A.J. Mikhlif (top left) stands with his family on the porch stairs of their new home. Contributed photo. Mikhlif Family Gathers Together
A.J. Mikhlif (top left) stands with his family on the porch stairs of their new home. Contributed photo.

Instead of ignoring an important issue, one Charlottesville teacher faced it head-on.

CHARLOTTESVILLE – If a hole in the system doesn’t directly impact the person discovering it, it’s easy to shrug off. If it’s not your problem, why fix it? Kari Miller, founder of International Neighbors, asked why not?

An elementary English as a Second Language teacher for nearly 20 years, Miller encountered students from various backgrounds. She recognized that the families of her refugee students struggled with difficult circumstances.

“After about 10 years of saying, ‘Somebody should do something,’ I realized, ‘I guess I’m somebody and I have to do something,’” Miller said.

The teacher’s empathy didn’t stem solely from her classroom interactions, but also from personal past experiences. After she graduated from college, Miller joined the Peace Corps.

“I knew what it was like to try to learn a new language and culture and be the only white chick in a village in Thailand,” Miller said. “If I didn’t have my neighbors embracing me, then there’s no way I would’ve been as successful as I was.”

Remembering herself in a foreign situation, Miller’s heart tugged her toward the refugees in her own American community.

“Hearing about people that came to Charlottesville, totally vetted, and invited by the government, that they came here and we had people commit suicide. We had people return to their country of origin,” Miller said. “I’m like, ‘We’re in the common‘wealth’ of Virginia. This is not okay.’”

Creating a Solution

Miller founded International Neighbors in 2015. The nonprofit organization helps refugees rebuild their lives while striving toward self-sufficiency. The group pairs refugees with local, volunteer neighbors who serve as advocates, friends and connections to services in the community.

During its first full year, International Neighbors served 40 families. To date, more than 300 families formed connections through International Neighbors and its network of over 200 volunteers.

Having a group of neighborly advocates helps the refugees adapt to their new surroundings.

“I thought, if an infant was born, no one would say, ‘Alright, go ahead, go figure it out,’” Miller said. “It’s very similar for these adults and these families who’ve already overcome so much, to come and try to succeed on their own. It’s virtually impossible.”

Oftentimes, those fleeing from bad circumstances in their home countries arrive in the states with few physical possessions. Yet, in other ways they have much baggage.

“They are already indebted to the government. They have to pay back that airfare, which is enormous,” Miller said. “Usually there’s one adult that can work in the house. Even if they had a master’s degree in Iraq, they’re going to start scrubbing toilets in minimum wage jobs here.”

The Clock is Ticking

That’s right. As you arrive as a refugee, you’re already in debt. Before the government lets you on that plane, you have to sign some paperwork. No, it’s not about your background. This is a legal promise. You’re agreeing to pay the U.S. government for your plane ticket within three years.

The odd part is, the U.S. government itself got the money as a donation. The International Organization for Migration covers the cost of U.S.-bound tickets with funding provided by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. According to the State Department, the average loan adds up to $1,200, paid out in monthly installments of $85.

That’s where International Neighbors steps in. The group helps refugees head out on a five-year plan.

“We say that we strive to help our neighbors thrive in five years. That five-year mark is really, really important,” Miller said.

Miller circled back to her infant analogy. The director noted that the program’s duration is similar to the time it takes for a child to grow from a baby to their first day of kindergarten.

“Folks that are new here, everyone knows that five-year date of when they landed on U.S. soil. Because that five years, that’s the first day you can actually apply to be a U.S. citizen,” Miller said.

By the beginning of the fifth year, many International Neighbors refugees are self-sufficient and have paid back their airfare. Then, they may apply for citizenship. If families are in need, International Neighbors aids with the $1,000 per person citizenship application cost.  

Fleeing the Country

A.J. Mikhlif served the U.S. government as an interpreter in Iraq for nearly 10 years. Attaining a Special Immigrant Visa, he and his family had the opportunity to seek refuge in America.

“Long story short, literally these countries all are messed up. The problems they suffer from are security breech, low quality living conditions, no healthcare. That’s with everyone, not just me,” Mikhlif said. “Everyone in that area wanted to have better conditions by leaving the country. To go somewhere else where we can get jobs, get health insurance, get a safer place to establish a family. So all of that together are more and more and more reasons that made me more than willing to take that step and make that decision in my life.”

When Mikhlif first settled in Virginia, International Neighbors didn’t exist. Instead, another organization helped the Mikhlif family get on their feet.

“They welcomed me, they took me in, they showed me things they had already prepared for me to settle down. We are talking here about renting a place for me and my family, paying the payments for almost four months until I got my job and taking care of some other bills,” Mikhlif said. “After I found my own job, then everything stopped. I started to work here and make my own money.”

