Spirit of Ramadan Guides BRIDGE America to Help Refugees Adapt to a New Life

Refugees, Syrian Refugees, immigration, social enterprise, jobs, Maryland, Middle East, Syria, Leon Kaye, job training, health care, Khaled Balajem, Sahara Date Company
Khaled Balajem of BRIDGE America.

Ramadan, a month during which Muslims fast, pray, reflect and celebrate, starts today. This holy month is one of the five pillars of Islam, which also includes zakat, the obligatory giving of alms to those in need. While it is not an official pillar of Islam, hard work is also an important tenet of the religion – most Muslim countries have a 5.5 or 6-day workweek.

One grassroots organization quickly grew with that spirit of helping one’s neighbor and hard work in mind. And with its dedication to helping refugees, it continues to engage more community organizations and businesses that are opening hearts, homes and opportunities.

BRIDGE America (Betterment of Refugees through Integration, Development, Guidance and Empowerment in America) is an initiative focused on assisting refugees in the mid-Atlantic region, mostly in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The vast majority of the refugees it serves are from Syria, but families from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan also receive assistance.

BRIDGE is not a government agency, nor does it receive any public funds. Neither is it a nonprofit; donations of time and resources are mostly provided by local community groups. It has no website; most of BRIDGE’s external communications are conducted via its Facebook page. Run entirely by volunteers, BRIDGE pools the resources of mosques, churches, synagogues, medical professionals, nonprofits and local businesses that share the same goal: welcoming refugee families to the U.S. and giving them a hand up, not a handout.

Services this virtual social enterprise offer include youth programs, professional mentorship, English-language education, women’s empowerment programs, job training and placement, housing assistance, and car donations.

This organization is an example of how citizens can band together, forget about seeking recognition or sporting job titles, and provide resources to cope with a problem that once was the focal point for the world’s media — but over the past year has largely been forgotten. The number of Syrian refugees alone continues to increase: As estimated by the United Nations, almost 5 million citizens in total have fled the country.

Founded in late 2015, a year ago BRIDGE assisted three families. It now works with 185. TriplePundit spoke with Khaled Balajem, who co-founded the group and helps it focus on the core areas of support crucial for newly arrived refugee families.

Balajem himself is an immigrant; originally from Yemen, he knows firsthand the struggles of adapting to a new country. “I came here without an education, but worked hard, held multiple jobs, went to school and supported my family,” he told 3p.

Now, Balajem, BRIDGE and their allies are paying it forward. All of the progress the group is achieving has been at the community level. BRIDGE volunteers meet with families to learn what their challenges are. Local religious and non-profits then function together as an information clearinghouse to match services to refugees’ needs. “BRIDGE connects the dots and helps in providing resources,” Balajem said.

As BRIDGE supports even more families, Balajem has acknowledged that there is some talk of becoming an official certified 501(c)(3), which would allow donors to write off donations on their taxes.

But from Balajem’s point of view, BRIDGE’s structure – even if to some observers, actually shows a lack thereof – allows the initiative to thrive. “The success and the vision we have show that we can accomplish a lot without becoming an official organization,” he explained.

Refugees, Syrian Refugees, immigration, social enterprise, jobs, Maryland, Middle East, Syria, Leon Kaye, job training, health care, Khaled Balajem, Sahara Date Company
Skills training led by one of BRIDGE America’s community partners.

The beauty of BRIDGE’s efforts, Balajem says, is that the group is truly a community effort – not simply one demographic helping folks with the same experiences and background as them. “We partner with local churches that have not only been willing to help, but say they feel obliged to help refugees,” he told us, “and the huge participation with non-Muslims has been key to our success, as they have been extremely generous to this cause.”

Balajem explained that for many new arrivals, one of the first pressing needs is health care. As anyone who has been sick abroad can understand, becoming ill in an area when your local language skills are lacking makes an uncomfortable situation even more unbearable. The families BRIDGE has assisted have benefited from the medical professionals’ assistance from organizations, including the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Other professionals include internists, oncologists and dentists. Many of these professionals contribute as many as 20 to 40 hours a month to consult, educate and offer resources to families.

Where BRIDGE could use more help is on the employment front. One of the first things for which these families ask is job security. Balajem noted that in his adopted home state of Maryland, its proximity to D.C. contributes to the high cost of living. Language barriers are a hurdle to securing jobs in the highly specialized fields within which many of these refugees worked before they fled their homelands.

To that end, BRIDGE is working with community organizations to help businesses match their needs with these new arrivals’ skills. Other businesses have reached out and expressed interest in hiring former refugees. But this process is an uphill climb, Balajem explained. He spoke of one man, who used to be a successful pastry chef in Syria. “Now this man is washing cars, as he has a family to support, and like other families in this network, they do not want to rely on social welfare,” he said.

One company offering support in a way that reflects the spirit of Ramadan is a food import business in Vienna, Virgina. Sahara Date Co. was founded by two cousins, Maile Ramzi and Jean Houpert.

Ramzi’s passion for dates was sparked while she was an expatriate in Saudi Arabia with her Egyptian husband. Upon moving back to the U.S., Ramzi found U.S.-grown dates not quite comparable to those she enjoyed in the Middle East. A few years ago, the cousins began sourcing dates from what they say are some of the oldest farms in the Arabian Peninsula, and now their business supplies retail chains including Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.

Ramzi and Houpert were impressed when they were introduced to Balajem as he and BRIDGE’s co-founders launched the organization, and they wanted to help.

The company has partnered with BRIDGE for two years to spread some cheer and hope during Ramadan. The company donated dates to all the families receiving assistance from BRIDGE. Muslims generally break the daily Ramadan fast with a few dates as they begin Iftar, the evening meal timed at sunset. Dates have also long been important to Middle Eastern cuisine and culture; visit someone’s home, an office or a hotel in the region, and dates along with Arabic coffee are quickly offered.

Ramzi and Houpert have met many of the families that have received support from BRIDGE. “My husband is an immigrant. I am the daughter of immigrants, and we are all immigrants depending on how far you want to go back,” Ramzi told us. “These people are role models for all of us, as they know what it means to overcome adversity and keep hope and love alive in your heart.”

Whether BRIDGE is matching jobs to head of households, or Sahara Date is offering an expression of Ramadan warmth and hospitality, Ramzi says the bottom line is what it means during this time of year to offer a hand to those in need.

“When we offer dates, we’re saying, ‘We welcome you, and we are happy you are here,’” she explained. “But we also say: ‘We acknowledge what you have endured — your tremendous suffering and loss — and we share a common humanity. We wish you all the best in finding a better life here, and we want to help in some small way.’”

Image credits: Sahara Date Company; BRIDGE America

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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