Published July 20, 2017

By David Bearinger 

Diviet Suarez

Diviet Suarez worked at a harbor in Santiago de Cuba, operating scales for trucks loading and unloading cargo ships.

At odds with the Castro regime, Suarez was fired from his job. He tried to make the journey eighteen times by boat across the Straits of Florida to the United States.

In 2006, he succeeded, traveling on a makeshift raft with twenty-three other men and one woman, all hoping to gain the refugee status that was then freely offered to Cubans fleeing persecution or repression at home. 

Suarez and a companion, Michel Cala, are now making new lives for themselves in Harrisonburg. Their story, and the stories of more than twenty-five other recent refugees—individuals and families—are documented in a VFH-supported photographic exhibit, Refuge in the Valley, sponsored by the Church World Service Immigration & Refugee Program (CWS).

CWS has resettled more than 3,500 refugees in the Harrisonburg area since 1988, helping to make Harrisonburg (pop. 52,478) one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in Virginia. Today, the Harrisonburg–Rockingham County community includes refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Burma, Colombia, Congo, Croatia, Cuba, El Salvador, Eritrea, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

In 2015, the largest number of refugees to the region (76 percent) came from Iraq; 10 percent were from Ukraine. In 2016, 42 percent came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 23 percent from Iraq, and another 11 percent from Syria. In the 2016 school year, students in Harrisonburg City Schools spoke forty-eight different languages at home and English became a minority language for the first time, spoken by less than 50 percent of public school families.

These changes reflect a process that is changing the face of Virginia. But the Harrisonburg region is exceptional, not just in the number of immigrants and refugees it has resettled compared to its size, but also in how, with relative ease, it has received these newcomers and accepted them into the community.

This may be in part because the northern Shenandoah Valley has long been a magnet for immigrants. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, large numbers of settlers—Germans, Scots-Irish, and others—migrated south along the Great Wagon Road (now the Interstate 81 corridor), and many of them settled in what is now Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

“I will always be thankful to this country because it gave me and my family an opportunity to live a better life.” — Sally Imran

The process of immigration and arrival is never easy, and friction has increased in recent months along with the pitch of divisive rhetoric about immigration generally and the global refugee crisis in particular.

But the fact remains that Harrisonburg today is a multicultural city, and the work that VFH is supporting there is designed to help all members of the community better understand the personal stories of new refugees—how and why they left their homes, the history that sets these migration stories in context; the day-to-day challenges refugees face, and most of all, the talents, strengths, and traditions they bring with them into their new lives.

For this exhibit, local photographers Ernie Didot, Amelia Schmid, and Howard Zehr were recruited to create portraits of individuals and families from seven countries: Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Cuba, Pakistan, and the Central African Republic. Scholars from James Madison University worked with the photographers and CWS staff to offer background and historical context.

Jim Hershberger, CWS director, and Sarah Alice Coleman, CWS school liaison, contributed perspectives gained from many years of work with refugees in Harrisonburg and abroad. The result is a rare glimpse into the lives and struggles of refugees now living in Virginia.

“Many people have never had the chance to meet someone who practices Islam, or who has been a refugee. But those of us who work with refugees every day know that these are people who want to be a productive part of their community, who want to give something back.” — Sarah Alice Coleman, Church World Service

Migration Journeys

Chukilwa Mmeswa and her mother, Mwalibola Ibrahim, fled the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996. They lived in Nyarugusu, a refugee camp in Tanzania, for twenty years, arriving in the United States in March 2016. Mmeswa’s son Ramadani (Rama) Lebon was born in Nyarugusu and has never seen his home country. Lebon is now a rising fifth-grader who wants to be a lawyer, judge, or translator when he grows up.

Chukilwa Mmeswa
Mwalibola Ibrahim
Ramadhani Lebon

Sally Imran’s family is from Baghdad. Her father disappeared in 2007, and the family fled to Turkey. Today, Imran and her brother, Sajjad Imran, and their mother, Muna Ali, are adjusting to their new lives. For Imran and her brother, the path to Virginia was as exciting as it was dangerous. For Ali, it was more difficult. Sajjad Imran wants to become “the best soccer player in the world.” Sally Imran, meanwhile, works full-time and is also a full-time student, studying for a bachelor’s degree in human services. Ali says, “It’s not what I did for my children, but what I taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.”

Sally Imran
Sajjad Imran
Muna Ali

Javed Iqbal, his wife, Farzana Javaid, and their son, Tashif who is disabled, lived in Pakistan as members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, a persecuted pacifist group. In 2010, they fled to Thailand along with many other Pakistani refugees and were resettled in Harrisonburg in 2016. About their new lives, Javaid says, “My first hope is for Tashif’s cure. That he can stand on his feet and get his education. And that I feel peace because for seven years we felt frightened.”

Javed Iqbal
Tashif Javaid

“When I discuss with people in my job, they are frightened of me. They ask, ‘Are you a terrorist?’ But I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and our community logo is ‘Love for all, hatred for none.” — Javed Iqbal

As Virginia comes more and more to resemble a global community, new immigrants—especially refugees—face the daunting task of creating new lives in a new place, learning new customs and a new language, often in the shadow of traumatic events and deep personal loss. At the same time, the communities receiving these new residents face their own challenges—of understanding and accepting different cultures, traditions, and religious beliefs. These, in turn, add up to challenges to familiar definitions of what it means to be an American, or a Virginian.

Refuge in the Valley puts a local, human face on a global story. And the conversations it seeks to create are meant to further strengthen the fabric of community in a part of Virginia that has been shaped and reshaped by immigration since the eighteenth century.

Explore More

Refuge in the Valley will open with a public reception on Friday, August 4 from 5-8pm at 292 North Liberty Street in Harrisonburg, and conclude with a panel discussion featuring immigration scholars from James Madison University on August 25, from 6:30-8:30pm. Both events are free and open to the public.

For more information on Church World Service’s work in Harrisonburg, visit CWSHarrisonburg.org.

Thanks to Sarah Alice Coleman and Jim Hershberger of CWS for their contributions to this article.

Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.