#1: Beginning of Semester
I am a lucky person. I am a United States citizen, who for my entire life has been lucky enough to possess a home; southeastern Wisconsin is my home, my place of refuge. The same cannot be said for those individuals who roam the country, endlessly tired, searching for their own home, and their own place of refuge. Who are these weary travelers? They are refugees: men, women, children, entire families and friends who, unbeknownst to many, live all around us in our cities, towns and neighborhoods. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are approximately 16 million refugees in the world today, an all time high, and an astounding number of people who lack the ability to safely say that they too possess a home.
For me, this is simply the beginning of an extraordinary 16-week journey that I have embarked upon. Prior to last week, refugees were possibly the farthest thought in my mind. Much like a Chicago police cruiser flying down Sheridan road: they were a momentary vision, a fleeting thought. In the four years that I have lived, studied and socialized, in the Rogers Park and Chicago area, never once did I hear that Rogers Park possesses a community heavily defined by its refugee population. This population is not simply comprised of families from Mexico, Canada, or South America. The refugees in Rogers Park are families, friends, relatives, neighbors, human beings, from around the world. It is amazing to me that in a few short weeks I will be blessed with the opportunity to work with a refugee family. To demonstrate the “American way of life,” and to give them the peace-of-mind and understanding that they no longer have to travel tirelessly in search of an abstract: a true home. I am looking forward to this experience, not only because it will be eye opening, but because it will be a challenge, physically and emotionally. In the days, weeks, and months to come, it is my hope that I will be able to take a small portion of my American spirit, and present it to my refugee family as a welcome mat into their new home and new life. I hope to demonstrate that life can be and will be so much better, with each new day bringing a whole host of new opportunities and experiences. More importantly, I hope to transform the family into individuals who look ahead instead of over their shoulders.
Truly, I do not know what to expect with regard to this experience. I am excited, yet there is the ever present twinge of apprehension. I imagine that the first few encounters will be somewhat of a shock. I anticipate the impending awkwardness, but hope that I have the strength to embrace it simply as a byproduct of this amazing experience. By the end of this 16-week, structured journey, I hope to possess the necessary skills and rapport with the family, not only to call them my friends, but to be able to embark upon a completely new and boundless adventure as we continue our friendship together.
At this point, my desire is that this semester will reveal personal characteristic growth and development. I look forward to the future opportunities to reflect upon my shared experiences with the family, and to see how those experiences have altered my individual personality and character traits. As the common saying goes, “change is good.” Perhaps my refugee family has already embraced this mentality, realizing that their new lives are a blessing, something to be embraced, not hidden away from view. Perhaps I will be the one who learns the most from this new opportunity. Perhaps I will be the one with a new place to call home.
#2: Middle of Semester
From Fire into Fire
“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”
If one were to ask me to depict the most remarkable aspect of my refugee experience thus far, it would be challenging to pinpoint one single event or interaction fitting the description of “remarkable.” Nearly half-way through my first glimpse into the lives lead by our nation’s refugee population, the most remarkable aspect of my journey has been the fact that amidst outstanding chaos, angst, and uncertainty lies the most rewarding experience that I have ever been apart of. Working with and befriending a refugee family began as a fleeting thought, but now that thought has blossomed into a new and beautiful reality. My refugee family is bursting with optimism; a second chance at life in the United States of America has instilled upon each of them new hopes and dreams. In just a few hours of interaction and time spent together I have seen the impact that American freedom has had on my family: they gleefully exclaim “America good! America people good! America good!” At this point in their journey as refugees they finally have a concrete belief to hold onto and trust; America is a land where everyone has a dream.
America is the land of opportunity. For refugees, it is a utopia full of the greatest gifts that life has to offer. That being said, my study of refugees and the processes behind gaining entrance to the United States has yielded alarming results. This is best illustrated by Mary Pipher’s novel entitled, “The Middle of Everywhere;” America is a land that offers so much to hopeful refugee families, but it is not until they set foot onto American soil that reality sets in; ultimately, they have “come from a fire into a fire.” Refugees require our support. There is a limited amount of continued assistance that volunteer agencies such as the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) can provide. Typically, these agencies focus on resettlement services such as arranging for food, housing, clothing, employment, counseling, medical care and other immediate needs during the first 90 days after arrival. After this initial period of time, additional services are provided to pre-approved individuals but the majority of refugees are in a still relatively unfamiliar environment with unanswered questions, seemingly impossible language barriers, and an American dream that can quickly be replaced by an overwhelming nightmare.
