Coming to America

Twenty years ago, I entered the world of refugees. My friend and her husband were leaving the country to move overseas, and she wanted me to apply for her job at a refugee resettlement agency. That very first appointment with newly arrived Bosnians, I willingly downed three cups of thick, sweet coffee from demitasse cups. It was a great visit – they were engaging, and I was eager to learn. Later that night, I lay awake with my mind racing and heart pattering away. Not only was it a lesson to self (savor one cup or suffer the consequences), but it portended more sleepless evenings ahead.

As a caseworker at World Relief, my unending task was to find jobs. At that time, Bosnians, Haitians, Vietnamese and Sudanese were among our new arrivals. Many had limited or no English skills, and most had little applicable job experience. “Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him For a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, Feed Him For a Lifetime.” This quote, often attributed to Lao Tzu, haunted me constantly. The pressure to perform was the least of it – seeing the faces and hearing the stories of individuals and families who had escaped desperation made the need for a living wage palpable. They looked to me to provide the link to a functional life in a strange place. Hello, weeks of sleepless nights!

Much networking later, some compassionate employers helped the nights pass more pleasantly. I began to form real relationships with refugees. There was room to breathe. Before I’d avoided social invites, had been afraid of failing them, but now there was space. Weekend birthday parties, impromptu coffee visits, and late night card games. Grad school was somehow worked into the mix. Hassles and stresses continued, but tempered by the joys of varied, fascinating friendships.

Fast forward six years, including marriage and first child. We headed off to distant lands in Turkey, where we would have our own experiences being strangers in a strange land. And there were refugees, on the rough side of the system. They waited for UN approval in uncertainty. Police pressure, hunger and alienation presided over them, as hope waned for some. To say the process is difficult undercuts the harsh reality of the waiting time, which can linger on for years.

Now back in the States, and having moved recently to rejoin family in Texas, there are people to reconnect with. My Masters thesis involved thirty Bosnian families, and it’s a delight to look them up and reconnect with those who can be found.

I’m reminded, though, that refugees still arrive. Every year, all over the United States. And as they come, they encounter new systems, languages issues and unforeseen struggles. They hope for relationships. They look for you.