I am compelled to add my voice to millions of American citizens who are crying out, lamenting, over the refugee families who are turned away at airports, those who have been told at government offices abroad that their application is now on hold. Though I am not an expert in consular affairs, I do know that, in legal parlance, refugees are a different classification than immigrant, migrant, green card resident, etc. According to the U.S. State Department, “a refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Persecution is not a word to be used lightly. Many refugees have fled for their lives, leaving family and all cherished possessions behind. Their status as ‘refugee’ is reviewed ad nauseum by government officials. They submit reams of paperwork and wait years for approval to enter the country for which they have applied to reside. Government approved agencies prepare for their arrival. Across the United States, non-profit refugee resettlement agencies are assigned incoming refugees. They bear responsibility for resettling the families who will ultimately, in most cases, become U.S. citizens.
As a freshman in college in Chicago, in 1999 I had my first opportunity to volunteer to support a new refugee family. Through World Relief, I was matched with a Bosnian family that lived in an apartment walking distance from my campus. Their one son was just a few years younger than my youngest brother. I would walk to their house, drink several cups of thick, sweet coffee and communicate through laughter, gestures and food. I once took their son to a college baseball game. We walked over to the baseball diamond and sat on the grass behind home plate as the spring afternoon sun flickered through the branches overhead. It was an idyllic afternoon. This type of relationship with a refugee was foreign to me. All the refugees I had come in contact with up to that point lived in a refugee camp a few miles from my home.
I spent eight years of my childhood overseas, mostly in Kenya and northern Mozambique. In Mozambique a U.N. refugee camp was situated in the bush a few miles from our house. Refugees fleeing conflicts in neighboring countries were placed in these camps. No one except government approved individuals could enter the camp. Refugees, in turn, were not allowed to leave the camp unless they received approval. Local residents did not come in contact frequently with the refugee population. They were kept separate – for years – while their status was determined. This was what I knew as a child. Befriending the Bosnian family in my American neighborhood put a new face to the term refugee. Refugees aren’t just people in camps, they are individuals that want relationships with people in their new country, just like you or I would. They want to feel welcomed not just with a sign, services and offers of stuff, but with laughter over a cup of tea in a home.
I can speak to the value of this relational engagement first hand. Though I have never been a refugee, I can relate in a small way to the experience of moving to a new country, new culture, new language and then having a local, with whom there is a great language barrier, take the time to become my friend. We recently returned from a year abroad in Romania. In our Romanian neighborhood on the edge of a small town, our landlord’s parents lived around the corner. His mother, who spoke not a word of English, would stop by the house occasionally with a fresh loaf of bread or just to say hello and relay the latest news in colloquial Romanian. I usually had no idea what she said. I would smile and nod, offer my few meager words of Romanian, and then she would leave. This process repeated itself for months and though there was initially little in the way of quality verbal communication, we became friends. She made us feel welcome, despite our language barrier and cultural differences. When she would knock at the door unannounced and sometimes then just walk right on in (which is the norm in many parts of the world), my heart would leap. Someone has come to visit us! Ultimately, my Romanian language skills improved and house visits were reciprocated as I became more familiar with my surroundings. She and her husband never gave up on us. We called her Bunica, the Romanian word for grandmother.
Resettlement agencies are well-supported and equipped to provide for the needs of refugees (though they always need more volunteers!). Armed with state resources, donations and experienced employees who know the ins and outs of the system, agencies are able to get refugees settled safely and on their way to finding jobs and starting a new life. What the agencies cannot provide, however, are bunicas. Several months ago, a local agency in San Diego I contacted asked if I would volunteer to help a family from Sudan that had arrived in October. The family has an apartment, the children are enrolled in school, they have figured out how to grocery shop, ride public transport and live life. The educated father is in a job placement program and they are involved in a local Sudanese church. They have everything they need. I recently asked the mother if they needed any more clothes for their four-year-old, since my five-year-old has outgrown some of her attire. No, they don’t need clothes. Their physical needs are met. Her eyes don’t light up when I offer them stuff. But when I say I’ll be back to visit next week, her eyes twinkle, she hugs me and claps her hands and I get the feeling that it might be the highlight of her day, just as bunica’s visits encouraged me in the foreign land in which I was recently a sojourner.