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Refugees tell of new life in U.S.

August 02, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- Rano Khakkiyeva held a Soviet Union passport until she and her family came to the United States from Russia in 2005. Although she lived in Russia for 16 years, she was never able to become a citizen or obtain a Russian passport.

Khakkiyeva was able to get into the U.S. under the state department's refugee program.

Siriki Diabate fled Côte d'Ivoire, better known to Americans as the Ivory Coast. He was granted refugee status in Ghana after he escaped from his country.

Both have settled in Washington County, found jobs and made new lives for themselves.

When they came to this country, Khakkiyeva's family initially settled in Washington state, but moved to Hagerstown after eight months because they had family members here.

"We just want to be together," Khakkiyeva said during a recent interview in her Hagerstown apartment, where she lives with her husband, two sons and parents.

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Her family is originally from Uzbekistan, but moved to Russia in 1989. Without a Russian passport, they couldn't attend college or a university, she said.

"If you don't have any passport, you can't go out, can't work. You can't do anything," Khakkiyeva said.

They weren't comfortable in Russia and don't ever think of returning, she said.

Her boys, Zhan Khakkiyev, 11, and Emil Khakkiyev, 8, are fluent in both languages. They used to attend Pangborn Elementary, but a recent move to a new apartment will send the boys to Paramount Elementary later this month.

Zhan, who was wearing a WWE Raw T-shirt during the interview, will be in fifth grade. Math is his favorite subject, and he said he wants to be a doctor when he grows up.

"You earn more money," he said when asked why he wanted to be a doctor. "And to help people," Zhan added after his mother whispered in his ear.

Emil, the quieter of the two, was soon to have a birthday, and the family was planning a day in the park with friends to mark the occasion.

The boys have spent the summer visiting friends, going to Pangborn Park and playing video games, they said.

While in Russia, Khakkiyeva wasn't able to work and her husband, Zokir Mukhaddinov, worked in a shoe factory.

Now she and her husband work as assemblers at Kongsberg Automotive in Hagerstown.

"It's much better here. I work 40 hours. I have money for next week. I don't worry about the next day," Khakkiyeva said.

They had a hard life in Russia, she said.

"Everything is fine here. Everything is good here. I love the America."

The family is hoping to gain citizenship next year, but said they aren't sure how to proceed with the application.

When they came to Hagerstown, a Virginia Council of Churches office in Hagerstown helped refugees resettle. That office closed in 2007, its officials citing an "unwelcoming" community after an incident brought to light the presence of a group of refugees in Hagerstown.

In October 2006, some residents and government officials discovered that refugees were being resettled locally after a Burundian woman experienced a severe case of morning sickness on West Franklin Street, where the refugees were living.

Because the woman's translator was unavailable, authorities thought she and other refugees possibly had a communicable disease. Hazmat units were sent to the area, and the 12 African refugees were quarantined briefly.

Khakkiyeva said she wishes the office were still open. The program helped them translate, find jobs and get medical care. Whenever they had a problem, they went there to get help, she said.

She said she still takes her questions to George Miller, the former program coordinator for the Hagerstown Refugee Resettlement Office. For this story, Miller provided contact information for some refugees he helped settle.

"I believe the refugees actually help the community rather than the perspective of them taking from the community," said Miller, who lives in Hagerstown. "This community needs to broaden its view on other cultures and other ethnic groups."

He said he takes pleasure in continuing to help refugees and has even attended some of their weddings.

An educational journey

Miller has been inviting Diabate, 36, to celebrate holidays with him since Diabate arrived in the U.S. three years ago.

"We usually have him for Easter and Christmas dinners, and even Thanksgiving," Miller said.

Before fleeing, Diabate said he worked as a teacher and then as a reporter, writing stories critical of the government.

His struggle, which included being arrested and brutalized by unidentified attackers in 2005, was chronicled on The Herald-Mail editorial page in February 2007.

Diabate ran from his attackers, and then walked 200 miles to Ghana.

He is still in touch with his family -- brothers, sisters and four daughters. For the last two years, he's been trying to bring his daughters to the United States.

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