Refugees in the Bay Area: A New Life

As part of our new initiative to connect with a wider group of immigrants, we have been meeting with local organizations that provide essential support to refugees being resettled in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A smiling photo of Gita and Michelle, Gita holds her fingers in the peace sign

Gita and Michelle

Our very first informational meeting was with Zarina Kiziloglu, a board member for the Muslim Community Center – East Bay (MCC). Gita and I talked with Zarina over coffee on a rainy morning in Hayward. Zarina, a former refugee herself, has a huge heart, but also a practical head on her shoulders. As we learned more about the MCC’s involvement in the resettlement program for refugees, two things became clear:

  1. The kindness of individuals in the community is essential to the successful resettlement of a family.
  2. Gita and I could do something to help a family right now.

While #LifeintheBay, as an organization, needed time to research and formulate a formal business plan; Gita and I, as individuals, could help a family in need immediately.

The resettlement process for refugees

So, this is what we learned from Zarina.

The MCC works closely with the International Refugee Committee (IRC) to support refugees through the resettlement process. Typically, the MCC will sponsor two families for six months. In that time, a small group will work closely with an IRC caseworker to source accommodation, furniture, home goods and groceries for the family, as well as an ‘essentials’ welcome kit. A small subsidy to help with the cost of living is also provided.

More importantly, this group provides mentorship and an immediate connection to the community (they will even meet families when they arrive at the airport). Mentors help with the simplest things–navigating public transport, grocery shopping, and even checking out the local library. I’m sure you all can relate. Even if you moved here with the support of a company or university, finding a great new grocery store, maybe with items from your home country, can go a long way to making you feel at home.

At the same time, the IRC provides job seekers assistance, ensures that the family is set up with medical coverage, offers English as a second language support, and much more. The goal is for the family to be self-sufficient at the end of the six months.

Throwing a lifeline

The reality, however, is that it often takes these families longer than six months to get settled, and that’s where Zarina’s story about Khalid and his family begins. She met Khalid’s family just over six months ago. Here is their resettlement story so far:Amer and Adnan two of the Bay Area's Syrian refugees

Khalid and Hiba , originally from Syria, arrived in 2016 with their two sons, Amer and Adnan, now 6 and 2. The IRC attempts to place refugees close to someone they know in their new country. However, this family had no connections in the US, and were placed in the Bay Area, where there is a growing Syrian community, and many Arabic speakers. The IRC and the MCC are their lifelines.

The family was initially placed in Oakland. Khalid was able to gain employment as a cleaner in a hotel. Amer started Kindergarten. Not a bad start, you say? Well, that’s how it seems on the surface. They had shelter, employment, and education. Look a little closer, however, and you’d see a medical condition that prevents Khalid from driving which means a 45-minute commute on expensive public transport. You’d also see a bright little boy being bullied in school because he was struggling to learn English. At home you’d see a scared and lonely mom with her toddler, isolated because of location and language skills.

The picture that Zarina painted of this family was bleak. Gita and I, being mothers ourselves, asked about the boys. Did they have books? Did they have toys? A place to sleep?

Her answer: “The little one plays with the spinning part of a broken desk chair. And the older one, he wants to learn, but no one can help him with English. No, I don’t think he has books.”

Gita and I exchanged a look, and later that day we had an idea. The purpose of our meeting with Zarina was not to take action immediately, it was to learn more and develop a long-range plan, but it occurred to us that there was something we could do in the short term.

Members of the Life in the Bay team Michelle, her family and Gita meet Bay Area refugee family

Changing lives

Here is what our week following the meeting looked like:

  • Monday: Informational meeting with Zarina.
  • Tuesday: Brainstorming ideas, liaising with Zarina, developing a list of items the family was in the greatest need of.
  • Wednesday: Posting the story on our personal Facebook pages and requesting donated items for the family.
  • Thursday and Friday: Collecting money and items from more than 30 people, across the US and abroad.
  • Saturday: sorting items into care packages for each child, loading furniture into a truck, and collecting gift cards for Target and Costco.
  • Sunday: Delivering the care package. Gita, myself, and family and friends, delivered a bed, kitchen table, chairs, kitchen items, toys, books, storage shelves, and funds. On Sunday, we changed lives. On Sunday, we came together as individuals from five different countries and two different faiths. We showed two little boys that people care, and that they are welcome here. We laughed with them about the sounds that animals make, while helping them learn English vocabulary.
Group photo - Dave, Michelle, Amer, Gita, Zarina, Adnan, Yolla, Ifa and Arie - delivering hope

Dave, Michelle, Amer, Gita, Zarina, Adnan, Yolla, Ifa and Arie – delivering hope.

A brighter future

When we arrived on Sunday, we walked into an almost empty apartment (an old couch in the living room, next to the children’s ‘toy’, the broken desk chair). There was no place for the family to sit and eat, there were no comfy beds, there were no shelves, no books, no home comforts. We had the privilege to spend a few hours with this family of refugees and, despite a massive language barrier, we did connect. We folded clothes and tried shoes on the children. We helped organize food in the cupboards and made beds. I know that this was only the beginning of our connection to this family.

We learned more in those 2 hours than we could ever have done in 10 informational interviews. Khalid and his family are people, not so different to us; Amer and Adnan are just little boys, much like our own. The challenges that they have overcome just to get here are unspeakable, but we can all play a role in our community to help this family and countless others have a brighter future. Have a brighter Life in the Bay…that’s something we all aspire to, right?!


*names have been changed to protect identities 

About Michelle Laker

A California native; I spent 10 years living, studying, working, (and falling in love) in the United Kingdom. I returned to the Bay Area in 2011, with my British husband in tow. I am re-adjusting to life in the bay, feeling more like an expat than a local. I have spent my career working with international student & families. I love learning about other cultures, languages, and traditions. My desire to welcome newcomers, and help you make the most of your new life in the Bay Area comes from the unforgettable memories (and mistakes) I made during my time in the United Kingdom. If you've just arrived, and don't know where to start, email me ( I am happy to help!

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