For refugees, tornado is shock, setback

Na Boh, originally from Thailand, and her husband, Tway Tih, sorted items at the West Springfield Middle School shelter yesterday. Na Boh, originally from Thailand, and her husband, Tway Tih, sorted items at the West Springfield Middle School shelter yesterday. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2011

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WEST SPRINGFIELD — Fahil Hasan has confronted uncertainty like this before.

After years of war and violence that made every day a living danger, Hasan uprooted his family and fled his native city of Mosul, Iraq, to find a better life in Western Massachusetts, where for the last 14 months he has called a two-room apartment in West Springfield home.

But that peace was destroyed, this time by the deadly tornadoes that tore through the city last week, leading scores of Iraqis, Burmese, Nepalese, Thais, Somalis, and others who were shepherded to the city by a local nonprofit to once again await their fate.

It will take patience, said Hasan, 49, who likens Springfield to Mosul: Both cities are divided by a river, both are populated by warm and welcoming people, and since Thursday, both have suffered severe destruction. “In this moment I imagine my city in the same chaos,’’ he said.

Lutheran Social Services resettles hundreds like Hasan every year in Greater Springfield, providing assistance from the moment families arrive in the United States, and later offers long-term language instruction and job training. The tornadoes, the group said, added a new layer of challenges for refugees. About 80 percent of shelter beds in West Springfield are occupied by refugees, according to the Lutheran group.

“The Red Cross will be out of there when they say it’s over,’’ said Mohammed Najeeb, a coordinator for the group who acts as liaison for the refugees, many of whom don’t speak English. “That’s the biggest challenge, the long-term plan,’’ he said.

At two shelters set up in West Springfield visited by a reporter over the weekend, nearly every cot was occupied by a client of the Lutheran nonprofit, where Arabic, Somali, Burmese, and other languages permeated the gymnasiums that serve as impromptu bunkhouses. Many arrived at the facilities — like they did years ago entering this country — with little more than the clothes they could carry.

The primary concern will be “housing, housing, housing,’’ said Jozefina Lantz, director of services for new Americans with Lutheran Social Services.

“Young communities like that, which were recently resettled, this is a double whammy for them because they’re coming from such a troubling situation,’’ Lantz said. She estimated that more than half of the roughly 400 new clients served each year were victims of extreme trauma or torture. Many are still in shock from the tornadoes, she said.

One of those is Rawaa Khaleel, 37, a mother of two who fled Iraq a year ago. She described through a translator, from her cot in a quiet corner of the West Springfield Middle School gymnasium, the terror she felt when winds sheared off the roof to her home. The family was forced to leave with little more than a copy of a Koran, a prayer rug, and basic clothes, but she, her husband, and their children — a 2-month-old son and 13-year-old daughter — were safe, she said.

“Thank God,’’ Khaleel said. “We’ve been through so many wars and bombings, but it wasn’t as scary as the tornadoes. We did not expect it. The house was shaking,’’ she said. But her husband, Khaleel Khaleel, is out of work, and much remains unknown about their future.

Others, too, have been put out of work or pulled away from jobs as they grapple with recovery.

Damber Acharya, 19, who came to West Springfield with her family from a camp in Nepal three years ago, worked in a factory in Connecticut until the tornadoes struck, a job she fears she will now lose. Acharya is among 11 Nepalese families staying at the Philip G. Coburn Elementary School, according to a count by the Red Cross.

“When we came here there were no Nepali people to help us,’’ Acharya said. “It will be easier this time because now we know everyone,’’ she said.

Another logistical hurdle will be to overcome the loss of key documents required to rent an apartment or apply for work. In many cases, such papers were swept away with the rest of people’s worldly possessions.

“Even those who have jobs, they can’t go, because their life stopped,’’ said Najeeb, who propped his head on his hand and rubbed his eyes after a long day bouncing between shelters. “They were thinking of improving their lives, and now they have to start again.’’

Matt Byrne can be reached at