The tape recorder blinked on Monica Brasov-Curca’s lap as Hiba Sawwan showed her shrapnel scars ribboned up and down her left arm, hand, and fingers. It was almost immovable, but not without pain.
It was some time after February 2013 in Orange County after Monica’s trip to the Turkey-Syria border. Just one month shy of spring, when the hills surrounding Damascus and its suburban outskirts blanket with flowers. The Syrian Revolution, a mere 800-or-so kilometers away from where she once worked still existed in its younger stages.
At the time, Brasov-Curca was what most people in the international peacebuilding community call an “independent peacebuilding consultant,” which suggests a wide breadth of roles that depend on the issues at hand and the location to which a contractor is commissioned by NGOs, nonprofits, charities or other institutions. Anything from helping manage an orphanage in Mexico, to recording interviews of local activists in Middle Eastern conflict zones is fair game for the type of work a consultant like Brasov-Curca may be commissioned to perform. For this time and place, she was working through the Canadian government in Turkey to speak with Syrian activists while hosting training sessions on conflict sensitivity. These sessions were made to prevent conflicts in humanitarian outreach projects through learning more about the revolution from those experiencing these battles day by day. In essence, she was hoping to hear from the locals themselves the ways foreign aid could help without getting in anybody’s way.
Monica Brasov-Curca is a former refugee herself. She and her family of 10 siblings emigrated from communist Romania in 1982, carrying nothing but the clothes on their back and memories of the loved ones, communities and treasures they were forced to leave behind. Since October 2015, she has assembled a task force with a close colleague named Rashad al-Dabbagh and a small team of volunteers to make a comprehensive refugee resettlement booklet called “The Refugees Welcome Guidebook.” This multi-platform resource is geared toward completion by December 2016, and it’s what she plans to distribute to immigrants in six different languages through nonprofits, religious centers and government agencies in the form of a smartphone app, hardcover booklet, website and ebook.
She is doing this by hunkering down in a 500-square foot nonprofit office known as World Relief in Garden Grove and working closely with various teams, such as IT techs, medical insurance agencies and religious centers. This fiscal year, the United States had agreed on taking in an additional 10,000 refugees on top of the 70,000 that the country has historically invited in. In Southern California alone, this could entail a noticeable increase in refugees on top of approximately 2500 that have resettled in this region in previous years.
Preparing for this extended number with more accessible services is key, according to Brasov-Curca. The guidebook hopes to provide support beyond what a case manager is capable of doing with the limited time, money and resources allotted to them. It will do so by offering detailed information on nearby social, legal, medical and spiritual services that are affordable and available to Middle Eastern refugees despite the growing threat of Islamophobia. Her project is the most hyper-local endeavor among the four Southern Californian resettlement agencies working directly with refugees today.
“Change is only going to happen if you do the tough work as a group,” said Brasov-Curca. “While there is still work to be done, I pick the battles based on if there is a narrative shift that I can contribute to.”
For Brasov-Curca, a narrative shift simply means a change in perspective Americans may have towards refugees through education and awareness campaigns. By partnering with community organizations that stand openly in solidarity with refugees, such as the Orange County Arab American Civic Council and local churches like the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fullerton, she can further this education. The guidebook is also in conjunction with a series of social media marketing campaigns — identified as “narrative shift campaigns” — that provide infographics, memes, posters and other kinds of shareable content offering information on refugees that intend to dismantle fear-tactic stereotypes of who these people are. The newfound partnerships will empower refugees with equal and easy access to nearby resources as they begin to make the United States — and, overwhelmingly, Southern California — their new home.
Brasov-Curca is personally connected to the first official refugee resettlement program initiated by the United States, which was installed in the 1980s. Her family was among those who funneled into the US from a communist country during the Red Scare, knowing all too well of the American political and cultural paranoia that currently faced refugees like her family then, and what currently face Middle Eastern refugees.
“My mom was a hustler. She brought 11 kids from Romania, I mean she hustled all of us in!” Monica speaks in an enthusiastic, proud tone about the way her family managed to escape a politically repressive government. “Nobody else carried us into this country, trust me. And what she did was that she sat us all down on our long kitchen table with a line of empty bowls, took a picture of that and printed out hundreds of copies — we still have a bunch of them — and every day she would go to these meetings of the communist party and she would tell them ‘let my family go,’ like Moses. ‘We’re Romanians and we don’t have any food; you keep bringing in foreign students and putting money into this country and that country, and we’re starving. Let us go!”
Monica’s mother would persist at this for two years before their father and siblings were allowed to leave Romania and immigrate to the United States. For her, the connection between her personal narrative and that of the millions of others seeking refugee status across the world is transparent:
“Let’s put it this way. If you’re in the middle of a village in the middle of a frickin’ war, and three years later you’re in Southern California, chances are you probably hustled your ass off. I mean, you gotta be a hustler. You made things happen, right? So, why the hell are they gonna stop hustling once they get here? That’s what’s worked for them, and well — thank god — because that’s what’s saved their family’s life, that’s what’s given them a completely new life.”
Because much of the resettling work falls on individual case managers who are trained in dealing with the inevitable complications that come with resettling refugees, what Monica has seen recently is a low level of work allocated toward volunteers who directly serve refugees despite the high number of volunteers seeking to extend a helping hand. Even then, there appears to be certain cultural differences and a lack of understanding expressed by volunteers and refugees alike.
“There’s a pretty overwhelming demographic of people who help [refugees]: evangelical white Christians. And there is a cultural difference they have: they thank you for every darn thing, and practice being humble, faithful, y’know those characteristics that tend to be part of a culturally evangelical attitude. [But these habits] are not really practiced by Muslim refugees,” she says.
