Volunteer spotlight: Sophia Balakian By: Lizzy Thomas, Community Resource Coordinator

This Spring, Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) welcomed graduate student, Sophia Balakian, to its resettlement office. Sophia, who was working with CRIS to complete her graduate study field research, is pursuing a PhD in anthropology at the University of Illinois.

Sophia has always had an interest in history and social sciences. As an Armenian-American, many of her relatives fled Armenia as refugees during its time of crisis. Hearing anecdotes of how her ancestors came to the United States fostered her interest in migration and the plight faced by refugees.

As an undergraduate, Sophia studied anthropology.  While working towards her Bachelor’s Degree, she had the opportunity to conduct research in Nepal.  During her time abroad, Sophia worked with and studied Tibetan refugees.  It was her experience in Nepal that led her to begin her pursual of a PhD in anthropological research. With a growing interest in East Africa, Sophia began learning Swahili. Her project developed from there, taking her to Nairobi, Kenya to continue her study on refugees, where she lived until she began working with CRIS.  Sophia left CRIS in August to return to the University of Illinois, her home institution, to teach and finish her dissertation.

Lizzy Thomas: What is the focus of your research?

Sophia Balakian: My research deals with the complex intersection of a variety of governmental and nongovernmental institutions involved in the resettlement process and how refugees, specifically in Nairobi- mostly Somalis, Congolese, and Rwandans, are managing this really complicated and often opaque process. It’s about how it shapes their lives, and how they, in turn, shape it.  More specifically, what kinds of pressures, good or bad, it puts on family’s systems. I’ve come to Columbus to understand it more on this side. So, I have been talking to people who are waiting for a relative to join them here either through sponsorship through the AOR or because somehow their families were separated in the process.

LT: Was there was anything that surprised you in doing your fieldwork?

SB:  I think what is surprising, is that it is an enormously complicated process, more so than I could I have ever anticipated, especially in family situations.  There are patterns, of course, but there is also so much variety in what you see and what can happen to people.

I don’t know if I would call it surprising, but something that is super challenging is that people often do interviews for so many years and in that context interviews are tests. To interview people about those experiences is very fraught and very complicated because they are coming from a background and a lifetime where the interview genre of discourse is one in which they are  powerless. Ideally, an anthropologist wants the people they talk to to feel empowered. To feel free.  This is maybe a way to get their voice out there into the world. That would be an ideal circumstance.  In the context of where I have done my research, those things are rarely true because people who have refugee status are disempowered, and the people who are typically interviewing them are in a position of power and of decision making. So trying to disassociate that is actually impossible. So trying to deal with how to make the best of that very difficult position is a big challenge.

LT: When you are explaining this work to people, why do you say that it is important?

SB: I guess there is the big picture and the nitty picture. The big picture to me is that US resettlement is very complicated, but the best thing to me is that you are giving an opportunity to people who do not have legal status as a citizen. To be a refugee in the places I know, certainly in Kenya, is to be a second class member in every way.  And since we live in a world that is structured by nation-states, I think that every human should have the protection of a state. Since that is the only entity that really has the power to protect people as legal, political, social and physical beings, I think everyone should carry citizenship or be on a path to citizenship. I think the U.S. resettlement program is important because it is making a movement in that direction. Unfortunately there are just way too many refugees in the world to be accommodated by the United States, but it is important for thousands of people to be on a path to citizenship.

As far as the more local-everyday work, I think that a great part of the US resettlement program is the voluntary agencies in so many cities who are here to help people. There is just so much that people need when they arrive, and that is something I couldn’t overstate enough. People are resettled through this humanitarian program. There are so many things that they need in order to fulfill their own lives, to become independent, and to become a part of their societies. From applying for their initial benefits, to helping to find work, to getting people connected to all the other institutions that they need to survive. It is just essential.

LT: Has working with refugees and studying anthropology influenced how you conceptualize your own national identity?

SB: I think it very humbling to see those who are hustling every day to build a new life in this country. I think my sensibility of the US as a people is different since coming to CRIS. Seeing people come every week, widens my perception of who we are as a country.

LT: What’s after CRIS?

SB: After CRIS I will be moving back to the University of Illinois, where I have been working on my Ph.D since 2009. After two years out in the field, I will be back at the university to write my dissertation. I will also be teaching. I’m looking forward to it. After two years, hours and hours of recorded interviews, thousands of pages of field notes, I’ve got to go do something with it. So whats next is writing my dissertation, and hopefully it will be a book, and you can all read it!

The Journey from Iraq to America: One Family’s Story


In Turkey, life for an Iraqi refugee leaves much to be desired. Iraqis are not granted refugee status in Turkey and because they are not recognized as refugees, they are not allowed to earn money legally. The costs of these restrictions were all too real for Odai Al Faris, his wife Nihad Mohammed and their two children who spent over a year in Turkey before they were resettled to Central Ohio.

