Often in these minutes, I relate light-hearted things. Not so much today. In the cold of the New Year, refugees are on my mind.
During my working life, while sitting on my backside in an office, I often had the broadening experience (both literally and figuratively) of interacting with people who had come to this country as refugees. Resettlement included a bewildering morass of paperwork – not just for them, but for me as well: one of the requirements of my position was to copy the person’s I-94 form. This form identified the person and showed their legal entry into the U.S. as well as their status of refugee. On it was clearly printed “Do not copy” yet another government instruction mandated that I copy it: just one small question mark in the process.
Today it is fashionable to look at immigrants as “the other.” Having known many taught me that they are not “the other.” They are people, just as those of us who are native-born. They have moments of happiness, of fear, of wanting better lives for their children just as do members of the Mayflower Society. Immigrants are no more “the other” than each of us.
The long-time “refugee-lady” in the South Bend community, Carol, once mentioned to me that she thought of Joseph, Mary and Jesus as a refugee family. In this wintertime of the year, the story of their removal to Egypt to save the life of Jesus is highlighted in the Christian tradition. Thus, it is the season for thoughts of refugees to leap out of the files in my mental storehouse.
Fueling these musings has been my reading of “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.” Should you care to locate it, the author is Viet Thanh Nguyen and he is donating 10% of the cover price of each volume sold to the International Rescue Committee; this book is both a worthy read and enterprise.
“Travel is broadening,” is the saying. There’s no disputing that, but perhaps even better, is getting to know people from other cultures and lands. Refugees may be trying to learn to navigate in a new culture, but the wake from their little boats affects our boats that are floating along in the same body of water. A deeper understanding of the world (and more than a little geography) is one of the side benefits of this experience.
Not to negate the value of classroom learning, but associating with, and sometimes befriending “the other” as he came to adulthood enriched my son’s life hugely. (Coincidentally, his birthday is December 10, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) Customs, language, societal challenges, and the aforementioned geography all jumped up in 3-D for him. Occasionally a little practicality and humor reared their heads too as he observed that some of the first things newcomers learned in order to navigate this new-to-them culture were the values of money and swear words.
Collective experience is one thing, but individual stories are the most moving, so here is Asaad’s story. Asaad came to the United States as a refugee from Iraq. He had been in the military there, put a foot wrong, was imprisoned and tortured. He came here a physical wreck. His health problems necessitated surgeries and a long-term wearing of one of those metal halos that doctors bolted into his head. This looked seriously unpleasant, but he never complained. Being alone, sometimes he would come into my office just because I suspected that time was weighing heavily on him. He being bright and cheerful; seeing him always was a pleasure. So, when I made a small joke with him one day and he laughed, I commented on what great progress he was making with English. Understanding the nuances of a language in order to “get” a joke, means that you have a good grip on that second language. His explanation, “I’ve been watching Lucy on television.” That’s not the response of “the other,” that’s just another person.
Music: "Coming To America" by Neil Diamond