An older Middle Eastern man tilted his head forward and patted the top of his head, motioning for me to touch it. Instead of smooth and round, his skull felt ridged and dented as if pieces had been carved out of it. He then leaned over in his chair and tugged his right pants leg up, revealing a white, patchy area above his ankle where his flesh had once been shattered.
Qahtan Al Nidaw, a 64-year-old refugee from Iraq, was a former cameraman for CNN and other news organizations around the globe before shots were fired at him three years ago — once in his leg and twice in his skull.
“Because everyone working with America, they said traitor,” Al Nidaw replied when I asked why the Taliban shot at him.
Miraculously, Al Nidaw survived after just one month in the hospital and escaped to the United States with his family. He now resides in SeaTac with his wife and son. In his free time, he enrolls in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at Highline College in nearby Des Moines. He says the classes help him continue working his brain and memory as he now suffers from brain cancer.
Al Nidaw is one of hundreds of refugees enrolled each year in Highline’s primary English courses. Out of the college’s 17,000 students, about one of every four is an ESL student, from a variety of different immigration situations. In fall quarter, 532 students taking Highline’s English as a Second Language class were identified as refugees — nearly a quarter of all the students taking the class, according to the college.
Highline is located close to where many refugees in Washington settle. About 2,500 refugees are received in the state of Washington annually, according to federal numbers, and almost 70 percent of this population are resettled in South King County, say college officials.
The most common fear shared among the refugees coming into this country is not knowing English.
“You’re taken from everything that you know of and the people you knew all your life,” said Indira Hazbic, 35, the senior secretary of the Adult Basic Education department. “And then you’re put into another group with great people, but you don’t know the language and you can’t make the connection.
When I first met Al Nidaw on the campus, he showed me photos of his previous work as a news cameraman along with legal certificates and documents that he carried in a red backpack. Thinking it was peculiar for someone to have these on hand, I mentioned this to Hazbic.
She nodded. “Many students carry those around because that is all that they have. And if they lose that, they lose everything from their past, like it did not happen.”
Hazbic was an ESL student herself when her family fled from Bosnia to America 20 years ago during the Bosnian war.
“It was exciting and scary. You always remember your first time because you are coming into the unknown. The biggest fear for us was not knowing where we were going and not knowing the language — that was the hardest one,” Hazbic said.
Hazbic recalled her first day in America with her mother, father, and younger brother. Just after landing, she found herself nervously flipping through her translation dictionary because her family was thirsty and no one knew how to ask for water in English.
To this day, she does not feel comfortable talking about the war, though her experiences have given her great empathy for the students she works with.
“It’s so amazing because when they come, I just know exactly what they are going through – their fears, the excitement, and the unknown,” Hazbic said. “So to me, having been in those shoes, it helps me understand them better and I can help them because I know how it is when you first arrive and you don’t know the language and how hard it can be to just ask someone to direct you in the right direction.”
Her deep roots in Bosnia were very apparent in what she shared.
“I like that it offered my family a safe haven,” Hazbic said. “But as I go through life, I also carry Bosnia because it was such a huge part of me. It’s shaped who I was.”
Today, the likelihood for refugees like Al Nidaw and Hazbic finding resettlement from their home countries is extremely low. Of the 14.4 million refugees that apply worldwide, less than one percent are granted resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those chosen are the most vulnerable with the outcome being a matter of their survival. For instance, 41 percent of the world’s refugees are children.
The refugees find relief and shelter after finally arriving. However, the first few months prove to be their toughest and busiest in their new country as they must learn the language which is crucial for finding work within a short time frame.
Margaret Hinson, director of Refugee Services at Seattle’s Jewish Family Service, is one of the people who greets the refugees upon arrival and guides them through their first months with services like signing them up for ESL classes at Highline.
“They arrive and they don’t know how challenging it’s going to be once they get here,” Hinson shared. “We have to spend a lot of time on education.”
It is a challenge outside the walls of the classrooms as refugees find themselves interacting more with native speakers. In the meantime, the students at Highline continue working closely with one another and the staff to gradually break down these barriers.
“The road you take as a refugee can be tough and hard, but life is tough and hard so you have to fight for everything,” Hazbic said.