originally from Iraq. I left Iraq in 2006 and spent one year and 10 months in Syria.

I was scared. I have four children, and I didn’t feel safe in my area. I lived south of Baghdad. I left my country because I am Christian. My sister was here (in Columbus) before me, in January 2008. And I came to Columbus because she was my co-signer here.

Tell me about your experience moving to Columbus.

I had some ideas about Columbus, Ohio (before coming here). I read on networks and social media about the weather, about the work, about the streets, how many people live in Columbus, how many people live in Ohio. So I had some ideas about Columbus. It was a little bit scary, but I have some background of English and my wife does as well because we are college graduates.

What services do you provide as a resettlement coordinator?

We start with an email from our main agency. After we get that email from them, I check the case (to see if) the clients have friends in Columbus. In that case, I will call the relative or friend and invite him to come to my office. I will discuss with him which services he can help us with and which services we provide.

I will go through their medical bio to see if there’s something urgent to schedule with them, so we can provide them with an ambulance at the airport if necessary. After that, I approve the case to come to Columbus. I schedule for the family to come to Columbus. If they have somebody here in Columbus, like a relative, I will call them and inform them. We bring the family or the relatives to the airport.

(On the) first day, we will take them to the hotel. We already reserved an apartment for them, but most leasing offices require the client (to be) here to sign for the key. We take them to the rental office, and they sign the lease.

I will assign them a case manager. Then we will start them with paperwork to get the social security card. Then I send their names to Ohio State University to schedule a health screening. Then the case manager will take them to the health screening. We help with school enrollment if they have children.

Each client has medical transportation 40 times a year for medical issues. So we teach them how to call the number and how to set the appointment for medical transportation.

After one or two weeks from their arrival, we have here cultural orientation. We talk with refugees about benefits, school enrollment, if they want to evaluate their (academic) degree from their country, teach them how to use a COTA (bus) pass.

After we finish all these services, they are new here and there are more services we provide. But it’s just kind of helping those people, like if somebody wants to get a driver’s license or a state ID or if somebody wants to go to classes. So we have a lot of volunteers and employees who help them. We have another program (in which we) work with clients almost daily to find them a job.

Our (main) program is 90 days. After the 90 days when we close their files, the clients should be self-sufficient so they can depend on themselves. And we will keep contact with them. We never close our doors. But they come here after one year to apply for a green card, and we have a citizenship department here to help them apply. We have a lot of clients come back after five years, and we help them apply for citizenship. We have citizenship classes.

How many refugees and immigrants are you typically working with at one time?

In December, we had 61 individuals. In January, it was 63. In February, it was 40. March, it was just five. Now we have 23. According to the new [policies], we’re supposed to serve 350 a year. But before that, we served close to 600.

Have you been able to use your personal experiences moving to a new country to help the people you work with now?

Yes, a lot, a lot. I make the intake interview here in my office if they speak my language. I speak Arabic. We have interpreters who speak lots of languages. I work with them and tell them the first time to be patient because most of the people who move here are like, “America is first country in world.” So they think anything they want is here. I hear this from a lot of people. When I took a client to apply for social security, they said he’ll get his social security card in four weeks. And he was like, “What? Four weeks in America? In my country, we do it in two.” So we try to explain to everybody.

What advice do you give new immigrants?

I give them a lot of advice, like keep your case manager’s phone number and your interpreter’s in your pocket if you don’t speak English. Use this paperwork in your pocket if you need anything in the street, in the store. We had a client get lost in Cleveland. She was at a gas station, and she gave the paper to the salesman. The salesman called us and said, we have someone here and this is her name but I don’t know what she wants because she doesn’t speak my language. So we sent somebody to go and pick her up.

What are some of the biggest obstacles the people you work with face?

First it’s transportation; second is a job. Transportation because it’s hard for them to use public transportation with COTA because you know COTA is by a schedule, and honestly our countries, we don’t use that schedule. But here it’s different.

For a job, most of them can’t find a job because of their English barrier, they don’t have a car to go to the job and come back or sometimes the owner of the job will not hire somebody who comes here as a refugee. Sometimes employment cards can be late, and it can be two or three months before they get it. That can be a big concern for the client who is paying, maybe, $700 for rent and doesn’t have a job to cover that.

Where have your clients found work?

A lot of them now work at a tire shop. And we have a few of them working in restaurants. We have very little who work in hotels, cleaning hotels. And we have big groups working at the Honda Co. The people who work there (at Honda) have skills like working in body shops and carpenters.

What do you think Columbus needs or could do better to support new Americans?

We need apartments and housing, because we have a big challenge with a lot of families who are over six people. It is a challenge to find apartments with three bedrooms. We have some families who come from Somalia with 10 or 11 people, and we rent two apartments next to each other.

Emily Thompson

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