Open arms, helping hands
Refugees, immigrants and international travelers are making the news daily. Meet three members of our Ohio State family who are living today’s headlines.
Embracing world neighbors
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Angie Plummer didn’t encounter many people from other cultures. But a desire to expand her worldview was there.
As an education major at her hometown university, she found herself drawn to language, political science and history classes. It wasn’t long before Plummer changed her focus to international studies and signed up for a summer in Germany, where several of her fellow students were from Africa.
Eventually, this glimpse of the globe and her drive to help others would spark a new career and shape her life’s work.
“I was just this girl from Ohio,” says Plummer ’92 JD. “That was sort of my first eye-opening experience to people from other places. It started to widen my horizons.”
A diploma from the University of Dayton in hand, Plummer wanted a law degree, and there was no question where she would apply. Her parents, brother and uncle had attended Ohio State, as did the man she would marry, John Marshall ’83 JD. “We’re Buckeyes through and through,” she says.
Plummer’s passion to help people improve their lives grew during her time at Moritz College of Law, where she worked on a project to assist homeless people and filed protection orders for victims of domestic violence. “I highly value those experiences,” she says. “[They] really solidified for me that I wanted to do something with my law degree that was public interest related.”
In the years following graduation, the young attorney worked in a family law practice and wrote employment policy for the state. She enjoyed these roles, she says, but she yearned for more.
Then, in 1998, she saw an article about Community Refugee and Immigration Services. The Buddhamamaka Society, composed of former refugees from Laos, had formed CRIS three years earlier to help the area’s growing refugee population. Its first home was in a garage next to a Lao temple in east Columbus.
“They said ‘Sure, come often,’” she recalls. And so she did — and stayed longer than she expected.
“I started in those garage days, which I’m very nostalgic about,” Plummer says. “There were 10 people speaking eight languages sharing one computer, but it was fantastic. There was so much energy.”
Plummer instantly fell in love with the work of helping immigrants and refugees navigate the legal system, and she spent a growing number of hours volunteering for CRIS. She joined the staff on a part-time basis in 1999 and decided to go all-in two years later, quitting her state job. She became executive director in 2003.
Now, nearly two decades after beginning her work with CRIS, Plummer is surrounded each work day with photos of the many refugees she’s helped. Amid the typical director responsibilities of budgeting and staffing, she makes time for the aspect of her job that brings her the most joy: working directly with clients.
Mary Howard ’93 MS, ’14 DNP, chief nursing officer and associate executive director at Ohio State University Hospital East, has served on the CRIS board for 14 years. She recalls when Plummer began leading the agency in 2003.
“You instantly become impressed with her passion for the work with immigrants and refugees,” Howard says.
“She makes those personal connections with the individual. It’s so heartwarming to see how excited she gets about families that get reunited and then ensuring they have what they need.”
CRIS has resettled 833 refugees in the past year, helping them find jobs, homes and English language classes. The agency also offers a program for seniors, translation services, wellness programming and assistance to former refugees who become victims of crime.
Now, more than 20 years after its founding, CRIS is at a critical point in its history.
While executive orders to limit travel and immigration wind through the court system, Plummer says one aspect of the situation is unlikely to change: The number of refugees accepted into the country each year has been reduced from 110,000 to 50,000.
That means less funding for CRIS, Plummer says, since the agency’s income from the U.S. State Department is based on the number of refugees it resettles. Another local resettlement agency, one of three in Columbus, closed altogether. Plummer says CRIS will remain open, but it laid off nine of its 67 employees in February. CRIS is pursuing private support and hosting fundraisers to supplement its budget.
“We’re doing everything we can do to raise money privately,” she says, “but it’s tough.
“When I first started doing this 18 years ago, it never occurred to me that trying to help refugees would be controversial or political,” she says. “People don’t really understand that every single refugee coming through the U.S. program was thoroughly vetted and screened and approved to come here before they ever got on an airplane.
“We’ve had such a reputation of being this beacon of hope and this welcoming country. It’s demoralizing,” she says of recent actions, “and it doesn’t represent who we are as a people.”
The developments also don’t reflect the Columbus that Plummer knows, the one described in a 2015 report issued by the city and local resettlement agencies on the effect refugees have on the community.
