Refugees and Immigrants: The Faces Behind the Labels
Alphonse entered our entry hall and gave my husband a bear hug. “Carey!” he said in his Rwandan accent. “Thank you for having me to your lovely home.”
“You are welcome,” Carey replied, grinning at Alphonse. My African friend and I had worked together at Catholic Charities in Amarillo, Texas, for the past year and a half. Over that time, we had discovered shared passions for God, people, and music. Carey had gotten to know Alphonse and my other coworkers—who hailed from thirteen different countries—through my stories and work events. He’d especially been impressed by Alphonse’s zest for life.
Over pasta and salad, Alphonse told my two sons (Jordan, age 13, and Jackson, age 7) about his time in Africa, where he’d grown up in an agricultural community, along with forty-one relatives. He described eating fire-roasted goats and worshiping under the trees with his fellow churchgoers.
The boys were enchanted, and after dessert, Jordan and Jackson begged Alphonse, “Play ‘Just Dance 3’ with us!” We all laughed as the five of us tried to follow the intricate choreography.
Before our guest left, Carey brought up the subject of the Rwandan genocide, which Alphonse—but none of his family members—had lived through. “I escaped and fled by traveling at night but hiding and sleeping during the day,” Alphonse explained. He had eventually found safety at the border, in a camp housing millions of war survivors, and was ultimately resettled in Texas. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, less than one percent of refugees find a new beginning in another country in this way.
“How did you keep your faith in God?” my husband asked Alphonse that night, incredulous. “Especially after all you saw and went through?”
“God was all I had left,” Alphonse said.
Sometimes, when I come across an angry Facebook post or tweet about refugees, I see Alphonse’s face. I remember the day I dropped him off at home, and how proud Alphonse was of the small house he’d bought.
When I hear speeches about registering Muslims, I see the faces of Musaab and Thuraya—sweet Muslim friends who’d lived through atrocities in the Middle East and who were grateful for a chance to bring their families to a free country. Well-educated and professional, Musaab and Thuraya had each taken positions helping their fellow refugees find jobs, after a few months working as part-time translators. Their smiling, kind visages pop into my mind when I hear about our country’s collective fear of Syrians.
When I hear the complicated and often-emotional arguments for and against resettlement, I remember other Catholic Charities employees, who became lifelong friends, and the many victims of war and persecution we assisted. My eighteen months working with refugees gave me a graduate-level education—and a personal perspective.
Over the time I served with the nonprofit, I met many traumatized people who simply needed a fresh start. One of our job developers had lived with his large extended family in a 10X10 foot tent for a decade. Other coworkers told me stories of growing up, marrying, and having children in crowded camps. They’d left behind most of their friends and family to make a better life for themselves.
In her article, A Practical Guide to Meeting the Needs of Refugees and Immigrants, Dr. Helen Abdali Soosan Fagan speaks about the gravity of transitioning to a new place from the perspective of a refugee or immigrant. She writes:
As weeks go on, the excitement wears off and a depression settles in. There is a sense of loss that each person will need to grieve, and a sense of disconnection they will need help overcoming. This is where just spending time with them can be life-giving.
We Impact One Another
Working with the volunteers changed me too. These generous, kind people taught English, collected furnishings, and provided transportation to battle-scarred Burundi and Burmese families. They helped former Iraqi and Congolese refugees file confusing paperwork and navigate school visits or medical issues … all in the name of Jesus.
One life-changing experience occurred in December of 2011, when I matched a local group of university students with a newly-resettled Somali family. Each fall, this particular Christian group took up a monetary collection, and then a few of them went shopping and delivered the presents.
I’d collected shoe and clothing sizes, as well as gift ideas, from the family’s case worker and made sure the college kids had plenty of time to purchase and wrap the gifts before leaving on their Christmas break. Additionally, I had the pleasure of visiting the adopted family’s apartment with the students on delivery day.
The mom, dad, and four boys (ages 3, 7, 11, and 9 months) welcomed us shyly. They showed us their sparsely-furnished home and offered us tea. A few woven blankets served as wall hangings or curtains. The family was making a home here.
Through a translator, we urged them to open their gifts, which included hats, gloves, and scarves for each family member, as well as new soccer equipment and basketballs. The parents and children said, “Mahadsanid” (“thank you”) after each gift.
Then, a surprise: we rolled in two brand-new bikes, which we’d left outside with one of the students. The older boys screamed in joy as tears rolled down the mother’s cheeks. She looked me in the eye, helpless to find the words she longed to say.
I smiled and nodded. As a mom, I understood that no gift could compare to having your child find delight—especially when they’d been through so much.
However, the 3 year-old started to cry when he realized he hadn’t been given a bicycle. His mother consoled him and apologized, and we gave handshakes all around. I trusted that the child’s tantrum would pass. We’d simply considered him too small for a bike. All in all, I thought it was a successful outing.
As I walked to my car, one of the college kids (I’ll call him “Mike”) came up to me and said, “I feel bad about not getting three bikes.”
“It’s really okay,” I said, patting his coat-covered arm. “We didn’t know. They were grateful for everything. You guys did so much!”
“I still feel bad. I’m going to get him a bike,” Mike declared.
I stopped walking. “You don’t have to do that!”
“I know. I want to.”
Tears welled in my eyes and I nodded. “Okay then,” I said.
That afternoon, before heading home for his winter break, Mike delivered a tyke-sized bicycle to a delighted Somali toddler.
I don’t know what Mike is doing now, but I wonder if he’ll end up the head of a religious organization or political committee. If he does, I hope he remembers a day when shared humanity and a child’s simple cry moved him to compassion. I pray he’ll recollect the joy of giving out of his own meager resources.
I have hopes for our country too. I pray we will choose faith over fear. I pray we will not shirk the responsibility, especially for those of us with Jesus as our ruler, to help the most vulnerable and needy.
Not Just Another Bleeding Heart
Before you write me off as idealistic or naïve, know this: my sons are 17 and 11 now. I stay informed about world events, and I worry about Jordan and Jackson when they’re at the movies or at school. I know there are no guarantees in life, and I pray for their safety. But I worry more that their hearts will become hard towards people who look, act, and believe differently than they do. It is difficult to keep bitterness and hate at bay in a world full of violence, where evil seems to be winning.
Difficult, but not impossible. Jesus showed us the way.
This time of year, we celebrate the birth of a baby whose mother and father fled their homeland after a heinous dictator put a price on the child’s head. When I think about how terrified that young family must have been, I give thanks for the people who granted them refuge.
In January 2012, I saw my new Somali friend again as I was passing through our office’s waiting room. Our eyes met, and she stood, her baby on one hip. I walked over to her, putting my right hand on the baby’s head.
Her eyes bright, she said, “Hello.”
I grinned. “Hello!” I answered back.
“Thank you, again,” she said. She’d been taking English classes, I thought, and I was proud of her efforts to learn English.
How to answer? I wanted to convey that being a small part of her journey had blessed me more than I could have imagined. By being involved in her family’s story, I had seen the joy of giving spark in a student’s heart, and I had been reminded of the small daily comforts I so often took for granted.
I wanted to thank her for all those things. Instead, I gently took her baby’s chubby, dark foot in my hand and squeezed it.
Smiling, I answered, “You are welcome.”