When Swaiba arrived with her family for refugee resettlement in Chattanooga in early December, the last person she expected to greet them at the airport was a friend from her past.
Swaiba had never heard of Chattanooga before she and her husband, Sami, were told they were being resettled there with their children after living as refugees for a decade in Egypt. She also hadn’t known Salma, a fellow Sudanese woman she had befriended while living in the Egyptian refugee camp, had resettled in Chattanooga until she saw her at the airport.
“We had no idea she would be in Chattanooga,” Swaiba said.
Salma also didn’t expect the reunion. As a former Bridge Refugee Services client, she volunteered to welcome new Sudanese families when they arrived at the airport without knowing their names ahead of time, said Bridge Case Manager Bonnie Boley.
Salma, who resettled in Chattanooga in 2016, brought two of her children with her to the airport to meet the new arrivals, meeting up with them at baggage claim.
“Salma noticed us,” Swaiba said. “She recognized us, even though we were wearing masks.”
The women immediately embraced and began crying.
“I was very excited and happy because it was someone I knew and I felt better,” Swaiba said. “I was very relieved that I saw a friend that I was not expecting to see. I was not expecting to see anybody I knew in this city or anyone I knew in this country itself.”
Soon after marrying in 2009, Swaiba and Sami left their native Sudan due to civil war.
“We were fleeing to be safe,” Sami said.
They moved first to Libya, where they spent a year. “Life was very normal there,” he said. “But after the revolution happened in Libya, everything changed and it was not safe anymore.”
The couple had two choices of where to go next: Tunisia or Egypt. “We wanted to go to Tunisia,” Sami said.
But the relief organization that was going to assist them with the relocation couldn’t get them there safely, he said, so they went to a refugee camp in Egypt, where they spent 10 years. Sami worked in a factory and Swaiba worked for a tailor making dresses. They also grew their family.
Son Akram is now 8 years old and daughters Aya and Alaa are six and four, respectively.
“Life was very difficult in Egypt,” Sami said. “Everyone was struggling there.”
In 2012, Swaiba met Salma, who had also fled Sudan and ended up in Egypt. “We were very close then because we were going through the same hardships together,” Swaiba said.
Also in 2012, Sami and Swaiba started the lengthy refugee resettlement process that allowed them to finally travel to the United States in 2021. Once here, Bridge secured a two-bedroom apartment for the family to live in and Chattanooga volunteers came together to furnish it, as well as provide food, clothes and other supplies for the new arrivals.
“Bridge did nothing but the best for us and provided everything we could possibly need and gave us the best life we could ask for,” Swaiba said. “They were there for us from the first day and made us feel like they had our backs the whole time. We could see they will support us until we can be on our own and be self-sufficient.”
Salma, who lives nearby with her own young family, went out of her way to make her long-lost friends feel welcome, as well. “The first thing she did was bring us home and make us feel comfortable in our house,” Swaiba said. “She sent messages through all the Sudanese community groups and started introducing us to other Sudanese families by having them visit us or us visit the other families. We became friends with a lot of people and made a lot of new friends because of Salma and her family.”
Swaiba and Sami accepted several dinner invitations over the holidays. And when it snowed, the children got to participate in their first snowball fight.
“It was their first time seeing snow in their whole life and so they were very excited,” Swaiba said. “They had only seen it on TV. They wanted to ski, but that was not possible because it didn’t snow that much. But they would like to do that at some point.”
Swaiba and Sami said case manager Bonnie also helped them navigate their first month in East Tennessee. “Bonnie was very helpful,” Swaiba said. “Whenever I need something, I’ll just ask Bonnie and she’ll provide it right away. She’s very nice.”
In addition to getting the family enrolled in English language classes, Bonnie also helped the family apply for Social Security cards, food assistance and health insurance.
“We’re just waiting on the Social Security so we can apply for a driver’s license,” Swaiba said.
The couple said they look forward to soon getting a car so they no longer have to rely on volunteers and friends for rides to the grocery store and other appointments.
Bonnie also enrolled Akram and Aya in school, where they are in third and first grades, respectively.
“The kids are very excited they are going to school, but at the same time, they are worried about how they’re going to communicate with the other kids and speak to them and get along and understand what’s going on, especially in the beginning,” Swaiba said of their first day on Jan. 5.
“I keep telling them, ‘Don’t worry, everyone will help you over there and they’ll take care of you.’”
The couple are also waiting to receive their employment authorization documents so they can start working. Swaiba hopes to find a job where her embroidery and dress-making skills can be put to good use, while Sami is open to any job that allows him to support his family. “I would like to have my own business at some point and for my kids to continue their education and graduate with a degree and live in a place that’s safe and have all they need around them,” he said. “I would like to build our life here and have a house for the family to grow.”
Swaiba had similar hopes for their future in East Tennessee. “I would like to find a job that I love and grow in the city with my family and eventually own a house here and feel like we’re self-sufficient and independent and can provide for our kids and life won’t be as hard as before,” she said.
They’re thankful for the warm welcome they’ve received in Chattanooga and look forward to improving their English skills so they can more fully participate in their new community.
“We want to thank all the Bridge employees and all the workers there, all the volunteers, that have helped us and shown us love and support throughout our journey here,” Swaiba said.