Today, a smiling and energetic couple ready to tell their story about coming to the United States, sat with an air of confidence that can only come from perseverance. Currently, Odai works at Wal-Mart while his wife Nihad is working at a daycare center. Their two children, ages seven and ten, are in school and speak English almost as well as they speak Arabic. Odai laments about not understanding his daughter when she comes home from school with new vocabulary words and admits his children speak better English than he does.

Odai began by telling us about his experience with the Iraqi military and his attempted escape from the mandatory selective service. He was caught, sent to a court tribunal and sentenced to 6 years in prison for his attempted escape. But there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel because in March 2000, Odai finished his sentence and married Nihad.

Odai and Nihad both finished high school and held jobs in Iraq. Odai first worked as a driver and later at a cell phone store and Nihad worked at a hair salon. When asked about a normal day in Iraq, Odai responded that “normal was hearing about a car bomb in your neighborhood or that someone down the street was killed by a terrorist attack”.  For Odai and Nihad, the instability in Iraq was not enough to make them leave Bagdad. It wasn’t until a car bomb went off in front of their home, a piece of schrapnal injuring their son, causing the realization that the situation in Iraq might never improve. For the Al Faris family, that moment was cataclysmic.

The next step for Odai, Nihad and their two children was to seek refuge in Turkey and in 2011, they set their sights on applying for refugee status. The situation in Turkey was better, but not ideal. They moved from a home in Bagdad to a small, two bedroom apartment shared by ten people in Turkey. They came with a small pool of financial funds, ever dwindling because of their son’s medical bills after the car bomb. Turkish restrictions excluded them from working in Turkey. Odai said that he did find illegal work in a place that converted trees into mulch, but he mentioned that if they were caught by Turkish police officers without a work permit, they could be fined 500 Turkish Liras equaling a little under $200 American dollars. But Odai did note one very unique experience he had in Turkey; he organized a traditional/folk Iraqi dance group. The idea came to him while he was taking Turkish language classes in a sports club and noticed an empty stage. Odai played the drum while his sister and her friends danced and the group was very successful. They ended up playing for very high-ranking Turkish officials at one point. Even with such a successful group, Odai and his family never saw any money come from their performances.

Turkey was their one stop before finally arriving in the US. Now, they have been in the US for about a year and describe their lives in Columbus as peaceful. Odai mentioned that they chose Columbus for its safety and family atmosphere and noted that the education and health care systems in the US far surpass anything that they experienced in Iraq. The family is satisfied in their new community, despite the terrible winters. Although they know it may take some time to feel completely comfortable in the US, Odai says that now, when he puts his head down at night, he’s content and can focus on the things that really matter like his two children. The extraordinary journey of this family and the struggles they have faced have been tremendous, but they have found a home, safety and peace of mind right here in Columbus, Ohio.

Church World Service (CWS) School Kit Donations A Huge Success!

A few months ago the Church World Serviceteamed up with local students to provide refugee children with school kits. These school kits came in reusable canvas bags and were filled with crucial school supplies like notebooks, pens, pencils and crayons. For many students, the supplies in these kits may seem accessible and easy to afford but for children of newly arrived refugee families these kits make a world of difference. Church World Service (CWS) helped to organize students and encourage the donation of 275 kits and then passed the supplies onto us at CRIS. We were then able to distribute these kits to many refugee children who were very excited to receive the brand new supplies.

We recently followed up with Kashi Adhikari, who works at a local Nepali community center that received a number of kits, and he talked about the great success of these supplies. Adhikari told us that children who received the donations were ecstatic about the kits and the presence of new supplies greatly increased their enthusiasm for school and education. He said that before the kits, going to school could be difficult for many refugee children but the new supplies really helped alleviate the resistance for these refugee students to go to school. For Adhikari and the other members of the community center the overall experience with the kits was wonderful and they remarked that they would love to be a part of another program like that in the future. This is an example of how great of an impact these donations have on our local refugee community and the role that everyone can have in helping refugees work adjust to their lives in the Columbus community. We hope that this success story can be an encouragement for local citizens to continue the great work they are doing.

school kits

An Interview with CRIS Board of Trustee member, Dan Brilhart. Interviewed by: Lydia Shafik- Resource Developer at CRIS

Dan PhotoLydia Shafik: Can you talk a little about your background?

