ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Senior living communities aren’t necessarily regarded as bastions of multiculturalism, but that’s what makes the Brookdale Valencia senior living community in southeast Albuquerque unusual.

About six years ago, it began working with Lutheran and Catholic charities that brought refugees from other countries to the United States, and helped them settle in by providing English classes and teaching them about American food, culture and society.

Brookdale hires some of the refugees to work at their senior living communities, and depending on their language or professional skills, “we start them at different appropriate level jobs,” said John De Abreu, associate executive director of Brookdale Valencia.

“If they don’t speak much English, they begin as table bussers or utility workers. As their language skills progress, we train them and introduce them to other positions,” he said.

About 20 refugees are paid employees at Brookdale Valencia at any given time, with other refugees also finding jobs at other Brookdale facilities in New Mexico. Among their countries of origin are Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Nepal and India. They are Sunni and Shia Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Catholics, “and they all get along with absolutely no problems,” De Abreu said.

The refugee employees, or associates as they are called, all say they like the senior residents for whom they care, and it is mutual.

“The residents came to us and said ‘these people are so kind and take such good care of us that we’d like to be the ones serving the servers,'” De Abreu said.

On Tuesday, they did just that. The residents had the associates sit at the dining hall tables and the residents took their food orders and waited on them.

“It makes me feel special,” said Mwika Ndjibu, 24, who came to the United States six years ago after she and family members spent seven years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe after fleeing war in their native Congo.

Ndjibu has since learned English and become a U.S. citizen.

“I want to work, save some money and go back to college,” she said. “That’s my plan.”

Azimullah Rasa, 28, was a geologist and mining engineer in his native Afghanistan until the Taliban accused him of conspiring with the Americans and put him in jail.

“They said to me, ‘You are an enemy of Afghanistan,'” he said.

Rasa was inexplicably released after about three weeks, but he knew things would only get worse for him. He fled to Pakistan and from there came to the United States. He has been in the U.S. for about two years.

“I started my work here as a server in the dining room and then was promoted to cook in the kitchen,” he said. Eventually, he wants to go back to school and be certified as a mining engineer.

While all the refugee associates get along, De Abreu acknowledged that initially it wasn’t so smooth.

“The first wave of refugees we had here were from Iraq and there was antagonism between the Sunnis and the Shias,” he said. “They came to understand that in America, nobody cares about that, and we accept all of them regardless of their backgrounds.”

There are also continuing challenges for new refugees, such as the lack of meat that conforms to “halal,” or permissible Muslim dietary laws, and the Western courtesy of shaking hands, particularly difficult for Muslim women who come from strict backgrounds.

Once they get used to the new social norms, De Abreu said, “it is clear that they want to be successful and they want to be Americans.”


Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com