Not Out of the Woods

Still new to the country, the refugee family still didn’t have many possessions, even though the patriarch found employment.

It wasn’t too long after that, that Miller founded International Neighbors. Miller discovered Mikhlif spoke the native languages of many of the refugee families in Charlottesville, in addition to English. She asked him to become a board member.

“Since then, I think it was the most rightful decision I ever made because International Neighbors is a remarkable agency to work with, even voluntarily,” Mikhlif said. “They take care of all of the refugees. It’s hard for me to find the right words to describe how good they are, seriously.”

International Neighbors also helped the family attain necessary objects, which granted opportunities for greater success.

“We were able to donate a vehicle to the family and get professional driving lessons and help with other financial costs, help with the citizenship applications,” Miller said.

The organization helped the family further establish themselves not only in a new country, but in their community.

“They believe that all human beings are equal and they can do the same accomplishments if they all are provided the same opportunities and the same chances,” Mikhlif said.

Now citizens of the United States, the Mikhlif family enjoys their freedoms. Earlier this year, the family purchased a home – so nowadays, they’re truly living the American Dream.

“He is, like, the epitome of our programming and different supports in place,” Miller said.

A Different Experience

Dareen and Ahmed Aloudeh have a different story. When they arrived in the United States, it wasn’t their first refugee experience. Fleeing Syria with their four children, the husband and wife first settled in Egypt. However, the situation wasn’t conducive for one of their children who is handicapped, in a wheelchair and has spina bifida.

The Aloudeh family then turned to America. The Charlottesville area had exactly what they were looking for. Not only did it boast a rigorous education system, but it also had a wonderful children’s hospital.

Just because they found some of the things they were looking for in a country, that doesn’t mean things were easy. Even though their children got into school, the family needed assistance taking them to and from the building. Dareen spoke with Miller about the issue. International Neighbors then stepped in and provided rides.

“I needed help with transportation to go to my daughter’s school every day. She gave me a chance and she helped me a lot with that. For almost four months, they would ride me to school and back,” Dareern said. “Always, when I ask her for help, she gives me the help. All the time.”

International Neighbors also helped the Aloudehs secure a car for their daughter’s hospital appointments.

This year, the family utilized International Neighbors’ learning pod programs, which helps refugee students complete virtual learning assignments.

“They go to International Neighbors’ office from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. [They] have volunteers there. They have them Zooming. Everything, they cover for them and they help them with the supplies if they need it,” Dareen said. “It is very, very helpful. It is very good.”

Productive Society Members

Planting roots in the community, Dareen chose to return to school. She is currently one course away from earning her GED.

However, it didn’t stop her from already completing a college course. She recently earned a certificate from Piedmont Virginia Community College in their Practical Nursing program. She plans to continue her education and become a Certified Nursing Assistant.

“When I was in Syria, I saw many people that needed help,” Dareen said. “On the other hand, my daughter, as she grows up, I need to be more gentle with her, more professional with her because of her bones in her spine.”

She also hopes to land a career with her schooling.

“I would love to start in the hospital,” Dareen said. “I love that work, to help patients.”

Eventually, Dareen hopes to volunteer her skills at International Neighbors.

“I think with a certificate, I can help in the future with that,” Dareen said.

At 42, Dareen encouraged others to pursue their dreams no matter their current circumstance.

“When [people] start something [that they feel is] impossible, just do it and it will be done. If we go through with it, it will be done,” Dareen said. “Only look to the future. Don’t look at age or body or broken things. Every mistake, we learn from.”

Making a Difference

Additionally, Miller encouraged those interested to apply to be a Great Neighbor Guide. That’s a neighbor-to-neighbor connection where the organization matches a refugee family with an established American family.

“That family can have somebody to call or send a text message or, like, a birthday. Yesterday, I got seven different invitations because they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s my daughter’s birthday.’ It’s so exciting for them because that’s an American culture that they never got to experience before,” Miller said. “Just the questions, everyday, ‘My wife has a toothache, what do I do?’ Helping them to access resources that are in our community is very helpful if they’re paired with a native American who help with that.”

At the end of the day, a friendly smile or an upbeat phrase could make a difference for someone struggling with their new surroundings.

“I would just encourage people that if they see someone who speaks a different language or wears different clothing, to know that a smile is universal and that means so much,” Miller said. “Even just learning a new word in a new language. One time I said ‘as-salamu alaykum’ to a woman who was wearing a hijab. She stopped in her tracks and got tears in her eyes. [She] was just so grateful that an American took the time to learn how to say ‘hello’ in Arabic and actually greeted her as the human being that she was.”

To learn more about International Neighbors, visit them on the web at www.internationalneighbors.org.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com