Fatuma was separated from her family when she was 7 years old due to war in her home country of Somalia. In 2008, she came to Des Moines as a refugee. She took English classes at LSI, achieved her bachelor’s degree from Grandview University, and became a citizen in 2015. She recently had her second child, a baby girl. She is proud that both of her children are U.S. citizens. Now she works at LSI, where she connects other newly arrived refugees with services.
“I love America. I wish politicians understood that it is not the refugees committing violence. They are the ones escaping violence. Everyone in Iowa is from somewhere else. That’s what America is. That’s why it started. Iowa welcomes people who don’t have a voice.” — Fatuma
When war forced his family to flee their home country of Sudan, Abdalla knew he wanted to come to the U.S. and make a new life for himself. Abdalla, now 28, is a Customer Service Assistant at the Des Moines International Airport. But his eyes are on the skies, and he’s going to school to chase his dream: becoming a commercial pilot. In the meantime, he’s sending some of his money back to his family in Sudan, ensuring they, too, can live a better life.
“Look in America. How many people are from across the world? How many languages? A lot of people are happier now. They have better opportunities; better jobs. The people in Iowa are really amazing. They try their best to help anybody.” - Abdalla
As a child, Regina remembers her father leaving home to fight in the Sudanese army. When the war broke out, he never came back. The danger in Sudan became too great, and her family fled the country in 1999. After years of struggling to find a home in Egypt and Phoenix, Ariz., Regina found work in Des Moines in 2008. She now serves as a Bilingual Community Associate with Lutheran Services in Iowa.
“Iowa is a home for refugees. We are human beings, and we deserve to have a good life. The war is changing everything for us, but there’s a second chance that Iowa gives you.” - Regina
Kemal and his family came to the U.S. with nothing. They did not have relatives in the area, and they could not speak English. But it was a better life than trying to survive the war in Bosnia. When he arrived in Des Moines in 1994, Kemal learned English within seven months, and began working as a Career Development Specialist with the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services. He has since graduated with a master’s degree from Drake University, and he is passionate about helping other refugees find their new home in the U.S.
“I believe Iowa is the best place to start a new life when you’re coming from overseas with nothing. Everything your family would need is here. I know many people are freaked out about refugees from Syria, but those are people who are escaping their homes. They have no place to go.” - Kemal
Doua remembers his father’s advice: Education is your key. During the Vietnam War, his father served as a general in Laos, working with the CIA. But when the country collapsed, his family fled to Thailand. They eventually moved to Texas in the ’70s. Doua decided to focus on his education and attend Iowa State University for electrical engineering. Even as a child, Doua wanted to be a police officer. After two years at ISU, he decided to follow that dream and become a cadet with the Des Moines Police Department. He now serves as a Senior Police Officer and Asian Outreach Resource Officer, and he hopes he can inspire young people in the community to get an education and follow in his footsteps.
“Whether you’re a refugee from the '70s or from five years ago, you’re not an immigrant coming here for education and going back home. You’re not here because you want to come here. But Iowa has a good heart. They open their arms to accept anybody coming here to start a new life. This is a gift.” - Doua
Chandra doesn’t remember much of her life in Bhutan. When she was young, the country was thrown into turmoil from what was described as a systematic “ethnic cleansing,” and Chandra’s family fled to Nepal. Chandra always had a passion for helping family and friends, so she spent her time in the camp studying to become a medical lab assistant. She had just finished college when she resettled to the Des Moines area in 2009. Now 28, Chandra is finding a way to give back to her new community. She works as a medical assistant and X-Ray technician in the Mercy Pediatric Clinic in Des Moines.
“The U.S. is a place of opportunity. When I moved to Des Moines, I felt that. It’s a place to grow, and I grew myself. I can see that in myself, and my family, and my community.” – Chandra
After years of living in fear, surrounded by violence in his home country, Burundi, Firmin and his family found safety among Central Iowa’s welcoming people. Now Firmin, 52, has spent the last 10 years finding ways to be active in the Des Moines community. During the school year, Firmin can be found in the halls and classrooms of public schools across the Des Moines district. He is one of several bilingual outreach community workers in area schools, translating for families who speak Swahili, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, Kinyamulenge, and French. In his free time, Firmin works as a direct support caregiver in the area, and he spends his weekend as a pastor at First Church of Nazarene in Des Moines.
