Relocation: When The Rubber Meets The Road

Part two of a three part series demystifying the process of refugee relocation in the USA.

A guest post by Sammy P., an American aid worker who has worked Stateside for the last two years with a nonprofit in refugee resettlement.

“We thought it was going to be different,” Ali stated. “This wasn’t the plan.”

Coming out of a war torn country such as Somalia, Syria, or Afghanistan, one might think that any chance to start over would be warmly accepted. But that is not always the case.

Back in his country, Ali was a pediatrician. After years of studying in university, and excelling at his practice, he had built a comfortable life for his wife and children. After arriving to the States, he quickly learned his medical license was useless. He was not allowed to practice here. Instead, he was asked to work as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. His English was good, but there just weren’t that many jobs available. He received counsel that he could return to school to update his education and license, but as a 56 year old man, starting over in that capacity wasn’t a likely option. He wondered if this was it for him…if he would be ever be proud of his work again.

Parents are the same no matter where they come from. They want to provide for their children, they desire a strong education, and most importantly, they want their children to be protected.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/ clio1789

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/clio1789

“Mirah bus no come.” It was 5:45pm when I received a frightened call from a father wondering where his daughter was. Trying to remain calm, I assured Lian that his daughter’s bus was probably stuck in traffic. But what if it wasn’t? I didn’t know what to do, or who to call. The bus company wasn’t picking up their phone. I kept trying. Thirty minutes went by and Lian called again, this time, more panicked. I assured him she would be there. Fingers crossed. Fifteen more minutes passed, and he called back. “My daughter home.” By this point, it was 6:30pm. I wish I could say this was the only time this occurred, but it became a pattern. “No problem,” he stated. But is was a problem. It was a very big problem.

We don’t realize how much these families put their faith in others to protect them, to be their voice when there is no where else to turn.

“Our oven no work,” Mahmoud stated. I found it strange that the apartment complex hadn’t fixed the problem that had been reported weeks ago. Frustrated, we contacted the office. “The wife won’t allow the workman in her home when her husband isn’t present,” the office manager stated. “But we work when he works, there is no way around it.” The cultural expectations were set, but someone was going to have to give. 

Photo credit: Talitha Brauer

Photo credit: Talitha Brauer

It’s not as easy as one might think. We can’t simply throw away the traditions that allow our clients to feel secure. There are reasons for those tight standards, and breaking them is more complex than the West often realizes. “This is America, they must adjust to their new culture!” Although I listened respectfully, I could not bring myself to agree. It takes time, and they are frightened…they don’t know who to trust. Gentle grace is critical.

Staying positive is game changer when interacting with refugee families.

Moments of laughter can be few and far between. Upon arrival, they expect the nightmare is over as they begin their life in their new homeland, which in many minds, is literally a replica of the American dream portrayed in the movies. It’s not. They struggle at all that is required of them to start over.

When talking with parents about what they most look forward to when they arrive in the USA, the responses have been identical, “My children will be educated in America. This is the best part of this new life. They can be whatever they want. They will be treated with respect, even our girls.”

But even that reality seems to come crashing down when their buses fail to show up 25% of the time, or when being allowed to begin school is delayed two weeks from the day they register. They want to stand up for their children, but they can’t. Who is looking out for them?

Cultural misunderstandings often cause trouble, and sometimes it can get ugly.

“He was my hitting daughter, so I slapped his face.” One mother is now dealing with charges being pressed against her, because she stepped in to protect her young daughter from the neighborhood bully. She must now face the local court who sees her as a child abuser. In her mind, there was no choice but to step in. She did what she knew.

I couldn’t read the bathroom sign, and I guessed. I guessed wrong.” Sharif is on suspension from work for using the women’s bathroom. Not only is he dealing with the public humiliation of being pinned a pervert, he is also missing several days of work he needs to pay his rent.

“I’m pregnant,” her eyes lit up as she shared her news.

“What?!” I asked. “I will have an American baby,” she said as her giant smile wrapped around her face.

After years of processing paperwork, interviews, and being bounced from place to place, she was welcoming her baby into its new home…America.

They are fighters…every single one of them. It would be impossible to accomplish the tasks of the journey required, without an incredible amount of courage. But it is hard. Every one of them tells us how difficult it is to be here…if not with their words, then with their eyes.

We see it in the fear on their faces as they scan the crowd at the airport looking for us to meet them.

We see it as we say goodbye, closing the front door, leaving them alone in their new house, hoping the next day someone will return as promised.

They grow weary…tired from not ever knowing where they are going, what is being said, when they will gain control of their own lives again.

They are strong, but they still human. Like the rest of us, they want a chance to prove themselves, to start again. When others around them couldn’t, they got out. They want our respect, our trust, our support. We should be honored to be on this side of their journey, offering them hope…a new chance at life.

Refugee relocation is not only a difficult process for the refugee himself, it’s also a tough adjustment for the community receiving them. What goes on in the minds of those working with refugees? How does one cope with what they see and experience in the stories unfolding around them? 

I'll look at these questions in Part 3 - Tough Love, Soft Hearts the final instalment which explores the impact refugees have on the locals who walk alongside them during this first stage of their relocation journey.

Sammy P. works with a US nonprofit in the field of refugee relocation, with a focus on educational development for refugees & local school districts. Sammy’s first introduction to refugee work was during her years living in the Middle East, where she worked with refugees in both urban and rural settings.

She writes under a pen name for confidentiality reasons.