I was wrong (about the refugee topic)

A story from Megan Normann, student intern at Catholic Family Center

Or maybe the better way of putting it is, I just didn’t think about refugees often enough to realize the truth about who and what they are. I might even have become one of those who place refugees and illegal immigrants into the same category… if I had not heard some of their stories for myself.

These people did not sneak into the country under cover of night to reap the benefits of living in America. They likely did not even want to leave their homes. They came to our country for one reason and one reason only:

To stay alive.

During the national dialogue last year concerning the refugee resettlement topic, Catholic Family Center received an outpouring of offers of support, not only monetary, but volunteer, advocacy, and in-kind services and donations. One of these came from our combined communication team at Sundance Marketing, Crystal Pix, and Adhouse Productions. They asked us what would help us the most in communicating our message on the refugee topic. We spoke internally about what our message was, and the answer was clear: to educate our neighbors on what, and who, a refugee is, by creating an encounter moment with real stories about real people and families. See Their Stories was born!

Some came alone. Others escaped with their families. All dreamed of living in peace.

The first refugee to tell us their story was Akil, a student from Iraq. Here in the U.S., we don’t often worry about our relative safety upon attending a university; we worry about our school work, we worry about our social lives, but we don’t often fear being killed. Akil, however, was imprisoned and tortured. His fiance was murdered. He managed to escape to Syria and had to wait four years, feeling threatened that those seeking him would find him, before resettling in Rochester. If he had a choice, he would likely have chosen to marry his fiance in the land where he grew up upon graduating from his university. But he did not have such a luxury as choice.

Fatuma was the next up, and during her storytelling, I had to hold back tears. It is impossible, impossible, for me to imagine the kind of courage it would have taken to do what this girl did, to survive the pain that she managed to rise above. Fatuma’s mother sent her away from Somalia when she was just five years old in order to escape genocide. She and her sister had no choice but to stay in a refugee camp for fifteen years — up until her sister died of an infection. At age 19, alone, Fatuma came to the U.S. to seek medical treatment. Only twenty-two years old now, Fatuma has experienced more loss than any young woman ought to, and wants nothing more than to be with her mother again.

Obaida came to the U.S. from Afghanistan. She, her mother, and her siblings had to flee when she was only a girl. It took them three weeks to cross the border into Pakistan because they had to dodge bombings (and climb over the dead bodies of their neighbors) as they went. They lived in a refugee camp there for twelve years, during which time half of the children in the camp died due to the poor living conditions and scarcity of food and other resources. When she was finally able to come to the U.S., Obaida learned English, attended college, and became a social worker. Now a wife and a mother, Obaida gives back to current refugees as they too seek peace.

“I am blessed.”

At this point, halfway through the stories we were scheduled to hear that day, I was sitting on the couch wondering how any of them survived these circumstances. Not just the physical bombings and torturings, but the pain of losing their loved ones, of fleeing the homes and families they so cared for, of not knowing if they would live to see the next day, only to finally make it to America, where they are often misunderstood, and even persecuted. It doesn’t seem fair, but not a single one of them complained about how they might have been treated here. They were all just so thankful — so blessed, in their words — to be here. Most of them hold multiple jobs to support their families and want nothing more after the turbulence and violence of their pasts than to settle down and live peaceful lives, work honestly, and be good and loyal citizens of the country that provided them with shelter. It was more than humbling to sit down with all of them and listen to them speak: it was inspiring. It made me wish I knew what I could do to save more lives.

Samir’s story is slightly different from the rest. He was an ESL teacher and translator in Iraq, and served the U.S. forces during Iraqi Freedom. Due to this, he and his family became targets of Iraqi persecution and had to apply for a special visa. Samir and his wife went through the U.S. vetting process and were approved to come to New York with their two children. Samir is now a businessman, his wife is finishing college to become a teacher, they have bought their first home, are proudly paying their taxes, and hope to give back to others as soon as they can.

“It was either take this risk, or stay there and die.”

Sadika spoke with a purpose, and the tale she told struck me down to my bones. In Kuwait, contrary to America, people are not considered citizens merely upon being born in the country. They have to earn the status — which women are not eligible to do. Therefore, Sadika was considered a stateless Bedouin woman, completely at the mercy of her husband. Hopefully some of these women have kind husbands; Sadika was not so fortunate. She was abused, and she was raped, but without any rights, there was nothing she could do about it. Without any rights, she did not even have any claim over her children. Eventually, she escaped to the U.S. She has a dream to become a citizen and a doctor here, but most of all, to be reunited with her kids, whom she has not seen for over a decade.

I had learned my lesson by now, that though I may not have misjudged the nature of a refugee, I had been ignorant to their situation — but there was still one last story to be told that day.

Tek, unlike most of the other refugees we had heard from, grew up on a very successful farm with his family in Bhutan. They were wealthy and they were happy, but all of that changed upon the rise of ethnic cleansing. He and his family fled for their lives, ending up in a refugee camp for eighteen years in which there was no roofing and no electricity. These were conditions unlike what they were accustomed to, but they retained their lives, for which they were nothing but grateful. Finally, Tek was able to come to Upstate New York with nothing but the $20 in his pocket. He is now a case manager and leads a team of translators, seeking to help people in situations similar gain happiness and a stable life. He has a wife and children, and his main aim is to support them and his extended family.

“I can very proudly say that I think my family is now in good shape. Please consider them. Accept them as your brothers and sisters.”

If your life was being threatened, you would hope another nation would reach out a helping hand. If you watched a loved one die and worried that you were next, you would hope someone would help you escape that fate. If you spent your days dodging bombs falling from the sky, you would hope that upon crossing the border of a country whose staples are bravery, freedom, and opportunity, you would gain just that.

If these stories touched you nearly as much as they did me, I hope you remember one thing:

There are so many more stories to be told.

People just like these are running for their lives today, and even upon reaching America, they still need our help. Catholic Family Center’s refugee resettlement program, through which all of those whom told their stories above came through, is one such hand reaching out to help them transition into a new life, where they might need assistance learning English, renting homes, getting food, or gaining schooling. The incredible accomplishments told by the past refugees above is proof enough that such programs can save lives, and you can help them do it. Or, you could remember the stories you read about today and try to spread the kindness of these people’s hearts around whenever you hear someone speaking about refugees with mistrust or misguided notions.

These individuals and their families have fled from danger and suffering for far too long. I plan to do all I can to allow them the opportunity of living in peace, and hope that you all will join me.

To watch these stories in their entirety, please see: www.seetheirstories.org

Catholic Family Center is the largest provider of family services in #ROC, addressing issues of need across all stages of life. See more: www.cfcrochester.org

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