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Guided by her experiences as an immigrant, she helps Syrian refugees adjust to life here
The basics: Wasan Abu-Baker, 35, is a volunteer and advocate for refugees in Fresno. She is married with three children and lives in Clovis.
What she does: Abu-Baker’s volunteer hours are more than the equivalent of a full-time job. As a board member and outreach committee member of the nonprofit Islamic organization MY DEEN (or “my religion”) in Fresno, she teaches Sunday school and organizes cultural events and guest speakers. She also is a fellow through the Tamejavi cultural organizing program at Pan Valley Institute, an education center in Fresno.
Abu-Baker also spends a lot of time helping Syrian refugee families adjust to life in Fresno. Some have been here as long as four years, while 14 families arrived within the past three months. She drives them to the grocery store, medical appointments and the mosque. She serves as their translator and often their first friend. She has spent her own money buying them necessities and helped coordinate donations. She also communicates with international humanitarian groups, such as the International Rescue Committee, that bring the families to this country.
Why she does it: “I love to help people for the sake of God,” she said. “I believe that when you help people, that opens the door for you for good things. You always receive the blessing from God to your family.” She also wants to be a mentor to her children and show them the importance of getting involved in their community.
“EVERYONE IN THE COMMUNITY KNOWS THAT IF YOU WANT TO DO ANYTHING TO HELP THE REFUGEES IN OUR COMMUNITY, THEN YOU GO TO WASAN.”
– Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno
The turning point: As a Palestinian immigrant, Abu-Baker knows how it feels. She, too, left a war-torn home to establish a new life in a foreign place. Abu-Baker was 24 when she married an American citizen and left Palestine.
She lost a lot to the Israeli occupation, including family members, friends and freedom. Schools were closed for months or a year at a time, and people were asked to stay home under imposed curfews. Her father was held as a political prisoner four times, the longest time for a year and a half, because he refused to pay taxes to fund more Israeli settlements.
While in college, many of her colleagues were killed for being politically active. Other people, including her mother and uncle, died as casualties of the war.
Abu-Baker received her bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science and, for her residency, did intake at a general hospital that received many burned, injured and disfigured people. Some of her patients were also her friends.
After arriving in the U.S., she had to learn to disassociate the sound of helicopters and airplanes with war, to start thinking they were for safety and traveling, not for hurting people.
It also took her a while to feel comfortable talking about her experience. “When seeking help, you feel weak and need support from other people – maybe not money but encouragement, that someone is behind you,” she said. “You need to find people around you who help you break all these fears.”
Details, details: Abu-Baker got a master’s degree in special education at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., where she also worked as a student teacher at a school with mostly refugee children.
When her husband got a job as chair of clinical and administrative sciences at California Health Sciences University in Clovis, Abu-Baker finished her degree by student-teaching at an elementary school in Clovis.
After graduating a year ago she applied for teaching jobs and, in the meantime, joined MY DEEN as a volunteer. She realized she enjoyed it more than her previous work and decided to pursue it.
What others say: Reza Nekumanesh, director of the nonprofit Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, said Abu-Baker supports people wherever and whenever they need her. He said she works hard to connect anyone asking for help with the right organizations and services. He also said she is passionate and cares about people.
“She’s kind of our go-to person when it comes to the Syrian refugees,” he said. “Everyone in the community knows that if you want to do anything to help the refugees in our community, then you go to Wasan.”
How you can help: Donations for Syrian refugees are accepted through the cultural center. Donate online at www.ICFresno.org and specify that the money is for Syrian refugees under the “Add special instructions to the seller” line. Check donations can be sent to this address: Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, 2111 E. Nees Ave., Fresno, CA 93720. Donations are tax-deductible under the tax identification number 91-2155316.
Another group called Central Valley for Syria is also collecting donations online: GoFundMe.com/CenValForSyria.