TAMPA — In his own country, Majid Al Jiryawee lived in fear.
Working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq, he became a target among neighbors who disagreed with the American presence there.
His home was attacked. He was afraid for his wife and 3-year-old son.
"My family and I were in danger," he said.
The U.S. military helped him flee Iraq and get to the United States.
Now, four months later, Jiryawee, 25, finally feels free.
"This is heaven for me," he said Saturday during a celebration of World Refugee Day at Jefferson High School.
In Florida more than 27,000 refugees are resettled each year. Last year, the state Department of Children and Families Refugee Services program helped more than 6,500 in the Tampa Bay area.
The program coordinates education, legal assistance and employment and family programs for refugees through the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force.
"They're doing work to help refugees settle and thrive in the community," said Janet Blair, community liaison for the DCF's Refugee Services program.
More than 300 people showed up Saturday for the celebration that included presentations by refugees and an award for U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor for their support and advocacy of refugee issues.
When Jiryawee arrived in America, he had no money, no job and no place to live. Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services stepped in to help.
He and his wife now have jobs as a laborer and housekeeper. Their son is learning English and is in child care. They have an apartment in Largo, and Jiryawee is going to school to get his GED.
He feels at home now, he said, but still worries about relatives back in Iraq.
Christy Sui, 26, worries about her family, too.
Since arriving in the United States four years ago from her native Burma, she has yet to see her parents, siblings or friends. She was forced to leave Burma, which is now known as Myanmar, she said, when the country's embassy canceled her documents to live there because of her work as an interpreter for the United Nations.
Coming to America was scary, she said, but she found happiness in her work as an interpreter in courthouses and schools as well as in her service to new Burmese refugees.
"Now they have a translator, they have a community member like me to help them adjust," she said. She often helps them with paperwork for Social Security, Medicaid and other programs.
Maria Morgan, a refugee from Cuba, doesn't like to talk about her old life, she said Saturday through a translator. But she does like to talk about her life so far in America.
Morgan, 56, fled Communist-led Cuba five months ago with her husband and one of her sons after her other son left months earlier. She feels like a new woman, she said.
It's the little things that make her life better now. She can talk to neighbors, visit with friends, go to the grocery store and ride the bus alone.
In Cuba she wouldn't have felt safe doing those things, she said.
"The refugee program helped them get their Social Security, food stamps, an apartment, all their paperwork and also placed them in an employment program," said Yanira Alers, a Catholic Charities employment specialist who interpreted for Morgan.
For now, Morgan is looking for work and helping her husband with his job as a maintenance manager at their Tampa apartment complex.
In the future, she hopes to do the things many in this country hope to do: work, make money and see places she has never seen, all while being free.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.