Mona Alkhodor counts the day she became an interpreter for Bridge Refugee Services among one of three milestones in her refugee resettlement journey that made her shed happy tears.
“I came here as a refugee from Iraq in 2009 with my husband and three children,” she said. “We arrived in Chattanooga on September 9, 2009, escaping the war in Iraq that threatened my children.”
The first bout of tears, she said, came that day when the family was welcomed at the airport by Bridge staff and volunteers from Collegedale Academy – one of Bridge’s Community Assistance Teams at the time.
“I cried when I saw all the people at the airport,” said Mona, whose sons ranged in age from 11 years old to seven months old at the time. “They said, ‘Welcome to America.’”
Mona said she was overcome with emotion by the reception. The volunteers had furnished an apartment for the family, stocked the pantry, and provided clothes and other items they would need to start rebuilding their lives in America.
“The second time I cried was when I got citizenship,” she said.
Mona, who spoke Arabic and some French, but no English, when she arrived in Tennessee, spent five years studying to become a US citizen. Learning to speak English, she said, was a top priority to not only gain citizenship, but for her to also feel connected to her new American community.
“A volunteer brought me a book and my sponsors brought me CDs,” she said. “I followed them step-by-step.”
She also attended English language learning classes for four years and watched Arabic movies with English subtitles with her older sons so they could follow along. Being able to help the boys with their homework and communicate with their teachers motivated her.
“I have to give back what America gave me,” she said in explaining the most important reason she wanted to learn to speak English. “Without English, I cannot do anything.”
Once she and her husband, Majed Abood, felt rooted in their new community with the boys enrolled in school and Majed secure in his job, Mona became a Bridge volunteer to give back to the organization the family relied so heavily on in the earliest days of resettlement.
“We needed support,” she said. “We got a lot of help from Bridge. I felt it was time for me to help other people.”
Seeing how dedicated she was to helping new arrivals transition to their new lives in America, Bridge Associate Director Marina Peshterianu asked Mona to become an interpreter for Bridge.
“That was the third time I cried,” Mona said. “I couldn’t believe it. I started crying. I can’t hold in my tears because I was very, very happy. I love this job. I love to help people.”
Mona is one of 10 Bridge interpreters who are former clients. She has helped clients from Iraq, Syria, and Sudan.
“I can relate to the new refugees,” she said. “It helps them to know I was like them – a refugee starting a new life here and having gone through the same situations they are in. They left everything behind them to be here to have a good life and to have a new life.”
Mona said she often shares her story with new clients to give them hope.
“Our life was good until the day someone tried to kidnap my son, Hamoudi,” she said recently of her life in Iraq. “That day, I lost my peace because I did not feel safe. And then on the birthday of my other son, Laith, a bomb fell on the bakery where we had gone to get him a birthday cake. You do not understand how great peace is until you lose it.”
Shortly after the bakery bombing, the family left their home in the middle of the night and sought refuge in Lebanon, where they lived for three years while waiting for approval to come to the US.
“We packed our bag with just clothes and drove to the nearest bus shuttle to leave the country and became overnight refugees,” she said. “Once you are a refugee, you feel that you have no roots, that everyone can push you around. It makes you feel unwanted and unheard.”
Mona said refugees are often misunderstood. “All we want is peace to rebuild our lives, to put food on the table and celebrate our kids’ birthdays without asking, ‘Will this be the last one?’” she said.
Mona said her family has thrived in America.
“Life in America was different, but I loved the freedom and opportunities for my kids,” she said. Hamoudi, now 24, is married and runs his own business. Laith is a computer engineering student at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The youngest, Rida, is an honor student with dreams of becoming a professional soccer player.
“I work translating for other Arab-speaking refugees because it is my time to give back to others,” she said. “I tell them there is not any country like America. They listen to me. They trust me. When we help each other, we are no longer strangers, but one family.”