Since 1983, more than 16,000 refugees have settled in the Columbus area. Franklin County has seen the most arrivals statewide, accounting for nearly half of all refugees who make their homes in Ohio. The biggest group is from Somalia, followed by Bhutan and then Iraq. Columbus has the largest population of Bhutanese refugees in the country and the second-largest population of Somalis.
Research that led to the impact report found former refugees contribute $1.6 billion to the Franklin County economy each year. Other findings: Franklin and nearby counties are home to some 870 refugee-owned businesses, which employ about 4,000 workers, and nearly 14 percent of former refugees own a business in Franklin County, compared to 6.5 percent of the non-refugee population.
“They just have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Plummer says. “I think part of that comes from being willing to take risks.”
Political will is creating an uncertain future for refugees and the agencies that serve them, Plummer says. But she vows to fight for both.
“I feel like my life is so rich because I know people from so many places and have had the opportunity to hear their stories and be inspired by their courage.”
Living an Ohioan’s life after a long, arduous journey
Walid Ali waited five years for the phone call. When it came, he almost didn’t believe it.
The United Nations immigration official told him to arrive at the airport four hours before the flight. He and his wife could bring one suitcase each; all other possessions had to be left behind. A few other details may have been shared during that conversation, but Ali will never forget the most important words. “They told me, ‘You’re going to the United States.’”
That call came in April 2009, and just two weeks later, Ali and his wife were heading to Columbus, Ohio, a place they hadn’t known existed. Here, Ali would become a business owner, a Buckeye and a proud American citizen.
A Sunni Muslim, Ali was raised in Baqubah, Iraq, a city of roughly a half-million people along the Diyala River, 31 miles northeast of Baghdad. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Baqubah — a mix of Christians and Muslims — became a violent hotspot for insurgent activity.
Enthralled with the United States since childhood, a younger Ali became obsessed with American movies and stars such as Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. “Most Iraqis love American movies,” he says, “especially action movies.”
Ali learned English in college and after graduation took a teaching job in Yemen. But two years into his teaching career, his country was at war. In 2003, he returned to his family in Baqubah, moved in with his parents and soon got married.
It wasn’t long before Ali put his English language skills to use working as a translator at an American military base. He enjoyed the work, mostly interpreting for American engineers and lawyers, but worry set in within months. Insurgents posted a flier threatening interpreters who worked for U.S. forces. Then his mother found a handmade bomb outside their home. Thankfully, it was a dud.
“At that time, my family said, ‘Hey, you need to stop. Something is going to happen.’”
In 2004, Ali and his bride packed a few possessions and fled to Yemen, where they were granted refugee status. They hoped it would be a temporary stop on the way to the United States. But they spent four years in Yemen before immigration officials even looked at their case. Although Ali had worked for six months at an American military base, the security check took a full year to complete.
Then, in 2009, he received the phone call that changed their lives: They were destined for Columbus, Ohio.
Community Refugee and Immigration Services helped them get started with their new life, gave him a job and encouraged Ali to pursue his longtime goal of earning a master’s degree. He enrolled in Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology in 2011 and felt like a Buckeye from the beginning.
“That was a dream for me,” Ali says. “I always felt that I am included. I am part of the university.”
He focused on foreign, second and multilingual language education, graduating in 2013.
“Walid was always able to keep his larger goals in mind as he navigated the program,” says Leslie Moore, an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning and Ali’s advisor during his two years as a graduate student. “Those goals were about much more than his own professional development. Walid truly wanted to serve others and to contribute to the larger community.”
Not long after graduation, Ali turned back to the construction skills he’d developed as a young man and started his own business, Across the States Construction. He specializes in rehabbing homes for people in need, such as clients of nonprofits and the departments of Aging and Medicaid. It’s a way for Ali to give back to the community that’s embraced him in a way he never expected.
Today, Ali worries that others might not get such opportunities, and he hopes everyone understands that refugees simply want a better life as U.S. citizens.
“We are all part of this country,” he says of Americans who began their life here as immigrants and refugees. “We are also part of other families and relatives overseas. We would like them to have the same good life we are having here.”
Now the parents of children ages 1, 6 and 11, Ali and his wife had no idea what to expect when they arrived in Columbus. But a warm welcome at the airport began melting their anxieties.
