Forging Connections in a New Land

SACRAMENTO — When Rawajuddin Dakhunda meets refugees new to the United States, he understands much about the help they need firsthand.

“When you come here, you see the reality is something else,” said Mr. Dakhunda, who came to California from Afghanistan three years ago. “It is not the way we see it through Hollywood movies.”

Mr. Dakhunda, who completed advanced studies in his home country and worked for an American company for seven years, spoke excellent English and had previously traveled to the United States before he arrived on a special immigration visa. But once living in Sacramento, he felt his options were limited.

Mr. Dakhunda heard about the International Rescue Committee, one of seven beneficiary agencies of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, from a friend. Since then, he has found a path to provide for himself, his wife and their two daughters (they have welcomed a son since resettling). He is now working for the I.R.C. full time in its Sacramento office, which resettled 824 refugees in the 2019 fiscal year, and provides job training, legal help, English lessons and more.

When Mr. Dakhunda came to the committee’s office as a client, he signed up for job readiness training taught by Christina Manning.

“I was a student, so everything was new for me,” Mr. Dakhunda said. “New arrivals are always excited.”

Ms. Manning chose to pursue volunteering with the organization after retiring from her job in corporate communications. She had spent many years as a Red Cross disaster volunteer, including six weeks in Manhattan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It was one of those life-changing events and it just made me want to do what I couldn’t do when I was working,” she said during a recent interview. “I didn’t have time to do things of the heart, and now I can.”

In her course, Ms. Manning covers topics like local culture, the type of wages to expect, mock interviews, and credit and loans. She aims to create an atmosphere in which students are relaxed and can create connections. Ms. Manning helped Mr. Dakhunda distill a six-page C.V. to a one-page résumé.

While Mr. Dakhunda’s first job placement didn’t work out (the person driving his car pool to a Walgreens warehouse quit), he found other work as a security guard and briefly as a delivery driver after getting his California license.

As Mr. Dakhunda grew more confident, he applied to work at the International Rescue Committee as an interpreter. In March 2018, he became a full-time employee and has taken on additional responsibilities at three locations.

Many refugees find that their previous work experience, university degrees and professional licenses are not accepted or understood in this country. In his role, Mr. Dakhunda helps them get education documents evaluated. In the case of refugees with limited English, the I.R.C. helps them find and gain certifications for jobs that do not require much speaking, like food handling and equipment operation.

Mr. Dakhunda tries to present a realistic picture to the students he works with, gradually. “I don’t disappoint them, but then sometimes we come to the reality, and what is the reality and what you should do and what to expect,” he said.

Mr. Dakhunda enjoys helping people navigate the challenges he faced as a new arrival in Sacramento. He encourages them to seek out help from organizations like the International Rescue Committee, recalling a refugee who approached him in desperation, saying that he feared homelessness if he didn’t find work immediately. With the help of the I.R.C., Mr. Dakhunda helped him find a job within three days.

When the man and his wife thanked Mr. Dakhunda, he told them: “It was not by magic. You came to the right place.”

After Mr. Dakhunda was one of Ms. Manning’s students, they worked together frequently as she taught her course.

“Whenever Mr. Dakhunda was the interpreter in the class, it was just a special experience for me,” she said. “Just to know that you have helped someone who had come from a very difficult and dangerous situation in their home country,” she said.

With a little laughter, both cite helping Afghans understand the Department of Motor Vehicles as a highlight of their collaboration.

D.M.V. documents provided by the department were translated from English to Farsi, which is close to Dari, a main language in Afghanistan, but not close enough for most Dari speakers to understand. Mr. Dakhunda helped students grasp the items that would be on the test so that they could get licenses.

“The value of someone who’s been through the program and understands what I am teaching,” Ms. Manning said, “I think really made a difference for adding a little color to the subjects that we go through.”

Mr. Dakhunda also helps people to navigate the transit system, including understanding routes using GPS on smartphones and payment options. And he describes concepts like gift cards and credit cards, which were new ideas to many of the students. Ms. Manning allowed him a little extra time to explain these things.

“It was my pleasure that she accepted that,” he said. “It was very helpful to them.”

Some classes have multiple interpreters in languages like Arabic, Russian and Pashto, with students of each language seated near each other so everyone can hear the language they speak.

A separate cultural orientation training helps refugees understand the unique diversity that they will encounter in the United States. They learn about accepting others and how to ask for things like prayer breaks at work.

Ms. Manning, who works with Mr. Dakhunda more occasionally now that he is on staff, continues to teach classes and is working on recruiting more volunteers and building awareness about the International Rescue Committee.

“Giving to someone else of your time,” she said, “is an essential part of being a human being.”

Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online, or with a check or over the phone.

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