By Deidre Harrison, Program Manager of Refugee Services in Savannah
Can a case file truly tell you the story of a life? Last year, Lutheran Services of Georgia prepared to receive a family of three that was living in Lebanon after fleeing their home country of Iraq. Although the story found in their case file, rife with violence and war, resembled the stories of many LSG clients, the Al Khazraji family was unique. The family’s employment history included a detailed account of the artistic and professional skills that both Sarmad and his wife Nemat acquired overseas. While living in Iraq, Sarmad studied film and theatre and Nemat earned a degree in fashion design. Sarmad directed plays and brought international scripts to his beloved theatre in Baghdad. During the Iraq wars, he received awards for short documentaries highlighting the effects of war on civilians. Sarmad approached his career with an open mind and a desire to welcome strangers from different countries.
In August 2013, LSG resettled Sarmad, Nemat, and their 8-year-old son Nadim in Savannah. At the time, the Iraqi community was still budding and many families found social adjustment very challenging. Yet Sarmad’s enthusiasm to help others and build friendships with local residents made him a role model to other Iraqi clients. With special consideration by LSG staff, the Al Khazraji family agreed to become the first refugee family resettled on Wilmington Island, a small community that had amenities but no refugee community. Both the agency and the Al Khazraji family took a risk that produced exemplary results, showcasing the power of community integration. Nadim excelled at May Howard Elementary School in his first three months and quickly made friends within and outside of the ESOL program. Sarmad befriended local artists at Savannah’s famous City Market. Within three months of arrival, Sarmad and Nemat both accepted jobs at Kroger where they work rotating shifts to mitigate childcare.
After their resettlement, the Al Khazraji family overcame challenges that many refugee families encounter. They learned to read and write in English by attending Savannah Technical College’s ESL classes and practicing with their son. They overcame the Savannah heat and sand gnats by learning to use sunscreen and bug spray. Most importantly, Sarmad and Nemat invested their personal time to help other refugees learn how to adapt to their new lives. In 2014, Sarmad and his wife have already assisted LSG staff with public transportation orientations and provided social support to new families resettled on Wilmington Island.
Drawing on his passion for art and film, Sarmad hopes to film a documentary about how refugees’ lives are positively transformed. He hopes that his talents can be used to communicate the shared hope of many people. Clearly, the case of the Al Khazraji family has yet to be closed.