UNIV 190-003: Understanding Service and Social Justice: The Refugee Experience in America
Three months have passed by very quickly since the first time I met my refugee family, the Malonga brothers and their parents from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since that very first time, I have had the opportunity to learn more not only about themselves, their interests, and hobbies, but also about their experiences and feelings deep down about leaving home and coming to America to start anew.
With each and every visit that I pay to the Malonga brothers, the more I realize how lucky I am to have grown up in a peaceful setting and never have to deal with living under fear of one day having to move because I am unwanted within my own country. In addition to that, not only do I live without any fear, I also received countless opportunities for education, adequate food, and so many other material things. I still remember the first day we visited the Malonga’s apartment; they only had two mattresses, a small dining table with four chairs, and a desktop computer from the 1990s era. The first question I asked myself, instinctively, was, “How are they surviving in such difficult conditions while they just moved a few months ago?” It then hit me that these living conditions that I deem “difficult” were already much better than those they had to live with while in the Congo.
And to think that these difficult living conditions would soon make them give up and be pessimistic was very far from the way they actually are. All the five brothers with whom my group-mates and I have come to know over the course of the past few months are all very motivated; they want to learn English so that they can become fluent conversationally, they want to actively go out and look for jobs, they want to one day live without the help of the voluntary agency to which they are presently assigned. Personally, this display of mental strength and willpower means a lot and pushes to emulate them in similar ways. Every time the thought of not wanting to do my best crosses my mind, I am reminded that there are people I know who have had it worse yet strive twice as hard as I do to achieve what they want. It’s a powerful motivation in all aspects for me.
And while they are so motivated to achieve their goals in life, they are also quite laid back and can play a mean game of soccer. We have played pick-up games on several occasions after our visits to their families. My group-mates and I would sit and listen to the brothers tell their stories of how they first learned to play soccer while they were in Africa. Again, it made me wonder how some people can be so accomplished in so many aspects of their lives. The only things missing from their lives now are opportunities and the right people to propel them to suitable jobs that will adequately and proportionately reward them for their abilities.
Consequently, this thought leads me to think of the things that voluntary agencies who take in refugees could perhaps lend a hand. I do understand that voluntary agencies help refugee families in the first three months with basic necessities and housing, but I do believe they can do a lot more. I also understand that it already costs quite an amount to finance the support of these families, but would doing a bit more to help them have a head start in their job search be that detrimental to the funds? It is not as if these refugees are looking for jobs which require high level skills; most work simple jobs that, I would say, are almost readily found, if knowing the right information. Voluntary agencies could help refugees look for jobs in newspapers or other suitable areas. I feel it is only necessary that this be included as a part of the deal because simply giving them support in the first 3 months and then expecting them to live on their own afterwards just does not sound very pleasant for agencies that are trying to help.
In conclusion, my three-month stint as a refugee befriender has taught me countless things, but the more important ones are to be accepting of everyone’s cultures and their experiences and specifically with the Malonga brothers, to strive as hard as they do in life. Chicago itself is a city that accommodates thousands of refugees, so I am sure this will not be the last time that I will be in close encounter with a refugee family. The subsequent times, I will be prepared and more knowledgeable, thanks to this service-learning opportunity.