Dan Brilhart: I grew up in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, just south of Pittsburgh and in sight of the Appalachian Mountains. I grew up in a Mennonite church, but oddly my parents were the owners of a hardware store, providing a rich perspective of the local community. That background is an important piece of who I am today. I graduated from Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana with an Interdisciplinary Major in biology, religion and art. At the time I was still seeking to understand who I was, what my Mennonite roots meant to me, and where I was going. I ended up pursuing a graduate degree in peace and justice, which is one of the key reasons I’m involved in CRIS. This education really nurtured my care and interest in justice for people and the Earth. From that, I ended up managing an educational film and video store where I worked with churches and schools to provide them with educational materials. A few years later, I decided to become an elementary school teacher, which for me links my interest in peace, justice and education. I taught in Columbus City schools for 10 years and then enrolled at The Ohio State University to get my doctoral degree and now I prepare teachers to educate children across the state of Ohio, and beyond. I have been involved with CRIS for about 6 years now and I believe my interest in social justice has been a thread through all of my life experiences.

LS: Can you describe what your role is like on the Board?

DB: My role on the Board was pretty quiet the first few years. I was mostly listening and learning. I was encouraged to work at educating the surrounding community about who we are here at CRIS. More recently, I have been a part of the creation of the 5K Run4Refugees, which is in its second year. I’m also involved on the Development Committee that is working on how to think long-term on those issues. My role has primarily evolved into promoting who we are and to do this while also fundraising.

LS: How has CRIS evolved since your initiation into the Board- what strides have been made?

DB: As a Board we have tended toward discussing all issues in the larger Board context.  We are beginning to move away from being hands on everything and are delegating more responsibility to committees. The Development Committee would be one and we also have an active Financial Committee. The committees will discuss their issues and come back to the group — so the Board is growing in that way. We also will have temporary committees meet around a specific question or need. Those changes are helping us be a more effective and responsive Board.

LS: Being a seasoned Board member, how has your satisfaction increased with the work that you’re doing here?

DB: The Board has been working hard for several years to make sure that CRIS is on strong financial footing. It has been hard to establish what that looks like and what it means for this kind of non-profit organization because we rely so much on Federal Government grants and funds (you can’t predict if you’ll get those in the next months and years).  The satisfaction is doing better, being able to see from a bird’s-eye view (from the Board view) CRIS’s financial setting. We have a better sense of how we’re situated and how we can move forward. So, my role in the Board is around development in finances and planning. We are seeing how that is an important piece and we are excited to see how we can build.

LS: What advice would you give someone freshly stepping into a Board role at CRIS?

DB: My first piece of advice is that there is a need to both listen and try to understand who the Board has been and how it works. There is a listening aspect, but some days you have to speak up and get involved and say “yes, I’ll work on that!”. Then you start to not only understand how the Board works, because you are functioning within it, but you also start to learn your own strengths and abilities. So you say “yes” and become a part of a committee, then you have responsibilities and reasons to speak up at a Board meeting. I would also say to come by the CRIS offices! The Board is working on developing stronger ties with the people that work here and that does not just occur by happenstance, it has to be sought out. So being a part of the Board is also listening to and learning about the people who work at CRIS.

LS: Why do you feel CRIS’s work is important?

DB: For me, once I received my Masters in Peace Studies, I started to focus on how we could bring about a peaceful world and how to bring about change in a place where we can make a difference. I believe that those without power, whether young, poor or a stranger, need to be invited into community and they need to be empowered. They need to be cared for, educated, listened to and understood for the power that they have. My whole view on life means that I need to be involved with helping people stand on their own feet and be strong. So CRIS’s work is important because these people, our clients, have been strong in other places and in other times and now they are near me and in my community and I want to help them regain that strength and empowerment. It makes our world stronger. Locally, I think having a diverse group of people is exciting. The communities that I like to be in are ones that are rich with culture. There is some disagreement and confusion in America as to how to treat the immigrant, refugee, stranger, and I want to be one to say, unequivocally, that we need to care and reach out and help.

LS: Looking to the future a little bit, what things would you like to see done within the organization in the next five years?

DB: One of the things I think about is creating a development plan where fundraising and development are thought of year-round rather than simply during a single, major fundraising event. We must also think about becoming more recognizable and having a network of people that support CRIS. I found that the Run4Refugees was a great way to initiate this long-term goal because people come out and participate, and then, hopefully, spread the word. Then, they might just become more aware of who we are. We want that growing sense in the community, that people know who we are and what we do. Another thing to consider is having our own building and our own place- knowing it’s a major financial commitment- it is something I dream about!

LS: Can you talk a little about events and fundraisers on the horizon?

DB: Yes, I sure can! The 5K Run4Refugees is our second annual 5K fundraiser run/walk happening on April 11th.  We were incredibly successful last year for our first attempt, and are hoping this year to double our funds raised and double the participation, too. We seek to have businesses, community groups, schools and churches involved.  We hope people will come to be side-by-side with the richness of CRIS and its community.

Meet the Dhakal Family


Surjay(47, left), Tulasa (42, middle), Bishal (19, right), Bibhu (25, not pictured)

Meet the Dhakal Family

The Dhakal family are just a few of the thousands  displaced by conflict between Nepal and Bhutan. After decades of residing in a Nepali refugee camp, Surjay, Tulasa, Bishal and Bibhu reached the United States two months ago. As they sit around their furnished living room, they recall vivid memories of life in the camps before they fled to the United States.

