Immigrants and Whole Communities Benefit When Locals Offer Friendship

A Littleton woman, who volunteers helping Sudanese refugees rebuild their lives in Colorado, exhibits the patience, tolerance and dedication that cultural integration experts say is needed if we are to strengthen and unify our diverse communities.Lina Marajan remembers the feeling of awe that came over her the first time she experienced the lunchroom in an American school. The brightly colored juices, the pile of fresh apples and oranges, the metal trays of steaming entrees – the choice and abundance of food was unlike anything she had ever seen.

Another thing that struck young Lina about her new country was the view of the city at night, which if you squint just right, looks like millions of tiny candles floating on a vast, dark sea. 

“I loved the lights at night,” she said. “Because in Africa, there aren’t so many lights – a lot of people use candles.”

In Cairo, where the Marajan family lived for two years after fleeing the violence in their native Sudan, Lina recalls dark nights, school lunches of an egg and one slice of bread, and teachers armed with belts.

Lina, now 13, was 8 when a church sponsored the family and helped them relocate to Colorado as refugees. Terrie Ideker, a former special ed teacher and Littleton resident, met the family and offered to help Nagat, Lina’s mother, with English once a week.

“The needs became great,” said Ideker, who has for three and a half years volunteered more than 15 hours a week helping the Marajans and another Sudanese family access social services, learn about American culture, and integrate into their new social and economic surroundings. “It’s a huge learning process for them in every way you can imagine.”

Besides the obvious assimilation hurdles that most immigrants face, such as learning English and finding a job, Ideker’s Sudanese families, who were poor and had little education, had a lot to learn about the systems and institutions we use without thinking. At first, Ideker says the adults only had a vague understanding of trading money and were totally unfamiliar with the concept of a bank or the value of a dollar. Ideker had to discuss the dangers of gambling after one of the adults asked her if she knew about the “free money” in Central City.

Ideker says the Sudanese parents – most of whom were accustomed to subsistence farming – had trouble reading prices and choosing inexpensive and nutritious foods at the grocery store.

Ideker has helped the Marajan family get Medicaid and food stamps, processes that involve paperwork she describes as “horrendous.” Lina’s father was physically abusive toward her and her mother and, Ideker says, generally struggled with the norms of equitable male and female relations in this country. Ideker helped Nagat contact human services and get counseling for Lina. The couple is now separated.

The support Ideker provided the Marajan family has blossomed into a close bond. The four children ages 4 to 13 call her “Mom,” and Ideker says the experience of getting to know the Sudanese refugees has been a life lesson in gratitude for her entire family.

“I have learned so much from the struggles my Sudanese families face every day,” said Ideker, who was recognized in December by 9News with a 9Who Care Award. “While you may have the opportunity to give money, it’s not that often you can give your time and your treasures directly to the poorest of the poor. I can’t tell you the satisfaction and the joy I get out of helping them.”

But Ideker’s story is more than a quaint tale of a kind-hearted woman and a needy family. 

Immigrant and refugee integration experts say Ideker’s efforts are an example of the kind of patience, open-mindedness and creativity that are needed to help newcomers assimilate into our communities, many of which have been strained by rapid demographic changes.

Between 1980 and 2007, Colorado admitted 35,584 refugees and asylum seekers, 4,679 of whom are from Africa and 921 of those from Sudan. According to the Colorado Refugees Services Program, part of the Department of Human Services, 50 Sudanese refugees were resettled in Colorado in 2007, compared with only two in 1997. Besides Sudan, people from Ethiopia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo make up the most significant portion of Colorado’s African refugee population.

“Integration can be understood as a continuum of activities that people undergo in order to make a home for themselves,” said Joe Wismann-Horther, project director for the Serving Immigrant and Refugee Families Initiative at the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning. “It takes time, and it is our responsibility as the receiving community to facilitate that process.”

Wismann-Horther’s colleague and CEO of the Spring Institute, Myrna Ann Adkins, says the responsibilities of newcomers include learning the language, contributing to the work force, and adapting to American norms of behavior at work and at home.

“But it is not just the burden of the newcomer to adapt.” Adkins describes the need for established residents to educate themselves about the newcomers in their community, to recognize their common interests, and pay attention to the benefits of immigrants’ contributions to the economic health and cultural vitality of a receiving community. “There is a tendency to focus on our differences. … If Colorado is perceived as a hostile place for newcomers, I think economically it could be a real challenge for our communities.” 

For Lina Marajan, Colorado no longer feels like a hostile place. The seventh-grader now speaks nearly fluent English (as well as Arabic and Rotana, her family’s tribal language); she goes to movies and parties with friends on the weekends; and the cold, snowy winters no longer get her down.

“School was really scary at first – I didn’t know anyone, and I couldn’t speak English, but now I am one of the popular girls,” Lina said matter-of-factly as she sat across from Ideker at the table in her family’s small but cozy Littleton apartment.

Ideker hears this and smiles. Her “adopted” Sudanese children are all around her. Little Maria, 4, crawls into her lap while Ragdha, 8, and Ramy, 6, compete for her attention, alternatively chattering about school and bickering over the use of a new marker. Lina, the oldest, is responsibly for cooking, cleaning, and babysitting while her mom is at work at Lowe’s.

Ideker has helped these children experience many firsts – their first dip in a swimming pool, their first trip to the Rocky Mountains, their first visit to a zoo, their first ride on an escalator. Although her motivations are personal – she says she wants to give something back in return for all the blessings in her own life – Ideker’s work with her Sudanese families is an example of the personal commitment needed to create strong and unified multicultural communities.

“One of the most welcoming things to do is finding an opportunity to be someone’s friend,” said Adkins.