Finding refuge: Rifat Filkins

RISSE Rifat Filkins

Rifat Filkins came to Albany from Pakistan to help run RISSE.

Last week we shared the stories of a handful of refugees who have found new homes in the Capital Region. To finish the series, we talked with a person who's not a refugee, but has learned a lot about the refugee experience.

Rifat Filkins came to the United States from Pakistan in 2009 on an employment visa to take a job with RISSE, the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus in Albany.

Since then the program has grown from serving 40 immigrant and refugee families to serving 200 families from 22 different countries. It runs after-school and summer programs for children, teaches English as a second language, and helps immigrants and refugees get settled and adjusted in their new city.

Filkins is now an American citizen -- she has a husband and a daughter in Albany. And we talked with her about her experience coming to this country, and how we can all help refugees and immigrants.

Why did you come to Albany?

I was working back home and I was looking for some different opportunity. I was pretty satisfied helping out people, which I enjoyed, but I did it for 11 years and was looking to do something different. In the meantime this job was offered to me from here. I accepted it because it sounded very different. I had never met any refugee.

When I came over here RISSE was a smaller organization and it just grew so much we added new programs. But I feel like the main idea is I still get the chance to help people who are in great need and that is very important to me.

What would you like people in the area to understand about refugees and their lives?

I think first thing that is very important to understand is that most people, especially refugees, they are very vulnerable people. This is not their choice. They had to come here because they had to, to save their lives. Their lives were in danger and that's why they had to leave their countries. And sometimes we just think maybe they were in countries and they resettled over here, but that is not how it happens. There is a process that takes years and years -- from three years to maybe 20 years. And all those years are years of struggle and not easy life.

"But I also think it is very important for us to know that when it comes to refugee or migrant or native -- anybody -- all that we should think about is they are people just like you and me. They come with a culture with them and I think it is very important for people to understand they have the same desire to live a comfortable life as we all do."

But I also think it is very important for us to know that when it comes to refugee or migrant or native -- anybody -- all that we should think about is they are people just like you and me. They come with a culture with them and I think it is very important for people to understand they have the same desire to live a comfortable life as we all do. They have the same dreams as anybody would have for their children. they are just hoping for a better future and I think it's very common for anybody, and I just think that we need to look at them like people.

What can we do to help?

Working over here I feel like people really care for refugees. I've been working for this organization eight years and all I can say is that the care that the Albany community has been providing for refugee families is great.

When it comes to what they can do: Try to put ourselves in these people's shoes -- which is a very, very difficult thing to do.

I came as an immigrant and my co-worker came as refugee. I get the opportunity to meet families when they get here. It is such an eye opening experience ... families would just come and sit there, they don't know where they are, they sit and look around. They are willing to leave their kids with us and willing for us to choose where their kids go to school. The situation put them in those circumstances, but on the other hand it requires a lot of courage to say, yes, I don't know but I want to trust people who are around me. They can think of me and they can make good decisions for me. Because sometimes we are put in that position. They are making us decide for them, which is very hard thing, but they don't have any choice. Like for everything, you can't feel or understand the pain of other people if you don't have that -- and I think in this situation it's the same thing.

"People lose their loved ones back home. Yes, we can give them hugs, we can say we are sorry, but only people who go through that can understand their pain. When I hear people tell us we do a lot for refugee families -- we do try to do our best, but the stories are such incredible stories, you just sit back and think we are doing much, but it's really not much."

People lose their loved ones back home. Yes, we can give them hugs, we can say we are sorry, but only people who go through that can understand their pain. When I hear people tell us we do a lot for refugee families -- we do try to do our best, but the stories are such incredible stories, you just sit back and think we are doing much, but it's really not much.

People really, really are... their social, emotional needs their needs are just huge.

Just today we got a lot of shoes from a shoe company -- they brought us a bunch of shoes. I think getting involved and giving your time is the most important thing.

I think people having no language and trying to accomplish things is a difficult thing and if people can just come and see and say we are here for you -- just give them encouragement. And these are people who are brave and want to do things -- want to get jobs, want to learn English. These are people who are eager to learn and eager to do things, they just need support.

What was your experience like, coming here?

I came at the end of June and start to work here in July, and June was cold for me (laughs) and I was wearing sweater. I remember people were saying, "Oh, it's so hot."

Then winter came (laughs) -- that was quite different.

Language was the biggest barrier. I don't know what to do, not being comfortable to talk in English. I just wanted to hide somewhere where I didn't have to hear English or speak English. It's not that I don't know English, but I didn't feel comfortable speaking it all the time and I never had experience where I had to speak English all the time. I think for my brain it was a lot to process.

Also cultural things. You are not sure how people are going to react to things -- small things. In our culture we don't smile for nothing. Over here, everybody smiles -- which is good. But especially in our culture, for a woman, it is not considered very nice thing, people say "not a good woman." I come over here and I started to work and people kept saying are you OK? People were very supportive and wanted to help out and everything but they'd question me, "Are you OK?" I didn't smile, I guess. But now I do. I think it's nice. I think it's a nice thing to do.

"I just think that it's important for people to know that people who come as refuges or immigrants they appreciate people being welcoming over here. They appreciate small things -- if someone opens the door for them or smile at them or say hello to them. And I think sometimes we don't know but we can be part of making a difference in people's life without even knowing."

When it comes to adjusting to a new culture, a new environment and making friends, I feel like everything you are not sure. That is the biggest worry -- you are not sure. You are just trying -- too much trying and I think that can exhaust you. I think that I was exhausted from too much trying, too much trying.

I just think that it's important for people to know that people who come as refuges or immigrants they appreciate people being welcoming over here. They appreciate small things -- if someone opens the door for them or smile at them or say hello to them. And I think sometimes we don't know but we can be part of making a difference in people's life without even knowing.

I have 350 students back home and they are still in touch and say, "oh, you did this for me." and I don't even remember it -- but some small thing that made a big difference in their lives. So if you keep doing small, kind things with a kind heart you never know what the impact is going to be .

If you're interested in donating time, money, or supplies to RISSE, here are a few helpful details.
____

Earlier
+ Finding refuge: Zina Prokofyeva, Sameerah Moharb, Sakuntala Chhetri
+ Francis Sengabo
+ Finding refuge: Olivier Mandevu
+ Finding refuge: Ni-Lar Way, Besa Paw, Christer-Say, Christer-Htoo
+ Finding refuge: Tafsela Hashimi
+ Finding refuge: Haeneypew Sey
+ Finding refuge: Amgad Abdalla
+ Finding Refuge: Niebiha

Comments

Congrats on running an amazing organization Rifat. You're an inspiration. It's been wonderful to see your growth over the years. And thanks for taking me as a volunteer while I was a student at Saint Rose....I learned so much!

Here's to more success!

Cheers,

Eric

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