To combat the effects of this transition period many volunteer organizations are turning toward Befriending Programs for refugees. Befriending programs are a form of support system in which people without adequate emotional and material resources are matched with volunteers who act as a friend and offer support and friendship for a determined period of time (Behnia, 2008). Working with my refugee family for these first few weeks has evolved from a required weekly meeting of complete strangers, to a reciprocal companionship, a type of “befriending program” in which we are both learning from and helping each other. Looking back at my initial predictions and expectations towards this experience, I can honestly say that I did not expect the relationship that I would develop with my new refugee family to grow as quickly as it has. The sheer magnitude of generosity, caring, and compassion demonstrated thus far has been overwhelming. From the beginning I was tentative with regards to the uncertainty surrounding refugees and befriending programs. Lacking any previous experience with refugees, my only resource for information on what to expect from the first few visits came in the form of Mary Pipher’s novel. I became increasingly anxious as I read her descriptions of the potential awkwardness involved in refugee interactions: mispronunciations of names, accidently engaging in offensive behavior, and the language barrier. In retrospect I believe that my anxiety was rooted in the fear of being unable to assist my family: how would I communicate with them if they did not know English? What if I accidentally offended them? Could I really make a difference in what I could only imagine was a life-changing event? The moment I met my family, all my fears vanished; I was in the presence of four complete strangers yet I felt safe, secure, happy, and at-home. Not only did that moment alter the way in which I viewed the refugee experience, but it also changed my perspective regarding Pipher’s novel: her message is not one of perpetual fear towards encountering refugees; rather, she challenges her readers to embrace the uncertainty surrounding those situations because that is how change happens and a unique difference is made.
Though my family possesses an enormous amount of optimism and gratitude toward their current situation as new refugees in America, I know that they still have much to overcome. Their current emotional and mental state is characteristic of the “honeymoon phase” of the resettlement process: they have been in the United States for a little over two months, continue to receive financial assistance, and as previously mentioned, America is “good” to them. I find myself worrying about the parent’s apparent lack of urgency towards obtaining employment; however, I also understand the difficulties faced by refugees trying to secure a job with little-to-no proficiency in the English language. Additionally, I try to remind myself that they have only been in the United States for two months: there is still time to get settled and become employed before the government assistance ends. For me, it is an emotional rollercoaster because I wish my family to have the best possible resettling experience by maintaining low levels of frustration, helplessness, and discouragement. Taking that into account, I believe that a major difference has already been made in their lives due to befriending. This period in a refugee’s journey is marked by increased vulnerability to a false sense of security, the darker side of the American way of life—scams targeting refugee families, uncooperative and greedy landlords, exploitation of foreign employees by business owners, etc.—and the overwhelming nature of having to reinvent their identity as an American citizen. Having a volunteer by their side to help guide them towards logical, safe, and beneficial decisions is one of the best ways to begin the acclimation process for refugees. That being said, befriending is not without its limitations. Despite its important contributions to refugees’ adjustment to a new society, very little is known about the long-standing benefits of befriending programs (Behnia, 2008). Furthermore, befriending is only useful as a preliminary support system; meaning, that in order to be successful in American society refugees must be capable of assessing new situations, processing information, and making their own informed decisions. Befriending programs are excellent temporary solutions to the difficulties of resettlement; however, they should not become permanent crutches for refugees to lean on.
Overall, my family has voiced their appreciation for the help that I have been able to provide, and I think that my presence acts as a secondary form of reassurance that they are on their way towards a safer and happier life. I wish to see my family excel in American society. I understand that they have many challenges and obstacles yet to overcome, but I am confident in their determination to procure the best possible outcome of their new situation. I look forward to the coming months and the opportunity to watch my family grow together as American citizens. Realistically, we are now on this journey together, and it is my job to take their hands and lead them home.
#3: Final Reflection
Creating a New Home
If I had been asked at the beginning of the semester to provide a definition for “a refugee,” it would have been nearly impossible for me to do so. At that point in time, the concept of refugees was perhaps the farthest thought in my mind, which tragically, is the case for large percentage of individuals living in the United States of America. When one considers refugees in that context, the problem of not knowing what a refugee is, where they come from, and how they got here, seems miniscule. After all, there are other individuals living in this nation who get paid to ask those types of questions and figure out what to do with the thousands of refugees who travel to the United States on an annual basis, right? Maybe. With that said, the turning point for me and the way in which I chose to think about refugee people, came when I realized that hundreds of refugee families live in my own backyard, Rogers Park, the place where I have attended school for the last four years. From that point on, I was hooked. I immediately wanted to learn more about these people from all different parts of the world, who, unbeknownst to me, ride the same buses, walk the same sidewalks, and entertain similar goals and dreams as I do.