“You’re going to an unknown world. You have no idea about the people, their culture, whether they will be friendly,” Ali says. “Then, in the airport, it looked like everything was OK. They welcomed us, shook hands, [gave us] hugs. I forgot my pain.
“I hope every refugee will get the same experience, because that will give them a message that life is good. People are good.”
Pushing himself to do more for humankind
What do you do when your world has gone mad? It is a question Abd Al-Rahman Traboulsi ’17, a happy-go-lucky kid from suburban Cincinnati, never thought he’d have to answer.
As a 16-year-old high school student, Traboulsi had a great life and everything a middle-class teen could want — his own car, the latest smartphone, plenty of fresh sneakers to hoop it up with friends.
But as civil war came to Syria — a place he knew well from visiting his extended family there each summer — Traboulsi’s life would change forever. The devout Muslim would spend summers in Syria and Turkish border towns working in refugee camps alongside his mother and later triaging patients in blood-drenched field hospitals.
With his extended family scattered across several continents and haunted by his experiences in war-torn Syria, Traboulsi dove headlong into the biomedical engineering studies he began at Ohio State in 2013, using the ongoing conflict as fuel for innumerable all-night study sessions.
He emerged as one of the academic stars of Buckeye Nation: a member of an Ohio State engineering team that won a national competition, a Pelotonia-funded cancer researcher and founder of the Ohio State student group Refuge, which is committed to helping young refugees from around the world access higher education.
“My experiences in Syria motivate me to push myself beyond where other people are willing to go,” he says. “It grounds you on a daily basis because those memories don’t leave.”
Traboulsi is gangly, and he seems all arms and legs as he tucks himself into a booth at the Blue Danube Restaurant along High Street. He has a wispy, chinstrap beard and, at 6-foot-2, is tall enough to be a sought-after teammate in any pick-up basketball game. He looks you square in the eyes as he talks about the horrible things he saw in his family’s distant, dusty homeland.
“I worked in a field hospital, and every day I had to witness death,” he says softly. “On a daily basis, there were people coming in who you couldn’t save. There was nothing you could do, because they were injured so badly. Sometimes we had to prioritize. Like if a mother and child both came in and they were critically injured, we had to prioritize one over another. I felt empty and overwhelmed. It broke my heart.”
Bearing witness to such destruction took an emotional toll, and Traboulsi found it difficult to re-enter college life.
As he readjusted, he found his footing as part of an engineering team that won General Motors’ national Innovation Challenge. Inspired to learn more about leukemia after seeing its effect on a family member, he accepted an invitation to conduct basic research in the lab of Dr. Michael Caligiuri, director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, and he served as a Pelotonia Fellow.
And still, somehow, he made time to found Refuge, a mentorship program that pairs college students with high school students who arrived in this country as refugees. Largely online, the endeavor is aimed at helping the high schoolers envision and navigate a path that leads to college.
Traboulsi launched Refuge at Ohio State just a year ago, but he’s already making plans to take it nationwide. The humanitarian project began after Traboulsi went public with an emotional plea for wider recognition of the worsening crisis in Syria at a TedX event at Ohio State in April 2016.
“I think what sets him apart is his will to act,” says Assistant Professor of Sociology Hollie Brehm, a faculty advisor to Refuge. “Many people lament violence or human rights abuses in the world, but they stop there. Abd Al-Rahman, on the other hand, believes we also have a duty to act.”
A scholarship student, Traboulsi calls his time at Ohio State “a blessing” and says the cooperative spirit among students and faculty helped him soar.
“I don’t think I would be the same person that I am today,” he says at the thought of choosing a different college. “I enjoy the diversity of students here. Coming to Ohio State was the best decision I could have made.”
As Traboulsi gets ready to tackle the world beyond Columbus, he is headed to medical school at Stanford University with plans to help refugees through medicine. But he also has a simple dream grounded in the soil of Syria: a time when his loved ones can come together again in their homeland.
“I dream about that a lot,” he says. “I hope there is a day when we can come back together and have a family dinner. But who knows how long it is going to take? This war does not seem like it is ending anytime soon.”
What do you do when your world has gone mad? If your name is Abd Al-Rahman Traboulsi, the answer is simple. You get busy.