90 Days To Start A New Life: For Refugees In The U.S., What Happens Next?

Our series Take A Number is exploring problems around the world — and the people who are trying to solve them — through the lens of a single number.

Here's a number: 90. That's how many days most refugees arriving in this country have before the basic resettlement money they get from the government runs out.

But once that three months is over, there are still so many things recent arrivals need. That's what Kari Miller saw over and over as a teacher in the public schools in Charlottesville, Va.

In her classes, students who had recently arrived in the U.S. as refugees were struggling with all kinds of problems, like serious dental issues, or a lack of winter clothes or just the challenge of adjusting to life and school in a new land and a strange language.

"How could I expect them to learn English in my class amid all this?" she asks.

She asked her principal for permission to take children to clinics, to buy them winter coats, to go home and meet their families.

As Miller began helping these students, she was surprised to learn that many of her friends and neighbors in Charlottesville had no idea that their city had a long history of resettling refugees, taking in a couple of hundred a year. There are now about 3,500 living there.

But they were visible to Miller. And seeing them every day at school gave her an idea: Connect these families to their Charlottesville neighbors.

Working out of her garage, Miller started the nonprofit International Neighbors. That was two years ago, and the organization has now grown to more than 200 volunteers. Many of them work full-time jobs but are ready to jump in to help families in that crucial period after the government aid runs out.

The problems they work to solve are vast — as you can hear on any given day by listening to Miller's consistently full voicemail:

Hey Kari. I hope you are doing well ... I have a problem please help me. ... You were gonna help me or my family. ... My sisters, they need driving lessons. ... You were gonna give us a car, put us on a list ...

There are so many questions: Where can I get a car? Is school closed today? How do I turn on my shower? And, please, help me fill out all this paperwork!

Paperwork, that's the real currency in the United States, says Liza Fields, a member of International Neighbors' board. She says that's an idea she heard over and over again from the refugees she works with.

Fields helps refugees fill out those many, many forms — mostly for medical care but also dental work, school needs and, of course, paying bills.

On a typical day, she can be found driving around in her Honda, giving refugees rides to clinics or sitting with them as they enroll in various sliding fee programs that help them access dental and medical care when and if their insurance doesn't cover what they need.

Amid all that driving around, Fields has established a deep connection with one Syrian family, the Dawouds. Right now, she's trying to get the family's two young boys, Amer, 6, and Hamza, 5, signed up for soccer.

The No. 1 request refugees make of International Neighbors is for a car. That's usually followed closely by another related request: driving lessons.

The organization provides money for lessons. But some volunteers like Helga Hiss are willing and able to give lessons. That, says Kari Miller, is the sweet spot.

Hiss has lived in Charlottesville for 18 years but only got to know the refugee population through volunteering, first for the International Rescue Committee — the official resettlement agency in town — and now for Miller's group.

Last fall, Hiss started giving driving lessons to a woman named Neegeeta, who moved to Charlottesville with her family from Afghanistan about 2 1/2 years ago.

"It was very, very difficult life," Neegeeta says as her 18-month-old son, Musadiq, crawls into her lap. She asked that we use only her first name in order to protect family members who remain in Afghanistan.

That first year in the U.S. was so hard, Neegeeta says, that they thought about moving back to Afghanistan. She felt isolated. She was working on her English, taking care of her three children, and dependent on a bus transfer to get her to appointments.

"When I think about it," she recalls, "to go with three kids on the bus it was really hard."

But, month by month, things got better. Her husband got a good job. The family got a car. They moved into an apartment downtown.

Neegeeta credits much of this newfound confidence to volunteers like Hiss, who she says helped her feel welcome as she drove around her new city, laughing — and praying — in Hiss's Toyota Camry.

Those lessons, Neegeeta says, changed everything. Gave her freedom.

After months of practicing, Neegeeta passed her driving test this winter. She has since talked up Hiss's lessons to her family and friends.

Hiss is starting to teach Neegeeta's aunt. As the lesson begins, Hiss has a pile of metal toy cars on her lap and a sheet of white paper with lines to represent a T-shaped intersection.

"Pick a car," she instructs. Neegeeta's aunt goes for the silver one.

Lesson No. 1: "Always drive in your lane."

Neegeeta translates from English to Dari.

"Just feel the car, like you're friends," Neegeeta explains.

A step into friendship

International Neighbors does many things, but the program Miller is most proud of matches Charlottesville residents with a refugee family or individual. They try to pair families with similar makeups: children who are the same age, single moms with other solo parents, or young adults.

Rahim Nishat's family — his wife and four children — was paired with Cathy and John Meaney, who have been living nearby with their two children for 15 years.

Rahim worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan before resettling in Charlottesville. Today, on a sunny Saturday morning, Cathy and Rahim are sitting on the floor of the Nishats' apartment, sorting through the kids' backpacks.

Cathy walks the family through a report card and then an IEP — the individualized education program that outlines the school's plan for Rahim's oldest son, who is in special education. She explains that Ezatullah gets a special Braille teacher who is assigned to him because he's blind.

As the two adults sort through schoolwork, Ezatullah leans against Cathy's knee. He runs his hands across one of his Braille worksheets — showing off the letters he has learned: G, H, F ...

The two families get together like this every couple of weeks.

After the backpack sorting, it's time for the cupcakes and candles that Cathy brought over — a belated birthday celebration for Ezatullah. The Nishats and the Meaneys huddle around the boy. Rahim protectively cups the back of his son's neck, and they all sing happy birthday — with Cathy's and John's voices mingling with the kids', who already know this song by heart.

This is part of Kari Miller's vision: Volunteers aren't just helping out, they become real neighbors — and ultimately, friends.

Cathy uncovers the wrapped gifts she has brought — a shirt for Rahim, a much-coveted vacuum for his wife. She saves Ezatullah's gift for last.

She hands him a gift bag and the 8-year-old rips through the tissue paper, rummaging around the bottom. His hands find the shiny metal chunk: a harmonica.

Rahim directs him in Pashto: "Blow, blow!"

After a few failed attempts, the instrument lets out a long, screeching high note and Ezatullah explodes in giggles. It's infectious. A shared joy — across language, culture and continents.

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