Understanding Service and Social Justice: The Refugee Experience in America
Third Refection Spring 2012
Looking back at my first reflection, I see two great polarities emerge in my feelings about visiting my refugee family for the first time: optimism and weariness. I would be lying if I said these feelings ever completely went away. The first is more understandable in the situation. Optimism comes with the job since we are given the opportunity to help those in need, the chance to alleviate some of the troubles associated with a refugee’s transition to life in a new country. The other, the feeling of weariness, was clearly displayed in my first reflection. Thoughts raced through my head: would they like me? Would they want me there? Would it be awkward? Would the language barrier be too much? Could I even help? I’ve come to the understanding that these fears, while understandable, only slightly touched the real issues. As I’ve continued to help my family, these two emotions have become more powerful in different ways; my optimism for their future is what drives me as I sometimes feel daunted by the task at hand and everything I want to do for them.
My “story” begins with Kelly, Cody, and myself, coming to a small apartment in one of Rogers Park’s many ethnic neighborhoods, pressing the buzzer to their apartment, and waiting ten minutes, eventually leaving when there was no response. This was my first introduction one of the biggest obstacles in the refugee world: miscommunication. After this, we were able to settle a time to meet and I was let into their tiny apartment, furnished modestly, and filled with the family’s mix of interested, confused, and shy expressions. They were a family of five: a single mother and her four children, two adolescent boys and two younger girls. We were all smiles, introducing ourselves and offering a small cake for the eldest son’s birthday, an icebreaker of sorts. I won’t lie. Initially it was awkward. I thank god for my limited knowledge of South Asian culture that helped pull me through times of sparse conversation, knowing a little about the Hindu faith and a few Bollywood movies can definitely help ease tension. I could write a novel on the aspects of each visit, which felt both like five minutes and fifty hours on certain days. It’s all a bit of a blur. I like to think we did as much as we could to help them. I remember the first “big” thing I did for the family was switching all of their clocks for daylight savings time. Something so small made me feel so accomplished, teaching them a foreign concept like daylight savings. Little did I know how minor it would seem by the end. While Kelly and Cody usually occupied themselves with the children’s homework, I found myself bonding with the mother. One day she brought me some paperwork she had gotten in the mail, about the youngest daughter’s childcare, overdue and important. It was so difficult to go through, translating important and sensitive questions about her income, child support, insurance, etc. but I know this was what I wanted to be doing. Helping with things that really mattered.
On our second to last visit, I began to really think about this experience as the bigger picture. I explained to the mother that the next visit was our last, after which I’d be returning to Cincinnati for the summer. I could see the mixture of confusion and sadness in her face as she simply asked, “why?” I was devastated. They had just gotten used to us and here we were leaving them. How many other people had simply walked in, offered them limited help, and then left? How many more would do the same? The answer was one I didn’t want to know. This is the major problem I see in the refugee community from my experience. There is no long-term care for these people. It is simply a mixture of luck and how much people are willing to spend out of the goodness of their own hearts.
Reflecting on this from a “me” perspective seems almost selfish at this point. Of course I have changed; I’ve seen people and caught a glimpse of what might be truly important and necessary in life. All I know is that I have to have hope. Like I spoke about in my second reflection, it is so easy to be disheartened. Will the mother ever be able to improve her quality of life despite her circumstances? I don’t know. Do the kids have a better chance at escaping poverty and other issues which face many refugees? I desperately wish. These questions aside, I do hold on to the hope that I’ve at least improved their lives a fraction from when I first walked into their home. I know I want to continue to support the refugee community. I know I can no longer be ignorant to the many refugees living all around me. Most importantly, I know about the issue and can help others learn as well. I remain weary, even after my experience, just at the sheer amount of troubles intertwined in the refugee community and how impossible it might seem to help all of them. Despite this, I still feel that optimism, a hope that humanity can save the day. This class has helped cement by belief that knowledge is power. It can help propel the refugees themselves out of their sometimes difficult circumstances; but more importantly, it can help educate the public on a widely unspoken issue that can hopefully lead to a better system of help for those who have, and continue to be, seeking refuge.