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For Fresno’s Syrian Refugees, Assistance Workers Say Community Is Key To Recovery

Violet Ruth Bergen
Kathleen Chavoor Bergen, left, and Wasan Abu-Baker both provide assitance to families of Syrian refugees.

While immigrant rights and sanctuary cities may be flash points right now in today’s political climate, it may be easy to forget that the San Joaquin Valley has a long history of opening its doors to immigrants as well as refugees fleeing struggles in their home countries. On Tuesday, April 4, Fresno State is hosting a symposium to educate students and the community about some of their newest neighbors: Syrian refugees. Kerry Klein spoke with two panelists about their refugee assistance work: Wasan Abu-Baker, a community health provider with Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM), and marriage and family therapist Kathleen Chavoor Bergen. The interview is excerpted below.

Credit Tudor Stanley
Wasan Abu-Baker is a community health provider with Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.

Through her work with FIRM, Wasan Abu-Baker helps new refugees find places to live, furnish their homes, access health care, and enroll children in local schools. She says a steady stream of Syrian refugees have moved to this area over the last few years, and we’re due to see more.

“Right now in Fresno, we have 25 families,” Abu-Baker says. “We’ve been receiving families since the Syrian war started, so the last five years. We have five asylum seekers, and we have 20 families that are refugees, so they came through resettlement agencies from Jordan or Turkey.”

Despite what’s been happening politically, she says, locals have been warm to their new neighbors. “Fresno people, they are all helpful and supportive to the refugees, from all faiths,” she says. “We receive a lot of support and donations for the families from all the churches, organizations, Islamic centers.”

And that support is needed. “First of all, they need to feel that we’re welcoming them and we’re happy to see them here in this country, and they need to feel safe,” she says. “But they need to work on themselves a little bit. They speak Arabic. They need to learn English, they need to learn some skills so maybe they can get better jobs, and they need to adapt to their new life here. We have a diverse community here in the U.S., so maybe this is a shock to them.”

Credit Kathleen Chavoor Bergen
Kathleen Chavoor Bergen is a marriage and family therapist who works with schools, non-profits and local refugee families.

Kathleen Chavoor Bergen says many of these individuals bring with them long, complex histories of trauma, and that finding an accepting community is key to helping them recover. “The PTSD that they’ve experienced is complex in that it went from trauma in the city that they grew up in, having to evacuate to the camp, to the extreme vetting process, to coming to the U.S. and having little to no resources,” she says. “They come in debt. The government pays but then they need to pay back their plane tickets, and then figuring out where to live, not speaking the language, not having adequate means to navigate Fresno, they can’t drive, there’s not a good bus system, and being put in really impoverished areas. So there are multiple sites of trauma.”

Despite those histories, Chavoor Bergen says, the families she’s worked with don’t hesitate to welcome those around them into their own community. “I am constantly amazed by the resiliency of our Syrian neighbors,” she says. “I am blown away by the warmth that I have received. I come to their house and they feed me with the little resources they have. They’ve given me love in ways that is just shocking. They are the warmest, kindest people you could ever meet, in light of the significant amount of trauma that they have received.”

Listen to the audio file above for the full interview.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.