Holland

‘Mask Master’ finds home, new purpose in U.S. with refugee resettlement program

Ebrahim Mohammad Eshaq is known as the “Mask Master.” 

The trained tailor makes 90 to 100 reusable cloth face masks per day for Zeeland-based Ventura Manufacturing.

“I am so happy that I can do something that can contribute to the people here for their safety, something that is needed. I can work and contribute to the community,” says Eshaq, who speaks through an interpreter. “You work hard here, you can have a really good life. It is up to you. There is nothing stopping you here from getting what you want.”

Ventura

Ebrahim’s “magical smile” was the first thing Ventura owner Francé Allen noticed when they met, she says. His positive attitude has continued to radiate through his work, Allen says.

Allen built her international company after coming to the U.S. from Mexico and “not knowing a lick of English.” She believes in empowering Ventura workers to be their best selves.
Ebrahim Mohammad Eshaq with his wife, Farzana Saadat, at their Holland home.

Eshaq began working for Ventura not long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sewing office chairs for the company. Then, Ventura was forced to pause production and temporarily lay off employees. 

The company began making masks, then added eye visors for medical professionals and ventilator parts.
 
Coming to America

Less than a year ago, Eshaq was a refugee in Turkey, waiting with his wife, Farzana Saadat, and their four teenage children for their chance to enter the United States.

Bethany Christian Services facilitated the family’s refugee visas to resettle here.

“Refugees add so much to our community and to our culture,” says Kristine Van Noord, program director of refugee adult and family programs at Bethany Christian Services.

The international nonprofit aids refugees with their initial resettlement in the United States, but they also offer post-resettlement services such as employment help, a healing center for survivors of torture, and other health services, Van Noord says. BCS’ refugee program serves 800 clients annually.

Each year, tens of millions of people seek refuge from persecution in their home countries whether it is because of their race, religion, political opinions, or social group.

Roughly 30,000 refugees were granted asylum in the U.S. in 2019, according to the U.S. Refugee Processing Center.

Fleeing home

Eshaq fled his home in Afghanistan when he was 15 to avoid being forced to join the Afghani military in the fight against the mujahideen. His parents sold everything to pay a smuggler to take their family of seven to Iran. 

Ebrahim Mohammad Eshaq with his wife, Farzana Saadat, and their four teenage children.

The family lived as refugees in Iran for decades. Eshaq wasn’t able to attend school there, so he studied as a tailor’s apprentice under his older brother.

There he met his wife, a fellow Afghani refugee. Three years ago, the couple and their children left Iran, which does not have a United Nations office, for Turkey, where they could apply for refugee status.

After a lengthy approval process that included cultural education classes and medical exams, the family was asked if they knew anyone living in the U.S. Since they knew someone in the Grand Rapids area, they were resettled in Holland.

Welcome

When the family arrived, they expected someone would probably meet them at the airport, but they were in for a surprise.

“We were overwhelmed with everyone who was there to greet us. People from Bethany, people from a church,” Eshaq says.

“I was so happy, I was just bursting out of my clothes,” says Saadat, who also speaks through the interpreter. 

Their plane was late, arriving at 1 a.m. Despite the late hour, volunteers and BCS staff took them to their new home, stocked with necessities, and held a feast of Middle Eastern food in their honor. The family was “beyond grateful,” they say.

They couldn’t believe the house was theirs.

“Farzana was in tears. She couldn’t believe this was all for them,” Fellowship Reformed Church volunteer Liz Carroll says.

New challenges

BCS is trying to meet clients’ needs — most critically food and shelter — while making sure they understand the risks and restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Social workers are doing as much of their work remotely while still dropping off items to the homes of their clients as needed, says Van Noord.

“Like everybody, it’s been a huge change and a big learning curve,” she says.

On top of what everyone is dealing with during the coronavirus shutdown, refugee families have to deal with language and cultural barriers.

BCS’ biggest role is helping clients find and navigate employment. 

Some clients are essential workers, and the nonprofit helps ensure they have access to personal protective equipment. Others have been laid off, and BCS helps them secure funds for rent and utilities while navigating the unemployment process.

BCS is accepting rent and utilities donations for those in its program who have been laid off. The Heart of West Michigan United Way donated $5,000 to the refugee program for food, diapers, and other essentials, as well as an additional $15,000 to help pay rent and utilities.

“It’s taken an entire community. Everyone has been working really well together,” Van Noord says.

Grandma and Grandpa

Two volunteers, in particular, have been there every step of the way for Eshaq and his family. Dick and Liz Carroll have become Grandpa and Grandma.

The Carrolls volunteer their time through Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland. They are part of a team there that partners with BCS to help resettle refugees. The team includes an employment specialist as well as people who help with transportation, ESL classes, and children’s education.

Dick Carroll, 75, says Eshaq, BCS, and the Fellowship Reformed Church volunteers share a goal — for Eshaq to gain independence and be able to provide for his family.

It’s amazing how far the family has come in the nine months since they arrived, adds Liz Carroll, 74. Three members of the family, including the two oldest boys, have critical jobs and have been working throughout the pandemic.

“They are such a loving family. I can’t imagine going through what they’ve gone through,” Liz Carroll says. “They just cling to each other. They love each other.”

The Carrolls and Eshaq family talk on the phone at least once a day, sometimes multiple times a day, Dick Carroll says.

“Whether it’s small or large, whatever problem comes up, Grandma and Grandpa are there for us,” Saadat says.

Often, it is as simple as understanding the letters they receive in the mail. They can snap a picture, send it to Grandma and Grandpa, and find out whether it’s junk mail or an important government document.

Eshaq’s parents are deceased. Saadat lost her parents a long time ago, but says she feels like she has a second chance with the Carrolls.

“They are like grandparents to us, ” Eshaq says. “They have become like family.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
 
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