I’ve worked in refugee resettlement for about two years. I wear a lot of hats because I’m at a small agency, but to oversimplify, I report on client information, services provided, and case progress toward self-sufficiency. I also help refugees find jobs (they are permanently authorized to work in the United States, they work for the same wages as everyone else, and pay the same taxes as Americans).
Before I did this, I completed by BSW practicum at my agency emphasizing on the case management side of things, volunteered at my agency the semester prior, and the summer before that I was a intern at World Relief in Nashville (now closed) where I drove people to appointments, helped refugees with professional backgrounds (engineers, dentists, neurosurgeons, etc.) edit their resumes, and lived at an apartment complex where many refugee families (I played a lot of soccer, ate food too delicious for words, and pretended to like food the textures of which I had never experienced).
I’ve learned how to do a lot of different things and I’ve learned about a lot of different cultures. But the following things are more of an introspective nature, things I’ve learned or ways I’ve changed, and the list isn’t exhaustive. These are just what’s on my mind at the particular moment in time.
The world is cruel.
I didn’t add the part about it also being full of beauty and goodness, because I already knew that. I grew up in a loving, middle class, white family in a small town where people wave at your when you drive by, the sun rising over a cornfield is one of the most Instagram-worthy views possible, and everyone rallies around and fund-raises for parents who lose a child. I know life and people can be good.
And I knew it could be bad before I started working with refugees, but I didn’t realize how truly cruel it could be. I work with people who have experienced unthinkable violence and trauma, with fathers whose legs were blown off by bombs as they were walking home from work. With parents whose children have been kidnapped, killed, or separated from them with no way of knowing if they’re safe. With single moms whose husbands were murdered and who are now lovingly raising babies of men who raped them afterwards. With children who have witnessed those rapes and murders.
And then people hate them for being refugees.
Apathy, ignorance, fear, and hate are not synonymous.
[Now, before I go on, please let me assure you I’m talking about certain attitudes toward refugees not everyone who has different political opinion on refugee resettlement]
Combinations of apathy, ignorance, fear, and hate are often found together and can be deadly, but they aren’t the same. Not everyone against refugee resettlement is a poopy-pants jerk.
In my work, I’ve had to accept there are people that don’t care about refugees. I don’t care about every single social issue in the world. There isn’t the capacity to and it doesn’t make them bad people.
And those people are different than the people who don’t know about refugees or have misinformation (not unlikely from intentionally misleading propaganda) that causes them to be rightly afraid. Sometimes all it takes is teaching someone more about the resettlement/extensive vetting process or having them meet a refugee to ease their mind, to have them open their arms to these foreigners.
And those people are different than people who will be afraid no matter what. Because technically, no matter how small the chances, something bad could always happen. As someone with my fair share of phobia/anxiety, I know at a certain point there is no amount of facts or probability that can destroy the fear of what could happen. It’s frustrating, but I try to understand and stop being so judgmental.
But then there are people with an evil spirit of hate in their hearts, who see refugees as subhuman, revolting things. You hear it in their voice, see it in their eyes, smell it in their refusal to empathize even for a second, as if it’s morally wrong to do so. It used to tear me up, but I’ve hardened some to it. One time a couple of such people aggressively (not violently) interrupted a presentation about refugees I was doing and said the most awful, untrue, conspiratorial things about people I love in such a venomous way that I cried in front of the entire audience. I was taken aback, angry, and humiliated, so obviously my body decided the most useful thing to do was to cry. Not my favorite memory to visit.
You can’t do much for these people except love them and treat them as humans. Obviously, this is totally not fair, but I’m starting to see the truth behind when Jesus says to pray for your enemies. Prayer is the only way I find compassion towards them in my heart; it doesn’t come naturally. And by prayer I mean frustrated tears and disbelief and anger with no filter. I’ve said some pretty ugly things in my seclusion with God. I know I’m kind of a mystic, but this God mysteriously cleanses my heart and encourages me to keep going. This God helps me remove the hard feelings. This God reminds me they are loved too.
There’s another thing Jesus says. He says to not call anyone an idiot or fool, basically any kind of name. And I finally get it. When I call someone an asshole, even in my thoughts, I’m distancing us from our shared humanity. So, I’m working on that. I don’t mean you can’t call out being mean or hateful for what it is. But I’m working on not calling people names. It sucks. Trying to be the bigger person is more appealing when it’s theoretical, but that’s kind of how it goes when it comes to following the wisdom of Jesus. Things which are in the best interest of the world usually aren’t easy.
There are more noble things to be than comfortable.
These are some priceless words from a talk with God. I get troubled by the future of the world. And I want to live a long, dreamy, safe, and peaceful life with my husband and our kids eventually. I want everyone to like me. As a white, middle-class person, this is generally speaking within my reach. It’s right there. But when you care about your neighbor, you forfeit a little bit of that. You put yourself out there and begin to sacrifice.
I get scared in doing that. Scared of losing relationships or being attacked. But like God told me, there are more noble things to be than comfortable. What’s the point of that peaceful life if I drowned out my heart as it wept for my friends? That’s yucky, so I think of the faces, the names, the babies of my clients and it makes me braver. It makes me want to be noble, to keep standing up for what’s right.
No one faith group has a monopoly on goodness.
There are people in every community who are ugly and selfish and mean but truly there are people who are beautiful and selfless and kind. Moms will donate their time to lug their kids to another mom’s house to teach her English. College kids will get up early to work our front desk at the ungodly hour of 8AM or to haul clients to appointments. Working adults will use their day off to teach a refugee to drive. Groups will pool money together to help pay someone’s rent for a month until that first paycheck comes in. Communities will donate their spaces for events and refugee gardens. Lovely women in retirement homes will knit blankets and booties for newborns (Did I just tear up in these coffee shop? Maybe…).
