Owliya Dima, left, and Iraqi refugee Layla Zabiba hug after Dima delivered… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
Owliya Dima scanned the bare apartment, noting the only new items the family owned: six white pillows stacked on two box springs that were missing their mattresses.
In the living room were three mismatched sofas donated by a church. One of the few items in the kitchen was an old skillet that the refugee family had brought from Iraq. The father, Hussam Zabiba, held up a handful of miniature shampoo and soap bottles for Dima to see. "Hotel," he explained.
Dima, an Ethiopian Muslim who had been a refugee herself nearly three decades ago, moved through the two-bedroom Anaheim apartment with an Arabic interpreter, compiling a list of needed items. "Iron? And vacuum cleaner?" she said, making a note to herself about what to look for when she scoured garage sales the next weekend.
Years of war and famine in the Middle East and Africa have brought waves of Muslim refugees to the United States. The newcomers have often found themselves in communities that are ill-prepared and, at times, unwilling to help.
And so, much of the task of caring for newcomers has fallen to volunteers like Dima. She is a one-woman resettlement agency.
The memories of her own experience replay in her mind each time she enters a refugee's apartment. She remembers spending the first four months in America in tears. With her husband at work, she was left at home with their 3-year-old-daughter and felt isolated in a city where she knew no one and spoke only Oromo, from her native Ethiopia, and Somali.
As Dima surveyed the Zabibas' apartment she saw a handful of plates, two tea cups and no glasses in the kitchen cabinet. On the counter, a chicken was thawing, but there was no knife to cut it. Zabiba and his wife, Layla, followed Dima through the rooms, murmuring, "Thank you."
When Dima returned a couple of hours later, her minivan was loaded with new and used items, some taken from her own cabinets.
Hussam would not let Dima help bring the items into the house — insisting that he do it himself. As she continued to empty the van, he shook his head, saying, "This is too much, this is too much."
Dima is a firm believer in naseeb, or fate. "When refugees come, whatever is theirs will come," she said.
Before she left, a call came from a resettlement agency: another newly arrived Iraqi family needed help.
Before Dima, now 53, arrived in California in 1984, she had mostly lived a nomadic existence with her father's family in Kenya and Somalia.
They had fled Ethiopia in the early 1960s after her father, an aunt and her grandfather were killed in political turmoil there. The family went to Kenya, where they moved every month or so to avoid the army and militias. About three years later, they moved to Somalia, where Dima met her husband, Siraj Hussein, another Ethiopian, in a refugee camp.
Hussein was granted refugee status in the U.S. and arrived in San Diego in 1983 with the help of the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental relief agency. Less than a year later, Dima and their daughter followed.
At the time, Dima didn't understand the role of resettlement agencies. "What relation do you guys have?" she asked her husband. "How do we know them, that they are doing this for us?"
The family soon moved to Orange County, then as now a budding center of Muslim life, where Hussein got a job with the county animal control department and Dima became a certified nursing assistant. She worked as an in-home nurse assistant for years before eventually leaving to be a full-time mom to four daughters.
When Somali refugee families, who had been displaced years earlier by civil war and political strife in their country, began arriving in the late 1990s, Dima, by then active with several mosques, was asked to help because she spoke the language. She helped enroll the children in school, got them vaccinated and explained the basics, like coin-operated laundromats.
She gave them things from her own house and took them to Friday prayers at the mosque in Garden Grove, asking for donations as people left.
Since then — as the refugees she helped have grown to include Eritreans, Ethiopians and, increasingly, Iraqis — she has refined the process. She sends out donation requests to an Internet mailing list of about 300, and last summer she formalized her efforts with the launch of a nonprofit, the Tiyya Foundation.
Sahar Ali, a Mission Viejo resident who also helps refugees, met Dima more than a year ago when they were both collecting furniture.
"She doesn't like to take credit," Ali said. "She says everybody does that, but really she is the only one who does."
On many days, Dima crisscrosses the county in her gray van in search of kitchenware, towels, sheets, strollers, sofas. Her phone number is passed around from donor to donor, from refugee to refugee.