Sacramento relief organization aids refugees from Iraq and around the globe
Rachel Lau motioned toward the donated furniture, toys and electronics stacked up floor to ceiling.
“All this stuff behind me,” she said, “it’ll be gone by the end of the week.”
Lau stood in one room of the Sacramento field office of the International Rescue Committee. Everything there would soon be in the new homes and apartments of refugees.
Lau is the field director for the Sacramento and San Jose offices of the IRC, a nonprofit organization originally formed by the 1942 merger of two separate international aid organizations, the International Relief Association (created at the urging of physicist Albert Einstein) and the Emergency Rescue Committee. Both organizations originally aided Jews displaced by Nazi aggression during World War II.
Today, the IRC runs resettlement operations in 42 countries. In 2007, they brought 6,900 new refugees to the United States. Besides refugee resettlement, the IRC provides clean drinking water and sanitation, primary health care, education and counseling to people affected by conflicts and violence worldwide.
Starting in 1986, the Sacramento office of the IRC opened to assist Hmong refugees relocating to the area. Since then, refugees from countries such as Mongolia, Ukraine, Vietnam, Ethiopia and now Iraq have built new lives here.
Firas Saliba and his family were the first Iraqi refugees to arrive in Sacramento after the U.S.-led invasion. More Iraqis will come to Sacramento—and to other parts of the country—as the humanitarian crisis there worsens. Lau believes the United States should do more to help the Iraqi people displaced by violence in the country.
“Because of the United States’ dealings in Iraq, we have special obligations to the Iraqi people,” she said.
Two other employees work out of the organization’s humble second-floor Sacramento office. Lau and her staff oversee refugee case files, manage the distribution of donated furniture and coordinate a small army of volunteers who regularly meet with and assist newly arrived refugees.
Lau explained that as opposed to refugees from other countries, Iraqis have a decided advantage when they come to the United States.
For one thing, many Iraqis speak at least some English, as Iraq was under British rule from the end of Word War I until 1932. Lau said 60 percent of Iraqis hold a university degree; many of them are doctors, dentists and engineers, accustomed to working in medical and educational systems similar to those in the United States.
But without proof of their education, coupled with the U.S. licensing requirements, they can’t work in their professional fields right away.
“Now, they’re here, getting a minimal amount of money and coming to terms with how to get recertified in their professions,” said Lau. “They’ll be fine in a couple of years, but in the meantime, they have to get used to it.”