I have seen individuals from all sorts of groups reach out and bend over to help refugees. Non-religious groups. Unitarians. Muslims. Catholic. Protestants. Not one of these groups has a monopoly on kindness. So let’s stop being so snobby about everyone else! Let’s celebrate this shared humanity.
I give little weight to the term “Pro-Life.”
I don’t want to come off as antagonistic. I’m not trying to start a fight about anti-abortion vs. pro-choice. I just don’t understand the disconnect, I so often (but don’t always!) see with Pro-Lifers. I didn’t notice it as a kid, because I was sheltered. In working with refugees, my eyes have been opened to other lives at the bottom of the food chain. Now, I can’t un-notice it.
Abortion? The issue above all issues.
But low-income Americans? Veterans being brushed off who need treatment for medical and PTSD related issues they got in fighting our battles? Civilians fleeing wars they never wanted in order to literally save their children’s lives? Sexual assault survivors and victims of sexual harassment? The LGBTQ community? MINORITIES? Lazy, whiny, dangerous, leeches, all of them. End of discussion.
If they would just work harder, right? If they would just stop whining. If they would just have defended their home countries with resources they don’t have against armies with guns and bombs and chemical weapons. If they would just stop lying. If they would just change. If they would just stop being dramatic.
Really? Would it actually hurt to pause for one moment and give a group a chance to share their lived experiences, to empathize for a moment or two, to imagine for just a couple seconds maybe the world is different than you think before coming to a conclusion? Give me a break. You are not pro-life.
Pro-life is a title, in my book, reserved for people (and I certainly know some) who care about, you know, lives, not just the abortion issue.
Healthy skepticism of overseas projects or mission trips.
I know those “helpless” Africans you’re going to “help” this summer. And they aren’t helpless. (Also, they have nationalities! With cultures, strengths, politics, and issues unique to that country!) They are intelligent, clever, passionate, creative, ambitious, and incredibly resourceful. Just like you and me.
They don’t need your pity and I’m guessing they don’t need our week-long feel-good projects either.
Do we have resources we can share with other parts of the world (also, keep in mind not all of Africa needs help)? Of course. But I’m more and more convinced these resources are things like education. For example, how to become a doctor or start a business. We have the resources to train those intelligent, motivated people to become doctors and entrepreneurs and then to teach others in their community to do the same. They will be self-sufficient. That is sustainable and cool. That is treating people with the dignity of independence.
[Ideally, we could go back in time and not colonize Africa; that would solve a lot of problems]
But voluntourism is shitty and not cool. It’s harmful to economies and to spirits. Back when I was a plant science major, I was in contact with an agronomy professor at another school who is from Cameroon. He says that when Americans bring over machines to improve the lives of people in his country but don’t teach them how to repair them, then his people start to think they are inferior to white people because they always need them to come fix things every time they break.He told me it was very damaging, and so he was passionate about education.
Listen, I’m not an expert. I’ve just been changed by my interaction with my African (Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burundi, Nigeria…) clients. It’s made me skeptical they need Americans to come and paint their churches. I’m skeptical they need us to give them free shoes that put their shoe makers out of business. I’m to the moon and back skeptical they need us to traumatize their children over and over again by building beautiful relationships with lonely little ones in orphanages only to leave a week later, shattering their hearts, hammering in the idea they can’t trust anyone, as a new group just like ours is hustled in the next week.
Side rant: Find a different prop for your summer Facebook album! Don’t use a cute little child whose guardian didn’t give you permission to post the picture (you actually can be putting them in danger, fyi). Better yet, don’t let you right hand know what you’re left hand is doing, and *GASP* don’t post a picture (I’m talking to my past self who posted pictures of me with refugee kiddos in Nashville–please let me know if you find one I forgot to take down). Educate yourself before blindly going on a trip to “help.” Please. Please, if you actually care like I hope you do, please, please, please, educate yourself. Remember the most glamorous way to help isn’t always (or usually) beneficial. Remember your shared humanity, your shared dignity.
Fuck the patriarchy.
I hesitated on using the f-bomb for my more wholesome readers (sorry, mom and dad) but I can’t think of another word for how strongly I feel.
Because it constantly has and continues to try to violently, horrifically, and systematically strip my female (not to say males aren’t included, just nowhere near as frequently) clients of their dignity and sense of personhood. Rape is used as a weapon of warfare in so many countries experiencing conflict. Did you hear that? Violence against women is intentionally used to destroy families and communities. Refugee camps are far from safe for vulnerable groups, like females and young people. Human trafficking is real. It is so very real. So, I say fuck the patriarchy because I’m sick of seeing women and children involuntarily pay the biggest price of wars started by men.*
*NOT ALL MEN, I KNOW (now isn’t the time, give it a rest lol)
The human spirit is resilient.
I saved this one for the end, because I wanted whoever is reading this to have in their minds already the violence and trauma refugees have survived. Think about the horrors I mentioned early and then… these folks are coming to the United States and starting jobs in the first few months and become self-sufficient as they are taking in a whole new world. A new language, a new culture, a new currency, a new healthcare system, a new transportation system, a new school. And they do it! I see it every day. They somehow do it against all odds. They become self-sufficient and a year later, here they are giving a ride to new refugees so they can work too. Here they are translating a language they couldn’t speak when they first arrived. Here they are as bright young women advocating for themselves for maybe the first time in their lives (Am I tearing up again? Maybe…). Here they are as teenagers dreaming about college. What the heck! How in the world?
The human spirit is resilient.
I am forever in awe of my clients and friends who came as refugees. I’m sorry the world was so cruel to you. You are worthy of the deepest honor. I love you.