“When refugees come, they are frustrated. They think they will not make it. But people here are very nice, and they’re helpful. You’re not alone on this journey.” – Firmin
As a teenager, Shaacira fled her home country of Somalia and sought employment as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, where she was routinely physically abused and underpaid. “They don’t recognize you as human,” she says. She was determined to create a family and a future, but her first baby was stillborn, due to a blood pressure condition that is preventable with the basic medical care that was unavailable to Shaacira. Her next five pregnancies ended the same way. Shaacira praises God that her seventh child was born healthy. It was for her daughter that Shaacira decided to fight for a better life. She came to Des Moines in 2008 as a refugee. She became a registered child care provider, and she now cares for the children of other former refugees so they can work and obtain education.
“I love Iowa. I never want to leave. I feel safe here.” – Shaacira
Benjamin, Democratic Republic of Congo
Benjamin was a high school math teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when he was forced to flee after the outbreak of a brutal war in 1996. He was initially resettled to Denmark, then made his way to the United States, arriving in Des Moines in 2012. He dedicated himself to learning English, spending five hours every day in Des Moines libraries, devouring the Des Moines Register and political books and biographies. Today, he speaks six languages and works at LSI, where he connects newly arrived refugees with services. In his spare time, he referees soccer games and spends time with his family.
“The people in Iowa are open, welcoming, and friendly. I love what I do. Working here, it’s not a job — it’s a family.”
Dahir was only 16 when war in Somalia pushed him out of his home country. He lived in Ankara, Turkey before arriving in Des Moines in 2008. He quickly sought out English classes and found work as a driver. Today, his work as a taxi driver helps to support his wife and two young children. Dahir loves his life and community in Iowa.
“Refugees are people just like me. They deserve to seek a better life. I can’t imagine where I would be if they told me I was not welcome.”
Ya Di, Burma
Ya Di has always had a love of learning. As a child, when his family moved to a refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border, one of his favorite things was learning English in school. He practiced his reading and writing, and became familiar with the “British” version of the language. When he moved to the U.S. in 2013, he dove in and learned the “U.S.” version. For the last few years, he has served as an interpreter at Lutheran Services in Iowa, which he considers a chance to keep practicing his English while teaching others at the same time. He is also hard at work studying at DMACC, and he wants to become a teacher.
“When I came the first time, I missed my home. But we have to get a better life… We have to see around the world. We can’t only see our community, we have to see very far and have that compassion, and share our love. We are all human.” – Ya Di
Tem and his family were part of the great exodus that fled Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His father, who had fought against the North Vietnamese, and mother escaped their home country for Laos, where Tem and his three brothers were born. In 1978 the family became refugees once again, this time for Thailand, where they waited a year for U.S. sponsorship by both the Basilica of St. John’s (formerly St. John’s Catholic Church) and a cousin living in Des Moines. Tem, now 41, did well in school and attended Grand View University; after graduation he worked for several companies, searching for a perfect fit. Eventually Tem went back to school for a teaching degree and was a substitute in the Des Moines School District while his wife opened a nail salon, Fantasy Nails in Ankeny. He liked the pace of owning a business but liked teaching too; a decade later he combined both skills by opening the Nail Tech Institute of Iowa in May 2016, where he is administrator and instructor and working toward accreditation for the school.
“You can work as hard as you want and earn a living but over [in Loas], it’s hard to climb out of poverty even with a good education. There’s more opportunity here. It’s really concerning, what President Trump is mandating on the deportations of illegal aliens. I understand the politics … but it sends the wrong message. For the people that are new to Iowa and new to the U.S., still have hope. America is still free. Just work as hard as you can. There’s opportunity here, just work hard.” —Tem