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‘Do the right thing’: One woman’s mission to help refugees feel welcomed

By Coco McCabe
Anny Khan, second from the right, helped organize a meeting with Congresswoman Suzan DelBene for a family of Syrian refugees.

“I’m proactive. And if I see something is wrong, I’ll say so, and do my best to fix it,” says Anny Khan, who founded an organization that helps educate the public about the needs of refugees.

Xenophobia has been behind a lot of the headlines lately, driving anti-refugee agendas here in the US and in other parts of the world. It makes the news because it’s loud, ugly, and often outrageous—perfect fodder for ratings. But, there’s another story coursing quietly and steadily out of range of the microphones and TV cameras, the story of people like Anny Khan who decided she’d heard enough of the negative noise, and had to do something about it.

Being a mother helped her reach that decision. So, perhaps, did her perspective as a Pakistani native  who became an American citizen in 2013. In September 2015, from her home in Renton, Washington, she founded Americans for Refugees & Immigrants, a small organization of volunteers determined to defend some of our nation’s oldest and deepest values about welcoming war-scarred families in need of safety and security.

“I’m proactive. And if I see something is wrong, I’ll say so, and do my best to fix it,” said Khan.

Khan had been following the civil war in Syria closely—year after agonizing year—and feeling deeply distressed by the global indifference to the plight of millions of refugees who had fled the fighting. She had just had her third child when one day, the photo of Alan Kurdi swept social media. He was the Syrian toddler whose lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey after the rubber raft he and his family boarded for Greece capsized during the crossing.

“The image was too much for me,” Khan said. “I don’t have money, but at least I can scream and shout.”

And organize.

On the advice of Rich Stolz, executive director of One America, an immigrant advocacy organization in Seattle, Khan’s first step was to reach out to as many US congressional members from her state as possible.

“I did that and I got responses back from five,” said Khan, who then, suddenly, found herself with an unexpected opportunity: a meeting with their aids. She panicked. Where could she hold such a meeting? She finally settled on a local library, and the event drew scores of people keen to learn more about refugees and resettlement. It was the beginning, said Khan, of a very good relationship with her elected representatives—a key place from which to start a mission in a political environment charged with fear and misinformation.

“We want to make sure we deliver the message that we need to solve the root cause (of the Syrian crisis) because if we don’t we’re going to continue to see this mass exodus of refugees and the domino effect,” said Khan. “Nobody gains from this except those terrorist organizations who have all these hungry people to exploit.”

Anny Khan's organization helps refugees navigate some of the challenges they face on moving to the US.

Next steps

Since that first meeting, Khan has made it her job (along with working full-time as a medical assistant at Valley Medical Center and teaching at PIMA Medical Institute) to continue to push congressional leaders to vote against anti-immigrant policies.

“It’s not true to who we are as Americans,” said Khan of those policies.

In addition to helping families navigate some of their daily challenges—registering for school, applying for jobs, car repairs, learning about local laws and policies as well as the rights and protection women have under US laws—Khan’s group also organizes public information sessions to help bust the many myths about refugees that foster fear and resentment.

“The more awareness there is, the better people can see these refugees need help,” Khan said. “We need to create a welcoming environment.”

One of the most common misconceptions she confronts, said Khan, is the notion that refugees are forever on the government doll with foods stamps and rental assistance and that they get more help than anyone else.

Not true.

In fact, said Khan, when refugees are settled and working, they are obliged to pay the US back for the cost of their airfares here. And government policies urge refugees to become economically self-sufficient as quickly as possible. The US gives each refugee $925 to cover the costs of their basic needs for the first 30 days after their arrival. And then refugees can apply for support through other programs, such as those that provide cash and medical assistance, during their first eight months in the country.

Khan said in her experience working with refugee families she has found that more than anything else, they want to become independent and stand on their own.

“It’s for self-respect,” she said. “They are just like us. They’re no different.”

The biggest challenges

Despite those shared values, among the biggest challenges families often face on their arrival in the US is learning English.

“Language is hard,” said Khan. “And until they learn it, it molds their personalities. It molds the course of their lives in the first few years—the friends they make, how their kids do in school.”

Couple that initial language barrier with an anti-immigrant hostility some families encounter and fear is the end result for them, said Khan—fear on top of the trauma they have already endured in their flight from conflict.

Fear is what Khan is fighting. And to her delight she has discovered that in her corner of Washington, she’s got a lot of support.

“We are lucky to be in this beautiful state,” she said. “Washington state, the western side, is still very welcoming. I can’t believe how many good people I’ve met since starting this group.”

But they’ve got their work cut out for them.

“We have people in leadership positions stirring up hate,” said Khan of the current political climate. “They have no fear of consequences; no sense of ownership. Politicians don’t even have a clue of how many Muslims they come across in their own life. . . Every time you have ignorance, there’s always fear.”

What’s the one thing she would like all politicians and Americans to know about refugees?

“They’re no different from us,” said Khan. “We need to do the right thing.”

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