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Andy Lippman: Nonprofit International Institute of Los Angeles Keeps Doors Open for Refugees

A drumbeat of controversy surrounds the discussion of immigration at America’s southern border.
It’s drowned out a discussion of the Afghan refugees who been coming here since the fall of their country to the Taliban in August 2021.
And it has overtaken some of those Ukrainians who have fled the current war with Russia.
I’ve written before about the International Institute of Los Angeles, which has been working with refugees since 1914 and is currently led by Cambria Tortorelli, the former administrator of Holy Family Catholic Church in South Pasadena.
The IILA has helped more than 1,000 Afghan refugees who had worked with the United States before the country fell to the Taliban. They are also helping Ukrainians who immigrated to the United States under a sponsorship program.
Many of that original group of Afghans are out on their own now, and about 400 people are still on the original IILA rolls. Some of the refugees have found Los Angeles too expensive and have moved on to other cities, but many others — now that federal help has expired for them — have found jobs and homes.
“Almost all of the original people have their feet on the ground,” Tortorelli said. “They are all working hard. Some are Uber drivers or working in supermarkets or factories. Some are getting an education and some are working in IT.”
Holy Family Catholic Church was one of those organizations that raised its collective hand to help an Afghan family. The IILA in spring 2022 connected with Holy Family’s Marlene Moore, who assembled a group of volunteers who helped a large family from Afghanistan.
“The Holy Family team’s support made all the difference in the ability of the family to transition to life in the United States,” Tortorelli said.
The refugees from Afghanistan are still coming — and some of them are coming by way of the southern border.
Tortorelli is worried that these immigrants are getting caught up in the current political scene.
“Some people are classifying these people as criminals, but many of these refugees are still fleeing persecution and it is very difficult now to prove persecution,” Tortorelli said.
“These refugees who are coming share the same challenges, but they are all quite different.”
Let me introduce you to Sonita Amini, one of those Afghan refugees who — along with her family — had to find their own way out of Afghanistan when the Taliban retook the country.
Amini told me that her father worked with the Afghan government and her mother worked with an organization that helped children who could not go to school — two jobs that put the whole family in danger. Amini said that she and her family had been threatened even before the Taliban took over Kabul.
“It [the takeover] was so quick. It was so sad. They took the city in a day,” said Amini, who went to high school and had dreams of becoming a doctor one day. She spoke English fairly well throughout our conversation.
The family of six ended up walking with another family to Iran for safety.
“It was so hard. We didn’t know what we should do,” said Amini, who was 21 when she left her home. “We went there illegally and went to the house of friends we knew. I found a job in a factory doing sewing. We had a little house to live in, but we didn’t have anything. My parents couldn’t work. We were just seeking a way to get out.”
They applied with a program for visas to Brazil. Only Sonita was given one and she flew there in 2023.
“When I arrived in Brazil, I could speak some English, but I didn’t speak any Portuguese [the official language of Brazil]. I was lost there in the airport. I saw a woman who was wearing a head covering and I was wearing a head covering too and she too was Muslim. So I went with her and … two or three other families.
“We decided we were going to come to the United States and we took buses from one city to another until we came to Peru.”
The journey then took them by bus to Ecuador.
“I had one set of clothes besides the ones I had on. I had a backpack and some money and some cookies,” Amini said.
Then, they crossed into Colombia and had to walk through the jungle for days, going up and down mountains.
“We saw some people die,” she said.
“We didn’t have a choice to go back. We just decided to go, but it was so hard for five days. We got lost. We crossed about 50 rivers. There was a guy who showed us the way.
“We heard animal sounds, and saw snakes and dangerous animals. We prayed. It was so rainy every night.
“Even now, every night I have nightmares of that time and I still have pain in my shoulder from carrying that backpack.”
After the jungle, they took a bus to Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and finally to Mexico, where they began taking buses toward the United States.
“When we were on the bus at night men would come in our bus and take things,” she said. “They said, ‘I want your money or I will kill you.’
“They took us out of the bus and fought with the men, who had no money. They tasered me for my money. …
“I couldn’t sleep for two months on the trip from Brazil to Tijuana, except for an hour or so, because of the pressure. I had lost my phone on the way, but one or two times, I was able to borrow a phone and text my parents to say I was OK.”
Amini finally made it to Tijuana, but there was no place to stay so she slept in the patio outside a church for two or three days.
Then, she and the families she was with crossed the border after walking for two to three days. They were stopped by police and turned over to immigration after walking nearly another day in America. She recalled she was given a paper with a court date and transferred first to a hotel in San Diego and then another hotel in Ontario.
“I had to find a place to stay. I didn’t know anyone here,” she said.
“I had no friends. No one here. I had to find someone or they would send me to a shelter. I was searching on Google and found the phone number of an organization that helps Afghan women and called that number.”
Now, after two years in America, she is being helped by IILA attorneys and volunteers, and has been staying for the last six months with a family. She still has memories of the home that she and her family left in Afghanistan and she has hopes that she and her family will one day be reunited.
The legal difficulties facing Amini could be as difficult as the journey she has just endured in getting to the United States.
Edita Ghuschuyan, her attorney who works with IILA, said that Amini will have a hearing this summer to determine whether she will be deported because of the way she entered the country.
Ghuschuyan said it was unlikely that Amini would be deported back to Afghanistan, her point of origin, but that her options would be limited even if she were allowed to stay.
“I could have many opportunities if I get my legal status,” Amini said. “I feel safe. I feel free. There are many things I can do and it makes me happy. I hope I can do something good here when I get my documentation.
“If I can’t stay in America, I don’t know what I can do. There is no way to go back to Iran and I don’t want to be there. I just want to be safe and have a better life, far from oppression and injustice, and far from war.”

Dawn Ponnet (left) of Holy Family Church, and Mary Hatton (center), of Sisters of Social Services, are helping to lead the campaign to support a family from Venezuela in their resettlement process. – Photo courtesy Holy Family Church

Father Ricky Viveros, parish administrator at Holy Family Church, reports that the church continues to support a family from Venezuela.
The church has worked over the past two months with the Sisters of Social Service to provide shelter and basic needs.
The church has set up a special fund to assist the family with living expenses, food, transportation as well as legal and court fees in anticipation of their December asylum hearing.
“Holy Family parish is very social justice oriented,” said Viveros. “Our passion is to help those in need no matter who they are and where they come from.”

First published in the February 16 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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