Iraqi refugees get help in adapting to U.S. life

By Adam Ashton

It didn’t take long for parishioners at St. Matthew Church in Ceres to launch a plan to help a wave of Iraqi refugees who began settling in Stanislaus County last summer.

Their church is a natural magnet for Iraqi Christians because many of its members are Iraqi immigrants themselves.

They formed a support group, and within weeks began collecting furniture and other items for war refugees who brought next to nothing with them to the United States.

Last month, that core group went in a new direction by creating a Turlock-based nonprofit organization that would match refugees with donations and with volunteers who can help them make a transition to American life.

Light From the East ( is busy gathering contributions and helping refugees with everyday tasks.

Esther Warda, one of the nonprofit’s leaders, spoke with The Bee last week about the new group. Here are excerpts from that conversation. The full audio interview is available with this story at

Q: How many families are you helping now?

A: About 15. The total coming is about 80. They’re coming to Turlock and Modesto because there’s such a large population of Assyrians here.

Q: How do they get to the San Joaquin Valley?

A: They’re originally from Iraq, and because of the war they had to leave. They left either to Jordan or to Syria or Turkey, and they just wait there until the United Nations gets all their papers together.

They’re coming here as legal immigrants. They all have green cards. They can work. They need jobs.

We need trucks to help delivery of these items. All these stores are calling saying we have all this stuff for you but you need to come get it. We need trucks, just people helping.

Q: Aside from things like furniture and cash, you’re also providing services, is that right?

A: If they have to go to the doctor, we take them to the doctor. Ninety percent of the time, we have to go in the room with them because the doctor does not understand them and vice versa. Anything you have to do every day, they have to do every day, too, but they don’t have the skills, they don’t have the language and they don’t know the people.

Q: Is there a large network of Assyrians and Iraqi Christians here to help them?

A: We are hoping. There are a few of us that are a little more involved. We’d love people even to just come and say “I’ll fill out a piece of paper.” Or “I’ll take the child to school and talk to the teacher.” Anything. Even if people could give us a half-hour a week, we’d be happy.

Q: The refugee stories must be heartbreaking. What are they telling you?

A: A very good friend of mine that I’ve kind of adopted, her husband was kidnapped as they were trying to flee Iraq. They weren’t really planning to leave until her husband got kidnapped. Then they said, “That’s it. We can’t take it anymore.” The Christian people were just tormented. They’ve had a really tough time. They sleep with bullets and bombs going off over their heads.

Q: Is it a different kind of shock for them to be here?

A: They’re going through a culture shock, big time. I moved from the Bay Area to Turlock and that was a culture shock. Everything’s so free here. It doesn’t compare to what they had. They just want to, No. 1, fit in, and No. 2, they just want to be able to support themselves. This is the big thing. They don’t like taking help from people.