I spend nearly every day of the week hanging out at the houses of refugees or having them over my place. On weekends many of us attend church together, all weekend long. On weekdays others of us eat lunch together; I always look forward to 12:30. Several of us practice music together, all of us converse together and call out the ways we appreciate each other, and some of my acquaintances who are refugees open up their houses till midnight to share ugali and rice and greens and fish.
Just this Sunday, I visited a Congolese pastor’s house as a stranger and left with an invitation to return anytime. As I left, he made sure to point out his apartment number and floor so I could find it next time. Thank you, Pastor David.
I recently realized that I talk about my friends who are refugees differently than I talk about my native-born American friends, particularly those who are white or monocultural. Sometimes this lends context, but it can also be problematic if lending to an othering effect.
“Reaching out to” or “serving” our refugee neighbors or any marginalized population in order to feel good about ourselves hinders us from fully engaging with the group being “served.” When we do this, we are looking through a lens of power versus powerless. Although we may be doing good deeds and growing in our understanding of particular refugee populations, subconsciously thinking in terms of power dynamics blocks our hearts from receiving love.
We native-born Americans are not the saviors. But we can be good friends.
Here’s an idea: let’s develop deeper friendships so refugees become fully human in our eyes, fully capable of giving while still fully needy, like us native-born American humans. Let’s open our hearts to receive love from the strangers and soon-to-be-friends we seek to welcome.
While the humanity of refugees is not a question, it is important to note that the human experiences of refugees have been shaped by horrors like war and statelessness. Refugees have experienced things most native-born Americans have not. Their experiences will vary by age and country and contingency. The histories of the countries they have fled and lived in have shaped them in significant ways. The color of their skin will also impact their life chances once in the United States. We must consider the systems in place that affect their daily lives.
Refugees in the United States have overcome a lot: less than one percent of refugees worldwide are resettled, and it is common to spend almost two decades in camps or foreign cities before coming to the US, if granted status here.
Yet once they receive this status and move yet again, they come to a land that often treats them poorly.
Several of my Congolese-American friends have told me that Africans do not believe them when they say the United States is not heaven. (I witnessed this over
-admiring attitude firsthand in DRC myself.) But the truth is that when they come to the United States, they can barely make rent. Their living conditions are not necessarily significantly different. They start at the bottom of the workforce. Academic degrees do not always carry over to the American system. In short, life is still quite difficult.
Take pause today to consider these injustices. Do a little research. Sleep on what you discover. Wake up woke.
Now take pause to consider the ways refugees give to your community and the United States, the ways you have seen them serve. Thank them for their contributions. Be creative about it.
Today I stand with countless global citizens to celebrate world refugee day. It has been a truly splendid day full of energy and smiles and even a bit of dancing (see the InTandem – a Flashmob of Empathy video below from Denver’s World Refugee Day rally.) I particularly think of the ways my friends are bettering my life through their hospitality and friendship and food. The main ingredients I have noted are time, love, and ugali, given in generous portions. I am grateful for my friends who are refugees and am incredibly glad to be a part of their lives as they are in mine.