An Iraqi refugee who fled death threats in his homeland now helps other refugees begin their new lives in Kings County.
Amed Alfaraji said his own experience as a refugee in America motivates him to help other people resettle in his role as the director of community outreach for the Downtown Arab American Family Support Center.
“I am a proud refugee, and a proud American, so I want to pay back to help other people,” said Alfaraji, who lives in Bay Ridge and said he received his American citizenship this past March.
Alfaraji currently works with about 70 refugee families and 300 refugees in total, most of whom are from Syria and settled throughout Kings County, and the distant lands of New Jersey and upstate New York. He helps them secure green cards, work authorizations, and jobs, along with helping them navigate the linguistic and cultural challenges that come with living in a new country, he said.
“I try to educate them, because it’s a different culture — some families have [culture] shock,” he said. “Life here is free — they have to understand that. You have the right to speech, you have the right to everything.”
The refugee-turned-Ridgite originally hails from Baghdad, where, in 2004, he worked with the U.S. Army as an Arabic interpreter, he said. But Alfaraji abandoned his post after he received three death threats in one month, adding that the last threat came in the form of a bullet he received in the mail accompanied by verses from the Quran, the Islamic holy book. Three of his friends who worked as interpreters were killed the following year, and one went missing, he said, adding that Iraqi insurgents were murdering translators, whom they viewed as collaborating with the U.S.
“They were targeting interpreters,” he said.
Alfaraji quit his job and fled to Syria with his pregnant wife, Bana al-Ani, in 2006, he said. The pair set up a business translating legal documents from Arabic to English in Syria’s capital city of Damascus, where al-Ani gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Asal, Alfaraji said.
The family fled to Egypt in 2008, and Alfaraji applied for asylum in the U.S. the following year, he said.
In 2012, the family finally arrived in the U.S., where they stayed with a host in Manhattan until finding their Ridge home, according to Alfaraji, who added that he spent the next three months working 14-hour shifts as a dishwasher six days a week. He earned only $250 a week, he said, and considered bringing his family back to Iraq, but decided to stay when he realized he could use his English-speaking skills to help other refugees.
“I wanted to go back, but I knew the language. I was thinking of the other refugees who don’t know the language, and they are isolated,” he said. “How do they feel? That convinced me more to help people and to do my best.”
By the end of his first year in the U.S., however, Alfaraji got a job at the Arab American Family Support Center, working as a front desk administrator. The following year, the couple welcomed a newborn son, Adam, and Alfaraji was promoted to operations officer and then operations manager, helping to plan events and oversee administrative tasks. And last year, he was promoted to his current post, where he began working directly with refugees, he said.
One Syrian refugee who fled persecution for being gay said Alfaraji helped him find a job and apply for medical insurance and food stamps, adding that the outreach director’s accepting nature and experience as a refugee help make him an invaluable resource for others fleeing their homelands for Kings County.
“As a caseworker, he has an open mind, so he accepts that I’m gay and started to help me,” said Lutfi Alhasani, who arrived in the U.S. in 2016 and now lives in the Bronx. “He tells me a lot about life here … he knows the experience, how you come from war to another war. He knows your question and he already has an answer.”
Alfaraji said he hopes to continue helping refugees and representing the Arab communities throughout the borough, work he began earlier this year when the beep named him a Brooklyn Ambassador — a role in which he acts as a liaison between Borough Hall and local Arab communities — and a member of the newly formed Brooklyn Complete Count Committee, which encourages greater participation in the 2020 Census.
The Ridgite said he cares most about improving others’ lives — in Brooklyn and beyond.
“I love helping people,” he said.