Iraqi helps refugees learn beauty business

May 21, 2009 

Samira Lejen's hand quickly moves from right to left in a notebook as she translates into Arabic a demonstration on trimming a man's hair.

Nada Korkis sits next to her, recording the hair cut on a cell phone, a trick that will help her understand the stylist's English when she gets home.

Lejen and Korkis are making over more than their careers this spring at Modesto's Dior School of Cosmetology.

They're refugees from the Iraq war learning a trade so they can begin to support their families during a recession that makes jobs scarce even for native speakers.

"It's a good chance to start over," said Korkis, 38, who has not seen her husband in nearly five years and is raising her three children on her own.

Sam Rasho, the school's owner, lent these students a hand up, waiving $12,000 in tuition for them and 13 other refugees. They must spend eight more months in

class before they'll be ready to seek a license from the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

"People helped me, so I felt it was my duty to help them," said Rasho, who left Iraq and arrived in Chicago in 1974.

Like many refugees, Rasho's students came to the United States with little more than the clothes they could fit in suitcases, content to find safety but scared to make their way in a new country.

They're eligible for assistance from Stanislaus County through state-funded programs that provide them living stipends for up to eight months if they're single. Most of the women at Rasho's school have been in Modesto for at least that long.

Families with children can get help for up to five years, although not enough to keep them from looking for full-time jobs.

Rasho heard about their trouble finding work through a network of Assyrian Christians in Stanislaus County.

"The economy is bad. They came at the wrong time," he said.

His students are Assyrians who would face persecution in Iraq had they chosen to remain in their home country through the war. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recommends that Western countries grant asylum to Iraqi ethnic and religious minorities for that reason.

The refugees make for a supportive chorus in class -- trading notes, giving each other rides to school and figuring out ways to style hair without expensive instruments they can't afford.

One student impressed instructor Janice Bradley by carrying out a curl without the clips or rollers that are considered necessary to execute the style. It held even as Bradley bounced it, demonstrating the student's skill.

"This is someone who is striving to do his best and doing it with nothing," she said.

All of the refugees have a frightening story of the moment they knew it was time to flee Iraq. Most of them sought sanctuary in Jordan for three or four years before they managed to get to California through a U.N. refugee program.

Korkis fled Baghdad after insurgents blew up a church next to her home. She made it to Jordan with her husband, but hasn't seen him since 2004, when he returned to Baghdad for his mother and couldn't get through the border a second time.

Evelyn Yousef, 34, left Iraq in 2004 when she received a threat because she worked for the Italian Embassy in Baghdad.

Adjusting to the United States "is difficult," she said, with her husband unable to find work. That's why the Dior classes are "good for the future," she says.

Dalia Ishaq, 30, knew it was time to escape Baghdad when thugs tried to kidnap her baby and shot her husband in the leg.

"I'm happy and comfortable here because I'm finished with the war and terrorism," she said, although neither she nor her husband are working.

Bradley, the teacher, laughs when she talks about Lejen, the fervent note-taker who fills notebooks from margin to margin, translating nearly every word of class into Arabic.

"They are so dedicated," Bradley said. "They're going to get jobs because they're eager to work and they work hard."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.