UNIV 190-003: Understanding Service and Social Justice:
The Refugee Experience in America
According to the United Nations, there are about 15 million individuals that are currently recognized as refugees. This fact alone is surprising, because this figure does not even account for the other individuals in the world such as Internally Displaced People (IDP) who are living in danger zones, but are not protected or given refugee status by any big form of government power. I strongly believe that my current viewpoint of refugees have changed dramatically from the beginning of the semester. I believe that I have become more open-minded of what refugees experience and I have learned to treat them not as awkward outsiders, but as well respected individuals. From working with my refugee family to watching documentaries or visiting cultural museums, each of these components have provided me with a stronger foundation of what it means to be a refugee.
I am very fortunate to being provided with the opportunity to work with a refugee family. They have provided me with a much clearer insight on what it means to be a foreigner and I admire them for their consistent effort they put forth in their daily lives. For instance, I have worked with a Bhutanese family who were originally from Bhutan, but due to societal and governmental issues were forced to make their journey from Nepal to America. It takes tremendous courage to leave one’s home and just pure determination and dedication to make a new life in a foreign place. The grandmother, despite being very old is still determined to learn English, and that alone is very amazing. I have worked with her in numerous occasions as she has struggled to phonetically sound out basic words. Although she has taken English for over three years, she will not detour from this challenge. She has taught me that you should never give up on any challenge in life and that it is called a challenge for a reason.
From being involved with this family, I have seen the kids become more vocal and the parents become more aware of the American culture. For instance, the family’s youngest daughter is very timid, but as our visits became more frequent, Mona and I have realized that this young girl has become more comfortable in expressing her opinions and thoughts to us. In fact, her journal writing is slowly starting to improve. Furthermore, the young boy has also become more comfortable around us and is not shy to ask us if we would like to play a game of Temple Run with him. I have also noticed that the mother has now started to now regard us as not only just “afterschool tutors” but as family friends. We are in the point of the relationship where the family and us can share stories about our heritage, our past, and our prospects for the future.
During class, we have watched an interesting documentary called Well Founded Fear. This film informed us about what refugees experience when applying for asylum in America and the life-changing decisions that the asylum officers must make. For example, one case mentioned in the documentary was about a Chinese poet who was tortured in China for his written masterpieces. The Chinese man was forced bye the Communist government to discontinue his work, but because he did not comply with the Chinese law he was abused mentally and physically. The reason the case was hard for the asylum officer was because the officer had to react to every case in a cynical way and needed evidence in order to support the claim. This film allowed me to draw conclusions that although many innocent individuals are abused, alienated, or exiled, concrete evidence is the only key to freedom. This harsh reality made me realize that many refugees may need to recollect past events that they may not wish to relive.
From reading Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Everywhere, I have been given another perspective of not only how refugees assimilate into the American culture and the challenges they face, but an insight of how one lady has learned from her refugee experience. For instance, Mary Pipher stated an experience she had about cultural differences when confronted by two refugees, she states, “Hamid and Saif were so upset by the topic of how American women are treated that they were shouting…I reflected how the two cultures have mirror-image beliefs about each other”(Pipher, 213). It was interesting to see the comparison of the two cultures and how each culture thought the other was flawed. I came to a realization that there are numerous culture differences among various countries and that it must be very confusing when refugees come to America. Many refugees are very unfamiliar with American traditions and sometimes they may be forced indirectly to join in such activities that they truly do not wish to participate it in or fully do not understand.
Before coming to Cambodian American Heritage Museum, I had some prior knowledge about the Khmer Rouge massacre and the death of over 2 million Cambodians. I am actually a tutor for the children’s program at the Cambodian Association of Illinois and most of the students that I tutor are actually children of survivors that lived through the Khmer Rouge period. From viewing the exhibit, I have learned personal stories about how the Cambodian people were poorly treated and the high level of suffering that they have faced. In addition, I was also able to learn about the Cambodian culture and language. This experience has provided me with a much bigger insight on how frightening a war can actually be and its results. In addition, I have learned about how refugees are determined and will take any chance to secure their safety, even if the odds are not in their favor.
Overall, I believe that every class component including the novels read, movies seen, and personal accounts made by refugees and other individuals, has made my learning experience more even more significant. For instance, towards the end of Mary Pipher’s novel, she states a deep message that made me think more clearly about human rights. She states, “Human Rights should be universal, cultural traditions are not set in stone…..My own deepest beliefs is that the purpose of human life is to grow and become all we can be in order to use those gifts for the betterment of other people” (Pipher, 338). From my understanding of her message, I believe that no matter which culture one practices or nation they live in, everyone should be entitled to various freedoms and live in peace. My interaction with refugees each week has made me even more blessed about my freedoms and has challenged me to help make a significant change to the way freedom is expressed in the world. From this class, I have been provided with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a refugee and will apply what I have learned in this class to my future plans in working in the medical field. One day, I hope to help spread health awareness to every nation across the Americas.