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Serving people from Pakistan to the Pine Hills

April 1, 2012

by Keiko Mimuro

Rifat Filkins works in her office with the door wide open, welcoming everyone. She is the educational director of Refugee and Immigrant Support Services at Emmaus.  After making successful changes to her own community in Pakistan as a principal of a private school, she came to serve refugees and immigrants in Albany. Her passion for serving people has extended her impact from Pakistan to the Pine Hills community.

Rifat Filkins at her office/ Keiko Mimuro

Filkins came to Albany in June 2009 from Pakistan to work for the refugee program at Emmaus. She mainly recruits staff and volunteers for the programs which helps refugees from all over the world. The site has attracted people from countries such as Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Ethiopia, Congo, Rwanda, Pakistan, and Sudan. The programs offers language courses for children and adults who do not speak English, and helps children to do homework through its after school program working with its sponsor, the United Methodist Church.

There are other organizations that help refugees and immigrants for only the first 90 days, but Filkins thinks that their struggle starts after those 90 days.

“I have seen people struggling even though they are here for four years. They are hesitant to come out from home and talk. They are so scared to talk. The objective of Refugee and Immigrant Support Services-Emmaus is to help them to adapt and empower them in a different culture and to make them become self sufficient,” Filkins said.

“Refugees are persons who are here in Albany not because they wanted to. They are here because they had to. They had no choice. Even though they want to go back home, they can’t,” Filkins said. That is why she keeps telling refugees that they always have someone who can help them.

Filkins uses her knowledge and skills she obtained from her education, but she does not forget her love for community, refugees, and immigrants.

“She’s just got a warm heart and she can manage a lot of things at the same time,” said co-worker Holly Nye, who is pastor at United Methodist. “She is very efficient and she is very experienced with education.”

Filkins also spends quite a bit of her time with children. “She is their friend, but she is their leader,” said Francis Sengabo, operational director there.

When she came here, the refugee program had three classes in the corridor and it was hard to make refugees and immigrants concentrate. Filkins moved those three classes to the second floor. The classes became much quieter and children  improved.

“When I saw her for the first time, I thought — this is the person we needed,” Sengabo said.

Even though Filkins has been successfully changing the refugee program and helping refugees and immigrants, she experienced the same challenges with refugees, when she first came to Albany. She used to have a hard time adjusting to American culture since she spent most of her life in Pakistan. Speaking English was especially hard for her when she first arrived in Albany.

“I was so hesitant to talk because of the language barrier,” Filkins said.

The cultural differences were also a challenge. She realized there was a different way of socializing with people in Pakistan and in the United States.

Filkins said that Pakistani females follow a set of cultural rules. “We cannot just smile and go talk to strangers. If I do that, people think I am not a good girl,” Filkins said. “Women are expected to behave in a certain way.” On the other hand, she felt that in the United States, people talk to each other freely even though they do not know each other. It was hard for her to talk and say hi to strangers at first.

“People used to look at me like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t smile,’” Filkins said.

Filkins has experienced both hardships and success in Albany, but she is still buoyed by the support of her family.

“They [her parents] thought that Pakistani culture offers a limited opportunity for females so my parents support me to get more opportunity,” she said. Without her parents’ and family’s help, she could not have made it to the United States. Filkins has part of her family in Albany, so they shared her passion to serve community and her family and a former pastor of the United Methodist Church helped her get here.

“I am a very strong Christian. I always believe God has his own purpose in everybody’s life. I feel myself that he has some specific purpose in my life,” Filkins said.

It is usually hard to get a U.S. visa for a Pakistani, but she was able to obtain one easily and she left Pakistan for better chances and a new life.

“I really think this is what God gave me. He wanted me to come here,” Filkins said.

When Filkins was in Pakistan, she worked as a principal of a private primary school in her hometown, Martinpur, Pakistan. She was only 23 and became the youngest principal when she was appointed in 1998 after completing an interview.

“I remember the day I went to the interview.  I did not go to the interview to be a principal but I was very confident sitting in front of all those people,” Filkins said. She went to the interview to be a teacher, so she was not expecting to be appointed to a principal position.

“I was so shy to be called as a principal. My executive director was like, ‘You are a principal, come forward,’” Filkins said nostalgically.

However, she faced many difficulties as a principal. She had to rebuild her school with only 37 students assigned by the government.

“On the very first day, I could feel that it is going to be challenging, because everything was in the worst condition,” Filkins said.  Martinpur used to have many rich officers and their families, but when she became a principal of the school, there were many poor families in the community. Beside classes, she had to teach children how to take care of themselves such as taking shower every day. Many families in Martinpur thought that they did not want to send their children to her school because of these bad conditions there.

She firstly brought a big change, adding science courses to her school. “My idea was that kids were from poor families, so I thought that they can get nursing education and get a job to support their family by attending my school,” Filkins said. She added grades every year and now the school has grade 1 to 10. Before she left for Albany, the school had 350 students. Families in Martinpur felt her school’s passion and started to send their children.

“You know it was wonderful that there are 150 girls who successfully became nurses and are supporting their families. All the kids graduated and settled in their field. That’s like a big achievement for me when I sit down and think about it,” Filkins said, smiling.

Filkins was qualified as the youngest principal, because of her commitment to the students and community, and her high education. She did her intermediate, which is the first two years of college, at a college in Nankana Sahib, the closest town to her hometown. She majored in sociology and political science. After the intermediate, she taught English to 8th graders while waiting for a graduate examination. Then, she was admitted to a government university of education in Lahore, in a big city close to her hometown. She received a B.A. in Education there.  She did her master’s in history and education while she was working as a principal.

A common room on the 2nd floor in front of Filkins’s office/Keiko Mimuro

“I always thought about children. We are here to serve. I always appreciate people I work with. We were a great team. There was a passion and commitment that we could see that much difference in the society,” she said.

Filkins’s dedication to her community at home extended to the Pine Hills

community. She overcame cultural differences and now she is the one helping refugees and immigrants have better opportunities and lives in Albany.

“This morning she [Filkins] was with one of the women helping her to go and apply for a job and she was very excited for the woman to get the job,” Nye said. “So she is compassionate and she is walking along side with the folks.” -30-


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