Foreign Refugees Offer Empathy for Katrina Survivors

Those who have fled chaos abroad to start a new life in the United States know the anxiety that thousands of evacuees are feeling. In Atlanta, one Bosnian refugee is helping those displaced by Katrina to cope.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I want to begin this next report by noting a small but significant difference in language. The media have sometimes referred to people who fled Hurricane Katrina as refugees. That's not technically right. Refugees are people who have to flee their country. Survivors or evacuees were preferred terms. But now actual refugees who fled chaos abroad to begin new lives in America are helping some evacuees to start new lives after the storm. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on one family that is beginning a new life in Atlanta.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

When Tomika Parker(ph) from New Orleans finally made it as far as a shelter in Baton Rouge, she needed diapers for her 18-month-old baby, but she was turned down because she wasn't staying there. In this moment of desperation, a member of the International Rescue Committee in Louisiana saw the familiar look of anxiety and knew the family needed help. Ellen Beattie is with the IRC in Atlanta.

Ms. ELLEN BEATTIE (International Rescue Committee): They felt vulnerable. When they knew that they weren't going to be able to return, they saw that life was not coming together, and they knew that they needed a more permanent solution.

LOHR: The IRC got the six-member family out of Louisiana and brought them to Atlanta where they have a clean and dry two-bedroom apartment furnished and paid for for six months. The day after they arrived, a caseworker drove Tomika Parker and the two oldest of her four children to their new school to enroll, the first sign of establishing a new life.

Ms. ELHAMIJA KADIC (Caseworker): Good morning. How are you doing?

Ms. TOMIKA PARKER (Hurricane Survivor): I'm just fine. I'd like to register my daughters for school. We just moved from New Orleans due to the hurricane.

LOHR: The caseworker is Elhamija Kadic, a Bosnian refugee who moved to the United States in 1997. She smiles broadly while she watches Parker fill out the enrollment forms.

Ms. KADIC: For the refugees, we would help with the paperwork because they don't speak good English, but with American families, it's a little bit easier. They can fill out the paper for themselves. I know.

LOHR: Parker and the girls, Arianne(ph), age 13, and Ashley(ph), age nine, are nervous at first. But after the forms are filled out and the tour of Indian Creek Elementary School begins, the tension fades. They're introduced to Arianne's tall, jovial, fifth-grade teacher.

Mr. BUTLER (Teacher): Well, my name is Mr. Butler, but you can call me Mr. Butler. But if you want to, you can call me Mr. Butler. But if you like to, you can call me Mr. Butler. OK? You have a nickname?

LOHR: Being in this Georgia school is a pleasant experience for Parker and her girls who lived in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, one of the poorest sections of that city. Her 13-year-old is in the fifth grade. Parker thinks that's because of the inferior schools back in Louisiana. But she's delighted by what she sees here and how she's treated.

Ms. PARKER: I saw a library with computers--well, more than one or two computers. All the teachers were nice that I met and the secretary. Everybody was nice. Didn't have an attitude or anything like that, like we get in Louisiana from some of the teachers.

LOHR: Once the children are settled, the next priority is getting the parents back to work.

Mr. MICHAEL FREEMAN(ph) (Louisiana Resident): And it's hard. It's hard for me 'cause I'm normally have--you know, used to having money to provide for my family.

LOHR: Michael Freeman says he's always worked and he's open to doing just about anything here to make a living. After Katrina hit, the family shared a home with several families in Donaldson, Louisiana. Thirty people were packed inside. They slept on the floor. They've located most of their relatives and now the couple would like to see some of them make the leap they did.

Mr. FREEMAN: That's really all we got, basically, is each other. I mean, I just don't like the fact that we're all scattered out.

LOHR: But Freeman feels his family has landed in a safe place.

Mr. FREEMAN: I feel more comfortable. I don't hear no gunshots, no sirens going off. You know, that's something that we're used to hearing every day, all day. But around here, you don't. Not here.

Which one did you have to do for homework? This one, right?

ARIANNE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FREEMAN: I'm just telling...

LOHR: On this afternoon, Michael Freeman helps Arianne with her homework. They've been in Atlanta a week now. He's applying for jobs. Tomika Parker wants to take advantage of the chance to enroll in technical school to become a dental hygienist, something she's been interested in for years. They still need many things, but Freeman says they're thankful they made it to Atlanta.

Mr. FREEMAN: Most people that haven't been outside of Louisiana or New Orleans, they don't know what they expect. But if you always--if you're scared to go somewhere, you'll never find out what's on the other side.

LOHR: Starting over can be difficult, but this couple says sometimes it's for the best. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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