Once a refugee, an Oromo Woman now helps others

Owliya Dima scanned the bare apartment, noting the only new items the family owned: six white pillows stacked on two box springs that were missing their mattresses.

In the living room were three mismatched sofas donated by a church. One of the few items in the kitchen was an old skillet that the refugee family had brought from Iraq. The father, Hussam Zabiba, held up a handful of miniature shampoo and soap bottles for Dima to see. “Hotel,” he explained.

Dima, an Ethiopian Muslim who had been a refugee herself nearly three decades ago, moved through the two-bedroom Anaheim apartment with an Arabic interpreter, compiling a list of needed items. “Iron? And vacuum cleaner?” she said, making a note to herself about what to look for when she scoured garage sales the next weekend.

Years of war and famine in the Middle East and Africa have brought waves of Muslim refugees to the United States. The newcomers have often found themselves in communities that are ill-prepared and, at times, unwilling to help. And so, much of the task of caring for newcomers has fallen to volunteers like Dima. She is a one-woman resettlement agency.

The memories of her own experience replay in her mind each time she enters a refugee’s apartment. She remembers spending the first four months in America in tears. With her husband at work, she was left at home with their 3-year-old-daughter and felt isolated in a city where she knew no one and spoke only Oromo, from her native Ethiopia, and Somali.

As Dima surveyed the Zabibas’ apartment she saw a handful of plates, two tea cups and no glasses in the kitchen cabinet. On the counter, a chicken was thawing, but there was no knife to cut it. Zabiba and his wife, Layla, followed Dima through the rooms, murmuring, “Thank you.”

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