A Brief History

The conflict between Nepal and Bhutan dates back to the late 1800s when Nepali residents began immigrating to southern Bhutan in search of work. This group of immigrants became known as Lhotsampas (“People of the South”) and remained generally peaceful and separated from the Druk Buddhist majority who lived in the northern part of the country.

In 1958 a law was passed in Bhutan that allowed those who had immigrated from Nepal to gain Bhutanese citizenship but this group generally maintained their Nepali language, culture and religion even with this change in citizenship. Unfortunately, in the 1980s the ruling majority began to fear the influence and growth of the Lhotsampa population in the south and pushed for greater integration and assimilation of the Lhotsampa into the Druk culture, dress and religious traditions. This push by the leaders lead to conflict, and occasionally violence, between the two groups and ultimately resulted an announcement that any Lhotsampas who could not prove that they were residents of Bhutan before 1958 had to leave.

Families who had long established lives and families in Bhutan were forced from their homes to a land they may never really have been familiar with. A greater problem arose when Nepal would not recognize that those who were being expelled from Bhutan could now become citizens of Nepal. This group of refugees was then forced to live in refugee camps until they could find a permanent home elsewhere, as neither Bhutan nor Nepal would claim them as citizens.

Life in the Camps

In Nepal, seven refugee camps exist to house Bhutanese-Nepali refugees, and they are all located on the Eastern half of the country. The camps are supported by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Red Cross; these organizations provide assistance with food, education and healthcare, but only deliver enough to maintain refugees’ most basic needs.

Goldhap refugee camp, one of the smallest camps in Nepal, was the first place the Dhakal family was sent after the conflict arose that displaced their entire population. Later they were relocated to Beldangi, a camp with a slightly larger population, but with the same lack of infrastructure and resources.

Surjay describes the refugee camps in Nepal as desolate places where food and water were scarce. He also mentions that there was no electricity or fuel, meaning incredibly cold nights could only be combated by an extra set of blankets. And boredom was rampant. No job opportunities existed in the camp- except for teaching, but there was an incredibly limited amount of opportunities for even that. Surjay volunteered as a camp administrator, and Tulasa volunteered for the woman’s forum, both helping facilitate camp operations.

Each family received food every two weeks which consisted of salt, sugar, lentils, rice and vegetable oil. They were required to stand in line to receive a jug of water which was distributed twice daily. They also received coal for making fires and cooking food, but one of the complications that arose out of the distribution of coal was house fires. The use of flammable straw to build roofs of houses coupled with the close proximity of homes has caused an unfortunate surge in these house fires. Surjay recalled a time when his family found themselves homeless after their house burnt down during a large fire that tore through the whole camp; most of the camp lost everything they owned that day.

Arrival to the United States

After arriving to the United States, Surjay’s amazement was unmistakable.  He describes the difference between Nepal and the United States as night and day. Everything was a surprise. Having access to heat and air conditioning for the first time in decades was enough to astonish his family and him. However, they still have a number of roadblocks to overcome before becoming fully integrated into the United States. At this point, they still need to finish their mandatory English language and employment classes before beginning to look for work. Without a family car, transportation has been problematic and they either walk or rely on the bus system to get where they need to go.  As they continue in the process towards self sufficiency, the family worries about this lack of reliable transportation and the issues it will bring as they move forward in their lives in the US.

Staff Spotlight: Melanie

Staff Spotlight:
Meet Melanie! Melanie has been working at CRIS as a Resettlement Intern since August. She is participating in the Episcopal Service Corps, a branch of the Episcopal Church, which is similar to the CRIS affiliate agency Episcopal Migration Ministries. As a part of her program Melanie also volunteers in her community at Franklinton Cycle Works and Franklinton Gardens. A few of her many roles here at CRIS include putting together welcome kits, shopping for household items for clients, driving clients to appointments, and organizing and distributing donations! We are so thankful for all of the hard work Melanie does.

Sound exciting? Consider applying for the Resettlement Internship this summer! We will be looking for an intern with strong work ethic and positive attitude to fill Melanie’s position when she leaves us this spring.
If interested, please contact Lydia Shafik at volunteer@cris-ohio.org


CRIS volunteer brings excitement to the classroom

Ashley Rambacher is currently a volunteer with CRIS’s Citizenship4All program. Ashley teaches a weekly tutoring group for citizenship students. She prepares unique, interactive lessons for students such as dressing up in costumes for Halloween to learn about Trick-or-Treat! It is volunteers like Ashley who make all the difference in the lives our clients. Way to go Ashley!

Want to get involved? Please contact Lydia Shafik at volunteer@cris-ohio.org to learn about the latest volunteering opportunities.