My first encounter with refugees was in late 2007. My husband and I had just moved to Columbus, Ohio and we were at the BMV updating our drivers’ licenses. We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by tall, stately women in chador, Somalians that were getting licenses too. I had never seen so many Muslim women in one place. They were not speaking English. It occurred to me then, how strange it must be for them to be in this place, surrounded by people that don’t speak their language. I was struck by their body language though. They were not shy. They knew what they needed to succeed in this place and they were determined to get it.
The following year, I had the opportunity to tutor a young Somalian girl. A woman from our Mennonite church had been tutoring refugee kids and found that she needed some extra help. I was matched with this young lady, Hana, about 10 years of age. I was nervous for my first meeting with her. It would be my first time in a Muslim home. Her mother greeted me at the door. She had characteristic high cheekbones, deeply set eyes, cocoa skin and a burgundy chador. We tried to communicate with one another, but she quickly gave up. She ushered me into the kitchen and I sat at the table with her daughter. It was clear that she wanted Hana to learn and that was her number one priority. Her daughter was shy at first. I had had no instruction on how to go about the tutoring. Just that she needed more confidence in her English and Math skills. She had a book and I decided to have her read some of it so I could gauge her reading level. She was tentative, but I encouraged her. It was an awkward first lesson, but we both felt good about moving forward.
Her neighborhood was South of the city. It was a two story condominium development. When I’d arrive, there would be several neighborhood Somalian kids playing outside. By the time I left, it was dark and no one was outside. It was always strange to arrive and see these African families outside with the classic American suburb in the background. The juxtaposition of the cultures was noteworthy to me. Although, Columbus in general had been the most diverse place I’d ever lived. The longer I stayed there, the less strange it felt to see women in hijab or men in caftans walking among the white Midwestern college students from Ohio State.
As the weeks progressed I would regularly go to the library and check out several different books at different levels. I tried to pick books that I thought would be culturally sensitive and simultaneously introduce American culture to her. My favorite author for her became Eve Bunting. Her stories were always thoughtful, with beautiful illustrations, and yet about the deeper things of life. My absolute favorite to read to her was One Green Apple. It’s told from the perspective of a young Muslim immigrant. How she wanted to speak English as well as her classmates, and how she longed to find friendship and to belong in her new country. I imagined it’s how Hana felt, but I never found an appropriate way to discuss her feelings as an immigrant child with her. I would occasionally feel bold and try to gently ask questions of my young student, to understand how it felt to be in her shoes. But I didn’t know how to broach these deeper topics with sensitivity.
Hana eventually showed her true colors. She was feisty and tenacious yet equally silly. Her English improved leaps and bounds with every session. I was floored by how quickly she learned. I loved reading to her and she voraciously waited for her turn to read to me. As she became more adept, I began tutoring her older sister Rhoda in math too. She was a more serious learner. She’d furrow her brow and physically lean into her lessons. She did not learn as easily, but she was determined.
I had to abruptly stop my lessons with those sweet girls as my duties as a mother took over. I often wonder about them. They might be off to college now. I wonder if their mother ever learned English. I wonder if they grew up in that neighborhood, surrounded by their countrymen. I wonder if they have been happy here.
Years later, I’ve found refugees again, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I haven’t met any Somalians. But I’ve had the privilege to teach English to Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Eritreans, Afghani and Burmese refugees. It is a true delight of my life. The hunger to learn, the determination, the fierce silliness that these beautiful souls exhibit is a gift. The sincere smiles. The honor they show me. I cannot express how deeply they feel and love. It’s nothing like the way Americans embrace other humans. They invite us into their lives and willingly reveal their vulnerability. I am so humbled by their trust. They live life with such joy, such gratitude. And yet, there is this deep river of sadness running through them. Hidden in their eyes.
I don’t know most of their stories. I’ll probably never know why most of them are here. I don’t pretend that I deserve to know what they’ve been through. They know they can talk to me, but they don’t owe me an explanation for their status. They are refugees. Whether they’ve lived in camps for decades, or their lives were threatened or they watched their loved ones suffer and die, it’s none of my business. I am here to be a part of their future. I am blessed to play a part in their chance at a new life. Hopefully a safer life, and I pray a prosperous one too.
They care for their families. They work jobs that most Americans would turn up their noses at. But they are eager to work hard. To get ahead, to send money home to their less fortunate family members. Many of them carry the knowledge that while they got out, their father, mother, brother or sister is still trapped in whatever hell they fled in their home country. They are desperate to rescue them. Will America give them a chance too? Even as they work multiple jobs to provide for their families here. Even as they discover the sad truth about America, that it is not the land of milk and honey and life here is expensive and hard. They do everything they can to bring more family here, and they want my help to make that happen.
I struggle with my lack of knowledge about our immigration system. I know enough about it to know it’s impossibly complicated. I can’t read enough about it. There is too much to know. There is specific paperwork for everything and many paths to get into this country, yet few paths to stay long-term.
Refugee status can be a great way to get here, but benefits run out after 3-6 months. Then, they’re on their own. They have 5 years to learn English, and pass their citizenship test or they lose disability benefits, no matter how old or disabled they are. The cost of citizenship is now over $1,000. That’s a huge sum for most refugees I know. In many of the Muslim countries, women don’t work once they have kids. So the fathers have to provide enough for their large families to be a one-income household. Many American families can’t achieve that when one parent has a higher paying job, let alone a factory job. Truck driving is one of the better paying jobs that refugees can get. But that means fathers are away from their wives and kids for days on end. Wives are home with kids, secluded from the world, without means to practice English.
Refugees face so many obstacles. It’s an uphill battle. They must learn a new language, assimilate in a new culture, reimburse the resettlement agency for their plane tickets, and be self-sufficient in less than 6 months. Not to mention deal with whatever trauma they endured that brought them to the point of fleeing their beloved homeland. We expect them to be grateful that we allowed them to come. We expect them to speak English fluently in less than a year. They should embrace our culture and readily adapt their ways to blend in with ours. Meanwhile, they have lost everything and they are starting from scratch.
Our expectations are unreasonable. But most refugees understand immediately, there is no other choice, they must succeed and so they do. They rise to meet these impossible standards and find a way to survive here. To come alongside them and watch this process is nerve wracking. To cheer them on and watch them accomplish this is a nail biter at times. But once they find their footing, it’s such a relief. I’m so proud of them. So honored to watch this leg of their journey. So honored to be a cheerleader for them.
If I could choose one word to describe every refugee I’ve encountered, it’s determined. I’d also choose brave and resilient. Most are kind. Most are grateful to be here. Can you blame the ones that aren’t? Can any of us guess what our attitude would be if we were in their place? Their determination to protect their families is what brought them here in the first place. Their determination to not only live, but to thrive is what will see them through.