Maryam Aytac (third from left) and her family.

Opinion: Immigrants, refugees need help to succeed

I came to the land of dreams and opportunities as a 7-year-old girl with my family – my mom, my dad, my two younger brothers and my grandmother.

Back in Tehran, my dad owned a stove factory and my mom was a banker.

They decided to leave it all behind and immigrate to the United States of America. Years of war had taken a toll on Iran – and its people.

As a second-grader in a new country, I didn’t speak a word of English. My 6-year-old brother and I tried to learn the language as quickly as possible so that we could avoid further ridicule from the other kids and connect with them and start friendships.

My parents had learned English from their schooling back home and decided to quickly invest in a fashion business. They would often leave my brothers and me at home with my grandma while they embarked on their new business.

Life as a Persian/American was not easy at all.

We had no one to teach us the ropes. No one to tell us what to expect in school. No one to guide my mom and dad on how to best speak to our teachers, check our grades and help us with homework.

Simple tasks, such as grocery shopping and paying for items at a cash register, were brand new for my mom and dad. Yet, they learned it all by stepping out into this big new world we had now come to call home.

Today, I am 44 years old, married with two boys of my own. My husband is a Kurdish man born and raised in Turkey, who found his way into the land of dreams when he hit the jackpot and won the green card lottery.

For hundreds and thousands of people living in other countries, winning the green card lottery is a dream, a wish upon a star that will likely never come true. With me being from Iran (Persian), and my husband of Kurdish/Turkish descent, we now have two American-born citizens that have a very mixed and rich culture.

We own a chain of Turkish-Mediterranean restaurants called Cafe Istanbul, and we have our own piece of the pie in this big ocean of financial gain and melting pot that is America.

With all my happiness and joy that God has granted me, I could not help but to look back at the little girl that once stepped foot on this beautiful land, the little girl that had no friends, spoke no English and had to fend for herself. The same little girl that watched her mom and dad struggle with tasks such as paying bills and driving.

This is why I offer my knowledge and understanding of American life to those that immigrate to the United States, and in particular, to Atlanta. I want to be the hand that reaches out to help that little girl who has just arrived from another country, into a land she had only read about in story books.

This is how I came across Refugee Women’s Network, or RWN. This amazing organization was founded in 1998. It is led by immigrant and refugee staff. Together, they speak more than 12 languages. The majority of board members are also immigrants and refugees.

This organization was put in place solely for the members of the refugee and immigrant community. RWN’s mission is to inspire and equip refugee and immigrant women to become leaders in their homes, businesses and communities.

You see, upon arrival in the United States, refugees are given housing in apartments for three months. They resettle in DeKalb, Fulton and other surrounding counties. After the initial three-month period, they must start paying rent, as one member of the family finds a job.

Work usually consists of a factory job. Most of those jobs are not easy but saying “no” isn’t an option. This is when, by word of mouth from the community and other refugee families, they turn to RWN for help.

Help consists of many tasks that are a part of everyday life for you and me. But for them, it is all new and may even seem like a big obstacle. At RWN, they learn how to drive and how to pay their bills. They will ask help in landing a job or continuing their education.

Most importantly, they will learn how to become good citizens.

I have dedicated my free time to help promote for Refugee Women’s Network, as I know first-hand what the unknown is like. Without our hands, our help and our donations, this organization and other organizations like it could not survive.

The story of refugees and immigrants ends with happy tales of success. Some buy homes; others become entrepreneurs and business owners.

But you see, this dream needs a helping hand, a step to go up the ladder.

That is why I’m so inspired and passionate about the Refugee Women’s Network.

Everyone is born with dreams. Some of us, though, come here to start a new life and live the dream we have been promised, even though we face struggles along the way.

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