Immigrant story: IRC relocates hundreds of refugees to Charlottesville each year

Esther Umuhoza and Patrick Bagaza are grateful for their lives in Charlottesville after fleeing Rwanda in 2004. They plan to raise their young children as Americans, with an infusion of African culture. Photo: Christian Hommel Esther Umuhoza and Patrick Bagaza are grateful for their lives in Charlottesville after fleeing Rwanda in 2004. They plan to raise their young children as Americans, with an infusion of African culture. Photo: Christian Hommel

Like hundreds of others in Charlottesville’s refugee community, Patrick Bagaza and his wife came to the U.S. to escape violence, political turmoil, and persecution in their home country. By many measures, life is better here, but uprooting his family has been painful.

“Everybody thinks American life is easy, but it’s completely the opposite,” said Bagaza.

Charlottesville is home to one of 22 offices of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit that works with agencies overseas to resettle individuals and families fleeing conflict in their home countries. Of the roughly 14 million people around the world classified as refugees, only about 1 percent get the opportunity to start their lives over in a new country.

The IRC resettled close to 7,500 of last year’s federal government immigration quota of 60,000, and it aims to resettle 200 per year in Charlottesville. Groups like the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration work directly with families in refugee camps and help them begin the long process of interviews, medical screenings, background and security checks, and connect them with the IRC to begin their new lives.

Tin Tin Nyo missed out on two years of her kids’ lives for standing up to the Burmese government. While her husband traveled to and from Singapore as a merchant and welder and her three children fended for themselves, Tin Tin was starved, beaten, and threatened in prison.

“They tortured me mentally and physically, and it got harder each time,” said Nyo, whose son Aung Kaing translated. “Those were the worst moments of my life.”

After two years in a refugee camp in Thailand, Tin Tin Nyo now lives a quiet life with her family in Charlottesville. She and her husband speak minimal English and often find themselves living paycheck to paycheck. But they’re no longer in constant fear of persecution, and they’re watching their youngest son work through college and chase the American dream.

The process of getting to the U.S. takes years for many refugees, according to IRC Charlottesville’s Lucy Carrigan.

“There has to be a real willingness and determination on the part of the refugee to make that transition,” Carrigan said.

Once they’re here, the relocated refugees immediately face a new battle: finding jobs to support their families as non-native English speakers who don’t know the area. The minute they arrive, the clock is ticking, because they only get six months of financial help from the IRC.

Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the IRC in Charlottesville, said refugees tend to come to the U.S. in waves. When the office first opened in the late 1990s, most families came from the Balkans. The early 2000s brought large groups of Meskhetian Turks from Russia. These days, the bulk of the IRC’s refugees arrive from Iraq and central Asian countries like Bhutan and Burma.
Refugees come to the U.S. with different kinds of American dreams, but the IRC’s immediate goal for them is financial independence. With limited federal and state funding to provide ongoing support, the organization focuses first and foremost on helping resettled adults find work.

“The resettlement program is very much based on the refugees becoming self-sufficient in a very short period of time,” Carrigan said. “So the real first priority is to help find them that first job, which can be tough. Even if you come to this country with English and an education, it’s hard to find a job.”

Ilkhom Muzzafarov, an Uzbeki by birth who spent 17 years in the war-torn Russian region of Chechnya before coming to Charlottesville, is thrilled to work at Whole Foods as a department supervisor—a job many Americans wouldn’t consider very glamorous. He hopes to eventually go back to school, but working and supporting his family in a safe country is enough for now.
For Muzzafarov, the challenges he’s faced and sacrifices he’s made are well worth the life he’s been able to make for himself and his family in the U.S., and everything he’s encountered here seems inconsequential compared to what he dealt with back home.

“Here, problems are not the same as Russian problems,” he said.