Simply put, it’s not easy to maintain a workforce when there are expectations coming from both sides of the exchange. In the case of the volunteers, they are expecting a certain amount of gratitude and humility. In the case of the refugees, more often than not, they are expecting what they fought years and years for — something new, something better, something that tastes like religious, political and cultural freedom. And sometimes that comes across misguidedly as entitlement. What Monica believes could eradicate these misconceptions is an increased emphasis on volunteers empowering refugee families to navigate through the resettlement process independently instead of establishing a relationship of dependency on volunteer efforts.
“But that’s how you gotta volunteer — you help them, no matter how they respond. And that’s how [you] save your life — you hustle.”
The “hustle” that Monica describes is more like a rambunctious bureaucratic dance — a multi-year process that begins with fleeing one’s native country (a difficult feat in itself), filing for refugee status, partaking in extensive health screenings, security tests and interviews to determine the eligibility of their refugee status, and eventually ending up in a completely new place with means below poverty levels, awaiting pickup by a local nonprofit to which the US government allocates these thousands of refugees nationwide.
Jose Serrano, World Relief’s chief case manager in the office’s refugee resettlement department, is working closely with Monica to have this guidebook be offered as a supplement to their cultural orientation workshops. These required programs are provided to refugees within their first 90 days in the US and are geared toward helping them get an apartment, property citizen identification and a job as quickly as possible.
“What is taught to incoming refugees by places like the IOM [International Organization for Migration] in theory is vastly different from the reality of circumstances they face. Money gets burned right away once they settle here. And there isn’t enough money provided…nor is there training to approach the cultural stigmas some immigrants may have at accessing trauma-sensitive resources that could really help them.”
These “trauma-sensitive resources,” include medical and psychological support as well as specified case management for survivors of sexual assault or trafficking and others.
As a case manager working face-to-face with refugees for the past three years, Serrano has gotten creative with stretching the dollars granted by the government — dollars that are allocated toward refugees to help them access services that they are required to obtain within 90 days. This money, according to Serrano, runs far below the poverty line.
More often than not, refugees coming into Orange County must use the cash assistance provided by resettlement agencies predominantly for a motel the first two weeks in the US due to the lack of affordability and the strict requirements brought on by housing in this area. These difficulties may also intersect with poor English speaking skills, little to no personal connection with local US citizens, or little knowledge of how typical American systems and bureaucratic processes work. What refugees lack in this social, cultural and financial intelligence haunts them throughout this ordeal. After 90 days, these families are expected to have a job, English classes, a house, social security information and enough cultural know-how to wean them off of the nonprofit’s services.
“In the end, systems are systems,” says Serrano.
The World Relief office in Garden Grove is the guidebook’s strongest supporter and host, and it is funded by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Mono-toned, cube-like and resembling the devastatingly typical American office, nothing would have set the World Relief Office apart from any other, had it not been for the immaculate artwork taking up a wall from around a tight corner adjacent to the office’s double-door entrance. Hung humbly with painter’s tape across 14 feet of vanilla-colored plaster and stucco is a thin poster-paper world map. Along the top of this map reads an anonymous quote etched carefully in calligraphy-like handwriting with black Sharpie:
“It is by the example of Jesus as we serve those who are suffering from poverty and injustice, regardless of color, belief or gender…to redeem, reconcile and restore the world.”
Just below this message, Brasov-Curca shrugs into an old office chair with her foot propped up on the long communal table and tick-tocking to the reggae sounds of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining.” Her chestnut-colored hair ribboned loosely with blonde streaks is tied easily in a low ponytail, away from a shiny and round baby face gazing downward toward the light of her laptop.
She had just made three different phone calls, two to her close colleagues to finagle a wifi password to continue her work on the guidebook with a small group of volunteers. Rashad Al-Dabbagh, her Project Co-Director and head of OC Arab-American Civic Council, sat across from her.
With the password finally unlocked and food at the table from her and Rashad’s favorite local eatery from Little Arabia in Orange County, their second gathering of volunteers to put together contacts and resources has begun. Known by Brasov-Curca as a “data party,” such events take up as much as five hours. As rain cascades down like a torrential waterfall outside, she continues the story of Hiba Sawwan’s escape from her town under siege in Syria.
Upon examining the life of Brasov-Curca, one could easily deduce the means that drive her passion. Standing at no taller than five-foot-five and bearing a face that looks and radiates with a brighter light and enthusiasm than the typical person in their late thirties, she greets just about anyone with a clipped, colloquial nature — wasting no time on formalities but leaving a feeling in the air that your presence is already beyond the threshold of stranger-danger. After her family achieved refugee status in the US, they quickly managed to settle into Orange County. At eighteen, Brasov-Curca attended Santa Ana College and later transferred into Biola University in La Mirada to study Anthropology with an emphasis on intercultural studies.
A year studying abroad and volunteering at a charity home for the elderly in Egypt ignited a value in her to serve others and learn who people truly are beyond their struggles. Ten years later, Brasov-Curca would attend the Brandeis University in Heller, Massachusetts to study Sustainable International Development and Conflict & Coexistence. In the past couple of decades, Monica has had extensive travel throughout Egypt, Jordan, Georgia, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, France, Germany, Israel and occupied territories — all for peacebuilding and other forms of international conflict management work. In 2007, she would volunteer with World Relief to take in a family of three from Iraq for eight months to help resettle them into Orange County — all while taking care of a three-month-old son and working from home part-time.
A common thread between each of her experiences is a great passion for using personal storytelling to overturn misguided assumptions of who the movers, shakers, victims and suspects are in any given circumstance. For Brasov-Curca, the heart of peacebuilding begins one person at a time, and therefore one story at a time.
“The only thing we could take with us is our own stories,” she said. “They are the fuel that lights my passion and vocation as a peacebuilder and storyteller. They helped establish my identity and sense of home.”