On Eid Al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that fell on September 1 in 2017, a conversation with World Relief Match Grant Specialist Sajida Nelson was interrupted by a co-worker. A former client, he said, was in the lobby. She was distraught and needed some help.
“This is more important,” Sajida said as she got up and moved toward the door, than talking about herself. Her empty office, one of the few at World Relief not shared by several staff, hints at her life as an immigrant.
On the wall, American wedding portraits and Christmas cards. A shot of Sajida smiling while she hugs a very large bulldog. On her chair, a thick gold and red scarf that would be at home in the market in her native Iraq.
Sajida grew up in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that is most familiar to Americans as the site of crucial battles during the 2003 invasion and, until the summer of 2017, as a stronghold for the Islamic State.
For Sajida, Mosul is a historic center of the Chaldean Catholic Church in which she grew up.
“It was a simple place to be kids,” she said. “It worsened when the war came.” Despite the war’s hardships, it provided Sajida, a skilled English speaker, with the chance to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Military. “At first it was for money, but after the first couple months I wanted to help people who left their own homes and families to do something good for my country,” she said.
When Sajida returned from calming down the woman in the lobby, she explained that part of her job is helping clients through the emotional and financial challenges of American life. Her program, Match Grant, imparts financial skills that lead to self-sufficiency.
Sajida connects with her clients’ challenges because of the more than 2 years she spent in Sweden, alone and waiting to come to the United States. “I was basically a refugee in Sweden,” she said. “I know what they’re feeling.”
She recalled one client who wanted to move to Sacramento, CA. She helped him think about the cost of moving, of leaving an apartment and renting a new one, switching utilities, the loss of income while he found a new job, and the fact that his working family in Sacramento may not have time to help him. “He decided to stay, work and save money to move later,” she said.
Sajida began volunteering at World Relief only 2 months after she arrived to Spokane in 2010. Unlike World Relief’s clients, she came to the United States using a fiancé(e) visa (hence the wedding photos on her wall). She learned about World Relief and wanted to help others in situations that were similar to hers.
“It always brought joy to me to know that I am of help,” Sajida said. Six months later, the match grant specialist position opened, and Sajida got the job. Ever since, she has used her experience as a refugee and her ever-growing knowledge of what it is to be an American to help her refugee clients. She holds orientations to help refugees understand their benefits, connects them with medical services and bill payment, and still does some interpreting here and there.
The work “to me is a way to give back to the community,” said Sajida. It’s a community Sajida fully became a part of just a few years ago when she took the oath of citizenship. “Becoming citizen of this great nation was amazing feeling,” She said. “This is a country that would stand for you in any place or situation.”
Sajida’s journey to America and work here connect in many ways, and perhaps the most powerful is when refugees become a part of the American community just like she did.
“It’s been amazing to witness the gratefulness of my clients whom became citizens and for them to want and share this moment with me,” Sajida said. “It’s the most amazing and important day of their lives to be recognized as American citizens and not just refugees.”
This blog post was written by Ben Shedlock, a World Relief Spokane volunteer.