They told me they felt like coming here was the answer to their prayers and it was what they dreamt of. They told me being here was like they were living in a dream and they were just waiting to wake up. It wasn’t real. And now it feels so, so real. Being away from her is real. The lump in her neck is real. The sleepless nights are real. The weariness from the drugs is real. The shame is real. Their pain is real.
I began working with refugees as an English teacher in an adult education program in Salt Lake City. I gradually learned pieces of their stories, which included unimaginable loss, grief, and pain. My heart ached for them, and I became determined to understand them better and serve them in a meaningful way. I began working towards receiving a master’s degree in social work because that was going to help me understand their pain and was going to put me in a position to effect change.
I am learning what it means to ease someone’s burdens. I don’t think I have ever really understood this concept before. I think I thought it meant listening to someone complain about a bad day at work or a bad breakup. I never knew that it could mean holding someone’s broken heart for a moment so they have a chance to breathe. It means providing a space to speak what is unspeakable and feel what should never have to be felt.
I stopped working as an English teacher and began working for the Refugee Services Office as an employment counselor. Once again, I was immersed in stories of pain, fear, and struggle. I was exposed to the memories of trauma that refugees carry with them every single day.
I wish I could fast forward for them. Help them skip all this pain. All this worry and fear. Skip to the better times. Or skip to the resolution. Get past this waiting. That seems like the worst part to me. Is the cancer back? Will she be able to stay safe? Will they be together again? Will their hearts and bodies heal? Will they be free?
Refugees go through an extreme vetting process, which I learned about during my time with the Refugee Services Office. I learned that when they finally reach some sort of safety, they request refugee status from the place in which they arrived (asylum country). This means they are in limbo. They are waiting, hoping, dreaming, and praying for long-term, permanent legal and physical protection. In 2015, 107,100 refugees were resettled through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is estimated that there were 21.3 million refugees worldwide that year. The individuals being selected for resettlement consist of less than one percent of the individuals worldwide who are living in fear, danger, and uncertainty every day.
When an individual is attempting to achieve resettlement, they submit an application. Their situation is assessed to determine if resettlement is the most appropriate, long-term solution as well as their eligibility to be resettled.
If an individual “has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity … a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee,” he or she is unable to participate in a resettlement program.
Each individual attempting to receive resettlement is looked at under a microscope. Every facet of their lives is uncovered and explored and interpreted. They are questioned repeatedly; their bodies are screened for diseases. For those ravaged by war and heartbreak, nothing is private.
Cancer. Mastectomy. Rape. War. Displacement. Tumors. Fear. Loneliness. Sleeplessness. Violence.
How can my heart understand these things? How can I keep these things inside of me? How do they keep these things inside of them? How do they? How?
Because there is joy.
Remembering an old movie. Sharing food and drinks. Generosity. Laughter. Gratitude.
How do these things exist at the same time? My heart is broken and it is full. They break my heart every time I see them, yet they make it full every time I see them.
I read somewhere that I should notice what makes my heart ache. And then I should do that. Every. Single. Day. For the rest of my life.
Learning from refugees makes my heart ache. Their pain, their sorrow, and their sadness is so real and so raw. And yet it’s not all of them. They are full of joy, excitement, intelligence, and desire. They have lost everything, and they have every reason to quit, every reason to lay down and give up. And then they show up with a smile on their face, speak to me in broken English, give me the homemade baklava they made just for me, and kiss me on the cheek as though I am their sister.
I am their sister.
They are my family.
I thought getting a master’s degree in social work would help me understand their pain. I thought my degree would help me help them. But what really helped me was to hear their stories.
I have come to know that we cannot fear someone when we understand them. We cannot hate someone when we can see ourselves in them.
He told me that his wife died, and instead of grieving he had to hide and run from murderers seeking to take his life. And when he finally reached some sort of physical safety, his body relaxed and the grief set in. He was sitting in front of me a mere 10 days after setting foot into this country. His sobbing began when I asked about his hopes and dreams for his life in the U.S.
He told me that now he will rest. He had worked all of his life, always sacrificing to take care of his family. He was the oldest in his family, and his father had died when he was a young boy. He had worked and worked and worked and worked and worked and worked. He was so very tired. I could see it in his eyes. Behind those tears.
Now he would rest.
After refugees are resettled to the United States, they are required to find employment to support themselves. They are loaned the money to purchase the airplane ticket to this country and are required to pay it back within months of arriving. For those who speak some English, are relatively healthy, and have some skills from their previous life, employment is relatively easy to obtain.
For those less fortunate, they start with basic English classes. They struggle to obtain job training to develop entry-level skills to get their first job. They are often forced into employment in factories where speaking English is a low priority, the shifts are odd hours, and the labor is taxing on the body. For some, physical and mental health issues overwhelm and consume their lives, making employment extremely difficult.
Being here is a dream. But it is also a curse. There is no rest. They must keep pushing and striving and dreaming and hoping, because their struggle is not finished.
Being resettled is not the end of the journey. It is just the beginning.
This is not my weight to bear, yet I feel the burden. The amount of confusion and worry and fear and sadness that I feel is minuscule to that which they hold with them every second of the day. Are my tears worth crying? Is the pain I feel helping them?
The heartache that I feel when strangers tell me their stories pushes me to continue to fight for them. Their hope teaches me to hope. Their success teaches me what the human soul is capable of.
I thought I would be the one helping them, teaching them, saving them.
As I continue to do this work, I am realizing that I was the student all along.