What made four new immigrants finally feel settled in Rochester?
Like so many people who took their birthplaces for granted, the more years I spend away from Rochester, the brighter a torch I carry for it. Living in Kathmandu, Nepal these days, I relish the little times Rochester pops up, like when I see an old hand-painted Kodak sign on a shop door or meet a fellow American and get to run through the reasons I love upstate New York. But at some point Kathmandu also began to feel like home. I’m not sure if it was when I mastered my key bus routes, or when I found my neighborhood pizza place, or when I comfortably made small talk with the older neighborhood folks who sit in the sun each afternoon. So I wanted to see what little moments in Rochester made the city feel like home for people who moved here from other countries.
Home is not needing a GPS
When Hanan Bashear moved to Rochester from Kuwait in 2012, the former fitness instructor felt adrift. “When you come to a new place where you don’t have family, you don’t have friends, you don’t have anything, [it’s like] somebody pulled all your roots and tried to plant you in different soil,” she says. “You’re just thinking, what am I doing here?” Originally from Sudan, and with Ethopian and Eritrean parents, Bashear felt totally lost in western New York.
Bashear, who immigrated with her three young kids, didn’t know her way around the city and didn’t have a car to figure it out. “I used to run,” the 40-year-old says. She ran everywhere: to Tops for groceries, to her kids’ school for parent-teacher meetings. When she inevitably got lost, she could at least chalk it up to a good workout. Bashear eventually decided she was ready for wheels, and when she happened to be in a taxi driven by an Ethiopian man, asked him how one goes about getting a driver’s license. The driver told her about the DMV and gave her the phone number for someone in the African community who could help.
Through this connection, Bashear got her license and a part-time job as an interpreter at Catholic Family Center that required her to travel throughout the county for appointments. She bought a GPS and threw herself into the work. Three years later, Bashear works as a receptionist at Rochester Regional Health’s Refugee Health Clinic, where she uses her four languages to help newcomers navigate the healthcare system. Now, “I navigate through Rochester without GPS; I can drive anywhere. I can just take my car and go. I don’t have to Google it. So this makes you feel like it’s home because you know where to go.”
Home is a gynecologist’s office
For Hemanta Adhikari, home came in an unexpected place: her gynecologist’s office. Adhikari and her husband moved to Rochester from a refugee camp in Nepal in 2009. The couple had $50 between them, and Adhikari was five months pregnant. Adhikari was terrified to give birth in the refugee camp where she says women are scolded for screaming while experiencing labor pains. “I felt like I wouldn’t survive,” Adhikari says.
When she met physician assistant Anne Marie Blanchard at Clinton Family Health Center, Adhikari says she felt safe. “[Blanchard] gave me so much support. She gave me her shoulder when I wanted to cry during appointments.” Adhikari says she cried a lot in those first days. Her parents resettled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the then 25-year-old was lonely in a new place. But the staff at the health center welcomed her like family, and Rochester began to feel like home.
Home is a job that promises a career
Fazel Haidari worked with Americans for five years before stepping foot in the United States. Haidari worked as a contractor with the US military in his native Afghanistan from 2009 to 2014. Haidari, twenty-seven, helped the service members in Kabul with tasks like interpreting and driving, but his association with US forces meant a possible death sentence by the Taliban. In 2012, Haidari applied for immigration to the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program, which grants visas to people whose lives are at risk in Afghanistan and Iraq due to their work with American military forces.
Haidari arrived in Rochester in November of 2015 with his wife and six-month-old son and didn’t know what he’d be able to do for work in his new city. He got help from No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that works with Special Immigrant Visa holders, to join a six-month electrical program through the Rochester City School District’s Office of Adult and Continuing Education Services (OACES). After graduating from the program, Haidari got a job as an electrician apprentice with RADEC Corporation. He says it’s a career job that he hopes will lead to his electrician’s license and owning his own business one day. “The first time when I felt like Rochester is my home is when I found this job,” Haidari says.
Haidari still misses his family, whom he says can’t come to the United States But he’s happy to be in Rochester, a place he says he “can’t say anything bad about.”
Home is the chance to go back to school
Faziri Ndahiro had to leave his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was barely a teenager. Ndahiro’s family of nine fled to Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda as part of an exodus escaping the Second Congo War, considered the deadliest conflict since World War II. Conditions in the camp were extremely rough—Ndahiro’s twelve-year-old sister died there after an extended illness. With good English skills, he got a job as an interpreter with the United Nations, and later as part of a food distribution team in the camp through the Norwegian Refugee Council. Ndahiro and fourteen colleagues were responsible for the rations of 60,000 people. He resigned in 2011 when the family was granted resettlement in Rochester.
“We were kind of excited. You know, it’s a new place, and we had a lot of expectations before we got here. But sometimes they fade away when you realize what you expected is not what’s really there.” Ndahiro dreamed of college, but the twenty-year-old was frustrated by the slow pace of the language classes offered through the resettlement program. He left the program to work, putting in one week at a packaging factory, two weeks at a cleaning job, and a stint at an electronics recycling company where he felt he and other Africans were being taken advantage of for not knowing their rights.
Ndahiro started a nonprofit organization, Africans United Organization (now Global Refugee Services), with two friends to help other newcomers to Rochester and to educate Rochester natives on refugee groups resettling here. But for Ndahiro, home was in the classroom. When he finally got the chance to enroll in classes at Monroe Community College, “I was like, ‘Yes, I’m in America,’” he says. Ndahiro is now in his junior year at the College at Brockport (SUNY) where he studies political science and social work, and works nights at a men’s shelter run by Catholic Family Center. Through Global Refugee Services, he’s helping new refugee families get settled in Rochester, and even planning a group volunteering trip to the refugee camp he left in Uganda. “God has a lot for me. If I never died in the war, I know there’s a reason why.”
Danielle Preiss is a writer sometimes living in Rochester and sometimes in Nepal. You can find her on Twitter @daniellepreiss.