Refugees rebuild their lives in Chattanooga

Refugees rebuild their lives in Chattanooga

September 21st, 2011 by Carey O'Neil in News

Peter Sokotovych cleans up during lunch at Ooltewah Middle School. Sokotovych was a family physician in the Ukraine but after coming to the United States as a refugee he has had to resort to working full time as a janitorial supervisor at the school to support himself, his wife, mother-in-law and daughters while working to get his medical license in America.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Peter Sokotovych pushes a mop across the floors of Ooltewah Middle School every night, periodically stopping to scan the giant, spiral-bound notebook that never leaves his side.

After three years climbing the custodial ranks from night shifts cleaning bathrooms to day-shift head custodian, his tasks are second nature.

The contents of his notebook are, too -- cancer's attack strategy on the lungs, the correct treatment for arthritis, how nebulizers help with asthma. The Ukrainian refugee has used this knowledge for years, but needs to review if he is going to pass his medical license exams.

Sokotovych was a doctor back home. Scrubbing graffiti off a seventh-grade desk, he, like the 100 other political and religious refugees that come to Chattanooga each year, just wants to rebuild a better life.

"In my country, I was a family physician. Here I'll be a family physician, too," he said through an accent he's tried to soften since arriving about three years ago with his wife and 10-month-old daughter in tow.

Peter Sokotovich studies in a storage room during his lunch break before returning to cleans the lunchroom at Ooltewah Middle School late Thursday morning. Sokotovich was a family physician in the Ukraine but after coming to the United States as a refugee he has had to resort to working full time as a janitorial supervisor at Ooltewah Middle School to support himself, his wife, mother in law, and daughters while working to get his medical license in America.

Peter Sokotovich studies in a storage room during...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Pentecostal Christians like Sokotovych have regularly been persecuted in Ukraine, but religion is a major part of life for the now-father of three. His wife's family already had sought refuge in Chattanooga, so when the two got married, Sokotovych came to be with family and seek a better education.

Last year, 1,600 refugees came to Tennessee through United Nations and American refugee programs. Though a number of them say they hope to eventually return to their homeland, an overwhelming majority of them will stay here for life.

The state gets $9 million annually to resettle the permanently displaced individuals and families, about $90,000 of which finances the local resettlement office, Bridge Refugee Service.

Bridge had already helped Sokotovych's in-laws resettle in the area. They found jobs cleaning up the school system and, with their recommendation, Sokotovych landed his first night janitor job.

After a year and a half of cleaning, notebook by his side, he scraped together enough money to buy his ever-growing family a three-bedroom trailer, all while studying hours each day for his exams.

"Peter is very unique. I could imagine someone doing it on his own, but he's a family man," said Marina Peshterianu, coordinator of Chattanooga's Bridge office. "I respect him for that. I know how hard he works."

Sokotovych works a full day at the school, studies as much as any overloaded medical school student and still finds time to take his daughters to feed the ducks at the river near his Collegedale home.

He's getting ever closer to re-establishing something similar to his former life. Two of the three medical board exams he needs to take before starting his residency are behind him, and he expects his years practicing medicine in Ukraine will cut down his residency requirements.

Going Home


In 2010, Tennessee took in 1,600 refugees from 22 countries. The top five were:

Iraq: 36 percent

Myanmar: 24 percent

Bhutan: 13 percent

Somalia: 10 percent

Cuba: 5 percent

Source: Tennessee Office for Refugees

Sokotovych is enjoying his life here. The Chattanooga area has a sizable Ukrainian population, the climate is nice -- warmer than snowy Ukraine, anyway -- and the cost of living is affordable.

But Tennessee just doesn't feel like home.

Although most refugees stay in America forever, he expects to live under Ukraine's blue and gold flag again someday, treating the sick in rural villages across the country.

"When I return to my country, I have a dream to have a big bus and I can fill this bus with medical equipment and go into villages," he said.

Sokotovych normally wears a slight smile when he talks, sometimes apprehensive as he focuses on the still-foreign language, but often warm. When discussing his plans to return to Ukraine, any hint of nervousness disappears. He talks in definites, not maybes.

It's easy to see how he can help people in Ukraine. He grew up seeing his country's poverty and wants to use his medical skills to heal and educate rural communities, talking about his religion when he can.

With the affluence and religious tolerance of the U.S., it's harder to carve out a mission that's as clear and pressing.

But Peshterianu said that in her 12 years at Bridge, she's seen few refugees return to their home countries. After spending years to get to America and establish a new life, they find it hard to return even if political situations stabilize in their home countries.

"Because you are forced to leave something, you will always harbor this dream that you will go home," Peshterianu said.

Iraqis pursue American Dream

Ammar Farhan shares an afternoon meal Saturday with his wife Salwa Altaie and daughter Lina Jameel at their home in Chattanooga. The family recently moved here from Iraq and is slowly settling into their life in the United States. Farhan says he knows his family will live in the United States for several years, but they plan on returning to Iraq once it becomes safer.

