Tough Love, Soft Hearts

The final post of a three part series by an American aid worker demystifying the process of refugee relocation in the USA.

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. No one wants to destroy someone's dreams.

Working in refugee resettlement, you would expect to feel a bit like Santa Claus, helping dreams come true. But in reality, we actually spend a big chunk of our time telling people no.

Having to enforce American laws alongside agency policy can be difficult. At first, it can be uncomfortable when you have to give a client an answer they don’t want to hear. You squirm, awkwardly trying to smooth it over, and reassuring them you will try hard to meet future requests. But it doesn’t take long before those conversations become so frequent that we grow hardened. Remaining compassionate can be tricky, especially when dealing with angry clients who take out their frustrations on you.

Of course there are joyful moments as well, but the mood can quickly shift when expectations are not met.

While driving a client home from a doctor’s appointment, the man asked me to take him to the grocery store so he could do some shopping. Having to be at another appointment, I explained that I was not available to do so. I could drop him off, but he would have to take the bus home. He had gone through bus training. Frustrated that I was being “selfish”, he called one of our interpreters to come and get him. Out of cultural obligation practiced in their homeland, he knew that the interpreter couldn’t say no.

Problem solved. But I saw it more as a problem created.

Sitting with a family to do some initial paperwork, they kindly brought me tea. Highly educated, they spoke excellent English. I was learning all about their family, and I found myself laughing with them. It felt good to laugh.

They had been here about a week and half, and started noticing some things that had gone wrong with the apartment. I told them to wait until the office opened at the apartment complex the following morning, and to file their complaints then. This was not the response they wanted to hear. They wanted me to tell my boss to call the office for them. What they didn’t know was that there was a long list of maintenance issues, and we tell all our clients the same thing. As they could see that I was not going to budge, more and more members of the family started telling me their opinions on the matter, and how our agency was not doing its job. 

I sat there, trying to remain compassionate, but sort of tuning them all out. Sometimes, it’s the only way to appear calm, especially when things start to escalate.

Although experiences like this occur almost daily, we get attached to our clients. When they feel as if they are in danger, or discriminated against, we fight for them. We want them to understand that we value them as individuals. It scares us that maybe they do not realize our commitment to them.

People in the community will call the office demanding that we stop bringing the clients to our city. We do our best to explain that we do not bring them here, but the State Department carefully places them. However, the threatening language used by community members can be scary. How do we shield them from this? How do we help them understand that we want them here? That we are on their side…

When it comes to their children, it is critical they know they can trust us. However, the majority of our clients will stand in the parking lot and argue with us about car seats. Either the women want to hold their babies, or they insist their child does not need a booster. The funny thing is that threatening the police does not always work. Their prior experiences with police might not push them into compliance. But the threat of paying tickets…that seems to work.

While visiting an African family, one of their neighbors met me getting out of my car. She is doing our hair for us, your African friend. Confused, I later learned that after being in the States less than a month, our client, who didn’t speak a word of English, had befriended the neighbor ladies by braiding their hair. I was so proud of her for reaching out.

Every client handles their situation uniquely. And we never know what to expect until we meet them. So often, I want to ask each family to tell me their story, but I can’t. I wonder why they came, what happened to them over there. But generally, they do not speak of it.

My brother was killed by Taliban, he was on his way home from Primary School. During a conversation about family, one of our clients blurted out this statement. Shocked…I froze. She looked at me and smiled gently, as if to communicate she was okay now. I didn’t know how to respond. A smile in return didn’t seem appropriate.

Agencies who do refugee resettlement must remember the kinds of situations that bring our clients to us. It can become easy to get frustrated with their constant demands, tantrums, and tardiness. But remaining compassionate is the key to doing our jobs well. These are hurting people, and they did not choose this life. Nor did they choose to come to us.

Their worlds were destroyed; they left everything and everyone.

Communities of refugees live all over the United States, and some in the most unlikely places. They want to be part of our culture; they want friendship. But they often do not know how to reach out.

It takes regular people reaching back in, willing to serve an hour or two a week, even in potentially uncomfortable situations.

Jack and Melissa got involved with refugees after seeing a story about them on the local news station. They had no idea that refugees lived in their city, so they did a Google search to figure out the agency to contact if they wanted to get involved. After a couple weeks of having their volunteer application processed and training was conducted, they met their family. 

Melissa goes into the home one evening a week and helps the mother with English while, her high school daughter helps the kids with homework. About once a month, her husband will get a call from the refugee resettlement agency, asking if he can help with an apartment set up, moving furniture. 

In Melissa’s own words — 

This family has become very close to us. They’ve even allowed us to take them on picnics and one day we went to the beach. The mother of the family cooked a native dish very popular in their culture, and then we all sat down together on the floor to eat it together. Now our friends have gotten involved, and they have families assigned to them as well. They love it!

Working with our clients has not only taught me to be more patient, it has forced me to change my priority from the task at hand, to the person in need. As an American working hard to do a job well, this does not come naturally to me. But after a while, I started to realize how calm the client would become once she saw that she mattered to me. Following the long months of being just a number on a list, she was finally a face with a name.

She wasn’t simply a task to check off or an appointment on my schedule. She was my friend.

Connecting refugees to community, either from their homeland or similar cultures, is always our goal. They need one another. We often miss the tribal or racial tensions between them — and it's probably good that we are oblivious for part of the time. The beautiful thing is, they start relying on one another. When you see the mothers from more than 8 countries gathering to have tea, or teens from all over the world meeting to play soccer, you can’t help but feel like you’re doing something right. We don’t have to join the Peace Corp to make a difference; in fact, we don’t have to go at all.

We can offer peace to the world as it comes to us…family by family.

This is the final article of a three part series. Don’t miss Parts 1 & 2, Road to Resettlement: They Are The 1% and Relocation: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Sammy P. is an American aid worker who has worked with a US nonprofit for 2 years in the field of refugee relocation. Her focus is on educational development for refugees & the 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.