Do you ever encounter something so profound that you can’t stop thinking about it?
That happened to me today. Today I listened to a talk about all of the refugee populations in Nashville. The speaker was someone from Catholic Charities, one of the three refugee resettlement agencies in Nashville. While I have a bit of a working knowledge about refugees in the area from being an ESL teacher, this woman’s talk really blew my mind today. Here are some highlights:
- To truly be considered a refugee, a person must have fled his/her home country to another country before applying for refugee status with the UN. And yes, individuals must apply for refugee status and prove that they had to flee their home for fear of losing their lives.
- These individuals have experience trauma that my white, middle-class, privileged brain cannot comprehend. Many of them were second-class citizens in their home countries due to ethnic, religious, or gender differences, forced to flee because of war, violence, ethnic cleansing, lack of food/shelter/safety/education. Then they were second-class citizens in their first country of refuge. Often, they were second-class citizens in the refugee camps as well, particularly if people from a more powerful ethnic group was in charge of things like food distribution. There are kids who’ve spent their whole lives waiting in line for food and water. There are women who’ve been raped and battered because they’ve tried to get basic needs for their children in these camps. Then, when they finally get to come to the States, there is the struggle to adjust to American culture, learn English, and find jobs.
- Complex trauma actually affects the brain. When people (particularly children) experience trauma after trauma, the part of the brain that houses memory and learning tasks is physically altered. So some of these kids appear to have “behavior problems” or “learning problems” when really they are trying to recover from evils that you and I can’t imagine.
But we must imagine it. We must, if we are going to be able to help. We must, if we are going to be able to take that leap from misunderstanding and fearing to understanding and loving.
- Refugee resettlement organizations only get $900 per family member to help support the family for the first six months in the US. For a family of four, that’s $3600 for six months of rent, for furniture and basic living necessities, for clothing, food, electricity, water, etc. $3600. That’s it.
It’s not enough. And six months is not enough, not when your refugee camp survival skills won’t help you survive in America. Not when it takes 5-7 years to become proficient in a new language. Not when you haven’t scraped up enough money to buy a car, so you have no way to get to a job. Not when you are an abandoned, single Somali mother with five kids and a couple of them are not school age yet. Not when you barely speak English and you have a special needs child and you are still navigating how to get the American school and medical systems to help.
All this is why I got upset about the story of the German homeschooling family who almost got deported. (If you’re friends with me on FB, you might have seen my rant a few days ago.) It’s not that I’m against homeschooling or against religious freedom. It just bothered me that an immigrant story would get so much press because it’s viewed as a religious freedom issue (although I would argue it’s more an educational freedom issue) when there are hundreds of thousands of other immigrant/deportation/refugee stories out there that get ignored. My post garnered mixed comments, and I almost went back and deleted it completely because I was afraid I had hurt some people. But after today, I have to say as much as I am glad the German family gets to stay in the States to home educate, they don’t need asylum in the way these refugees do. I’m not saying they didn’t get mistreated in their home country, but they have not had to experience war, bombs, rape, starvation, violence, lack of sanitation, etc. They have not had to fight for their very lives. Yes, they have had to fight for the way they want to educate, and I get that – my kids attend a private school, and I’m glad my country gives me the freedom to choose that.
But it is difficult for me to see a story so championed when no one is championing the stories of refugees and immigrants on the other side of the coin. Who is fighting for them when they get ridiculed and made fun of in public? Who is fighting for them when they can’t learn in school? Who is fighting for them to be able to find jobs and attend English classes? Who is fighting for immigrants who get detained and have no money to hire lawyers?
And then, this: I am a typical white, middle-class American: I fight my battles on blogs and Facebook. I talk big talks and I push for ideals. I share articles and I go on rants. I rejoice over Starbucks coffees and Twitter retweets. I complain about loading the dishwasher and folding laundry. I don’t know what it is to suffer and fight to survive like these refugees do. Do I really do the work of loving that I talk about? Do I really walk the walk, or am I just talking the talk? The truth is that all my soapbox fighting on social media probably doesn’t change much of anything.
I feel compelled to move. I feel compelled to do something. I don’t know what yet, but this is my year to GROW. I’m challenged to step out of my comfort zone and figure out how I can be involved with the immigrant/refugee population right here around me. Yes, I am busy and have little free time. I know. I work during the week and try to devote my weekends to my family. I know. But this is part of the fight, too: This “sacrament of inconvenience,” which is the phrase my priest uses to describe Lent. This fighting against convenience and comfort in order to help another human.