Midway through the semester I finally had a concrete definition of who a refugee actually is: A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. More importantly, I began to learn about the entire process of becoming a refugee: a journey often highlight by extreme stories of survival, fear, uncertainty, confusion, and even a little bit of luck. It was also at this point during the semester that I began to immerse myself in the practice of befriending with my refugee family. The weekly visits passed by way too quickly, and my partner and I always left wishing that we could stay for just another hour, or two…or three. I began to formulate my own [simple] definition of what refugees really are: refugees are some of the finest and most unique human beings that anyone could imagine spending time with. Working with refugees over the last four months has transformed me into a more humble individual. Additionally, working with refugees has been a remarkable experience because it is the only time in my life that I have ever been in the presence of human beings who cast their egos aside, which, I must say, has been incredibly refreshing.
Looking back on this semester and the experiences I’ve shared with my classmates and refugee family, it is astonishing how much I have grown as a person, not only in my understanding of refugees and the process of becoming one, but also in my appreciation of who they are as human beings. Moreover, this semester has taught me how to fully appreciate the unique gifts, talents, and cultural experiences that refugees bring to the Rogers Park and Chicago areas. The beginning of my experience was overshadowed by my own personal doubts and misconceptions regarding refugees in the United States. I anticipated a completely different interaction marked by confusion, frustration, and an overall lack of communication. Similarly, I expected that my refugee family would be completely helpless in their new American home; thus, my first few visits were incredibly nerve-racking because I expected the worst. Ultimately, my expectations proved to be entirely untrue. My family spoke [some] English, they were optimistic, and immediately made me feel as though I was part of their family.
Refuge in the United States ultimately requires adaption to a new society that presents a variety of options and constraints, and that has its own expectations about newcomers. Moreover, refugees are expected to live up to American societal standards: it is imperative for them to learn the basics of life in the United States. Without those basic skills, I believe that the chance for a successful life is nearly impossible. Overall, I have spent an incredible amount of time immersed in the United States refugee resettlement process this semester. From in-class lectures, to organized service activities, to the weekly visits with my family, I have seen both the good, the bad, as well as, the ugly, when it comes to refugee resettlement. As David Haines illustrates in his book entitled “Safe Haven,” the practice of refugee resettlement in the United States relies heavily upon the inner workings of the volunteer resettlement agencies (VOLAGS). The volunteer organizations provide refugees with immediate assistance ranging from airport pick-up upon arrival to the United States, to initial health screenings and ESL classes. Additionally, they provide the initial financial foundation for refugees once they are settled in their new American homes. With that said, many refugees still find themselves locked into a desperate situation: families struggle to pay rent, find adequate money for food, learn basic English, and obtain employment. Haines suggests that employment and learning the English language are the two most important achievements for refugees once they arrive the United States. Despite the fact that VOLAGS supposedly assist refugee families with these two tasks, many refugees are left to fend for themselves in terms of finding ESL classes and scheduling job interviews. For example, the father of my refugee family finally became bored with sitting at home waiting for his case work to help him prepare a resume, so he began walking around the Rogers Park area in search of any “Help Wanted” signs. To combat this issue I would suggest that VOLAGS attempt “out-source” refugee employment needs to other, separate organizations. With hundreds of cases being taken each month, it is easy for the VOLAGS to become overwhelmed, which makes it even easier for individuals to get lost in the system. With a separate organization helping out with employment, VOLAGS could potentially pass refugee families on for employment needs once the basic living and financial foundation has been solidified. Currently, I think that the most valuable assistance to VOLAGS is the process of befriending. Befriending acts as a middleman for refugees at times when VOLAGS are overwhelmed, or refugee families have a quick question or urgent need. More importantly, befriending allows refugees to build long-lasting friendships with American people; refugees feel more comfortable knowing that they have someone who understands the American culture and way of life.
In the years ahead, I hope to be able to look back upon this experience as one that changed who I am as a person. I have already learned so much about the refugee resettlement process and more importantly, I have met many incredibly unique and talented individuals from around the world. It is experiences such as this that excite me and fuel my desire to travel the world; I wish to meet new people, experience different cultures and hear new stories. Equally important is the fact that this experience has opened my eyes to the world that exists outside of America’s borders. Lucky for me, that world is traveling here to the United States. With that in mind, we all posses the necessary qualities to assist refugee families in their new American homes, but it is up to each and every one of us to take that leap outside of our comfort zone and extend our helping-hands to lead them home.