Ammar Farhan shares an afternoon meal Saturday...

Photo by Alex Washburn /Times Free Press.

Ammar Farhan has that dream. He came to the U.S. under threat of persecution after serving as a military translator in Iraq. He, his wife and now 2-year-old daughter Lina are among 576 Iraqi refugees who came to Tennessee in 2010.

Iraqis accounted for 36 percent of total immigrants, the largest group ahead of second-place Myanmar at 24 percent.

Farhan said the culture in which he grew up can make it heart-wrenching to leave.

"People there are more related to families. It's kind of our duty toward them to stay with them and take care of them," he said. "Suddenly, I just say, 'I'm going to the U.S.'"

Still, Farhan said he's happy to be here. He had his own welding shop in Iraq, and he has found a similar job here helping build construction equipment at TAG Manufacturing.

But he misses the freedom of running his own shop. He misses the family and community he left behind, but his wife and daughter are most important to him. He would like to go to school, get certified as a welder and try to open a welding shop like he had in Iraq, but he won't give up his time with his family to do so.

"I'm looking for a better future for my daughter," he said, sitting in his living room as she climbs all over him.

As Farhan spoke, Lina grabbed her father's head and pulled herself up on his shoulders. Whenever the yanks got a little too hard, her father-turned-jungle-gym would lower her onto the couch next to him, continuing to talk as she restarted her ascent.

"We really want to be part of this community," he said. "We live here and we feel like we should be a part of here."

When Lina's through school, Farhan may try to return to his family in Iraq. No matter how many friends and how much stability he establishes in America, his distant family will be a constant pull.

Peshterianu said that strong familial foundation is common in areas where political unrest leaves citizens lacking support systems.

"When you cannot count on the system, you count on your family," she said. "Your family becomes your system."

Young families often live with their parents and siblings, helping with the million little things that are easier to do in first-world countries. People such as Farhan and Sokotovych often know nothing but that lifestyle, making separation even harder.

Nihad Samawi, a 51-year-old Iraqi engineer, is different. With a teenage daughter, a grown daughter and a grown son, he had a fully established, independent life in his home country. A successful engineer, he helped American companies restore water treatment systems after the war started.

Peter Sokotovich takes the trash out during lunch at Ooltewah Middle School late Thursday morning. Sokotovich was a family physician in the Ukraine but after coming to the United States as a refugee he has had to resort to working full time as a janitorial supervisor at Ooltewah Middle School to support himself, his wife, mother in law, and daughters while working to get his medical license in America.

Peter Sokotovich takes the trash out during lunch...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

But helping Americans is sometimes an unpopular move in that country.

"I was frightened in Iraq," he said. "They threatened me. I don't like to remember that, but that was a hard time. They attacked my home and kidnapped my son. After that, I moved all my family to Jordan."

Samawi's son was eventually released, but the incident was enough to cause his family to flee the country. Because of his relationship with the U.S., Samawi was able to come over as a refugee and has lived in Chattanooga since December 2008.

His wife and teenage daughter weren't so lucky. They've been stuck in Jordan trying to get refugee approval for years, but the Department of Homeland Security keeps rejecting their applications, vaguely citing security concerns that Samawi doesn't understand.

"Once they say, 'security,' you can't do anything," he said. "This separation, for any member of my family, is hard."

The separation was made even harder during his first 18 months in the U.S. as he tried and repeatedly failed to find a job. The highly educated and experienced engineer spent six months and burned through much of his savings looking for any engineering job. But when circumstances demanded it, he settled for a factory-type job at a printing company.

"It was so hard for me, with all those years and all this experience," he said. "I wasn't used to working by hand and standing and moving all day."

The pay made life difficult, too. He made $1,500 a month. By skipping meals and cutting every penny he could from his expenses, he saved about $250 a month to send back to his family.

"Even this is nothing," he said. "It was just to let my family know I didn't forget them."

Eventually, he caught a break. A friend he made through work in Iraq recommended him for a job with General Electric, and now he's back to doing what he did before.

But life isn't anywhere near back to normal. Samawi's new job sends him to work on projects for months, but leaves him twiddling his thumbs in America during off time, just wishing and waiting for his family to join him.

Samawi spends little time in the U.S., and without anyone to live in a permanent residence in the U.S. it makes more sense for him to live out of extended-stay hotels. A bed takes up most of the space. A small sofa faces the entry door, and an old TV plays the 24-hour news channels.

Waiting for a new job in Ecuador to begin, he steps onto the outdoor balcony connecting his room to the rest of the InTown Suites and smokes a cigarette, watching the cars go by on Gunbarrel Road.

When he's done, he goes back inside, takes the four steps around his bed to his tiny kitchen, puts his cigarette out in the sink. A mostly empty Dairy Queen Blizzard cup sits on the counter. He opens the fridge and pulls out a jug of water, one of just a few items in there, and pours himself a glass.

Looking around the cramped apartment, barely big enough for a man estranged from his family, he shrugs.

"It's all I need now, being single."

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