Monthly Archives: March 2015

Life as it is Lived: On Encountering Refugees


We tend to see refugees as the unfortunate refuse of the (mostly) African countries that they come from, because, well, so many also assume that most countries in Africa are wretched—that normal life cannot exist anywhere on the continent, so teeming humanity pile into boats in search of a better way to live.

Fact: most do not want to leave their countries—they simply have no choice.  This is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee: choice.  I have had this discussion so many times with my students and I have asked them: what could make you leave the only home you have known at a moment’s notice?  Most cannot begin to conceive  the kind of situations that  be so dire that they would need (not want) to flee with only the clothes on their back. I ask them to think it through, step by step.  The emotional and physical obstacles to simply leave one’s country is beyond my own comprehension, let alone, the enormity of making a new home in a culture so different in so many fundamental ways, that one must reorient every single aspect of their lives.   Resettlement is an often brutal process, often taking years before a refugee can feel a semblance of balance and normalcy.

IMG_1715

Recently, with my students in a Sicily we encountered refugees daily, on the streets, and in a refugee center where they lived a life that seemed tenuous, at best.    In the center, I  asked my students to look beyond what the situation seemed to be:

image

young  men and one young women were extremely friendly, well-dressed, joked easily and attempted (and succeeded!) in making some wonderful bonds with my students.   They seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors their own age, to be able to relax and tell things about themselves to people who were interested—and who cared

We ate lunch with them. Afterwards, we all played various games and sang popular songs and posed for group and individual photos.  Not until  later, when two of the refugees led us on a short tour of their temporary home, did some of my students begin to feel uncomfortable.  A few expressed it to me, but , as one claimed, he “could not put his finger on it.”  Because some things must be felt and processed in the privacy of one’s own thoughts, I nodded knowingly and advised them to write in their journals and attempt to think things through.   I encouraged them to think about the reality of their lives’—not just what was presented to us, or what we wanted to see—to console ourselves that all is well—after all, they had food in their stomachs and a place to lay their heads at night.

 

image

So what was it?

Upon our return back to the small , suburban Liberal Arts college , I met with three of the students who shared their uneasiness with me.   This pleased me because  not all will see or feel this immediately.

My students identified so many of the factors contributing to the  difficulties the refugees would experience.  They included the fact that they are non-Europeans now living and tryng to fit in a European culture.   That they are far, far, far from their homes of origin and therefore separated from any influence of their own culture, the culture that has formed them as the people they are today.   That  they seemed conscious of being the grateful all the time—in fact, the benevolence bestowed upon them fairly demands that they be in a constant state of thanking someone (or many) —which can be exhausting.  That the refugee did not necessarily choose the country in which s/he would land. And in the case of Italy, few want to stay.  They lack a great level of agency in the center, a place they are grateful to be in , but can in no way be called “home”.  In some ways they are infantisized: they are told when and what they will eat, etc. They can become anxious, hopeless, depressed, nostalgic.  And they may cycle through these emotions many different times.  Because , really, who can forget their home?

Often, the treacherous journey is just the beginning. What can be seen as the real struggle begins when their feet touch solid ground.   And soon, that ground does not feel so solid.   What will their lives’ become?

Much has been made of the news media’s coverage of the sea voyages of  refugees.   The rickety , unseaworthy boats,  the drawn and mournful faces of the survivors.  And some will, haughtily, declare the statistics: that less than 10 percent of these refugees arrive by boat, so why does the media insist on portraying these refugees?

 

Because , from a humanitarian point of view, this population matters. And they matter a lot.  And no sooner has the refugee survived perhaps the most perilous journey of his or her life,  reality sets in. This is a hard and brutal road.  Many I have spoken to wish they had never left home.

My students met the only girl currently living at the center—the rest are young African men. She is young. Her parents are dead. She has no relatives in Italy.  She is a beautiful girl with a warm and welcoming smile.  Yes, she welcomed us. She was eager to make a connection, especially with my female students.image

And my students listened to her and , I am proud to say, really, really heard her. And what was amazing to me is that they each sought commonalities , not differences. And they bonded over things that girls everywhere bond over.  What impressed me was their was no objectifying of her—she was just Blessing, a teenage Nigerian girl who simply wanted to make friends.  What she shared of her life occurred after she felt comfortable and she shared details of her own free will.

************

One day , sitting at an outdoor cafe despite the chilly weather, I and my students encountered a Sengalese street vendor. Very tall and handsome,  the many approached our table and smiled immediately at one of my students and said: “You are from America—you are black, like me, but not as dark!” We all laughed and marveled at his perception.  This man had dignity. He was well-spoken. He engaged us on any number of topics, including all of the languages he can speak.  He was not pressuring us to buy anything, which surprised me.  Maybe he knew one of us would buy something anyway.  I had my eye on a trio of bracelets.  He caught my eye. “Ahhhh, he said.  You like these, don’t you?” He smiled widely.  He placed them on the table and I bought them.

image

He said he needed to move on , but shook all of our hands, and then touched his palm to his heart. Nodded and said that he hoped he would see us again before we left.   Before he walked away, he told us that he lived in Catania. That he did not always look the way we were viewing him that day—with all of his various wears hanging about his body for sale.  ” You should see me when I am at home and not working!  I live in the city, I am different, not always working.  I have a life!”

Indeed.  And it gave my students, who will be trying to figure all of this out for a long time, something to think about.   A refugee who is making his way in his new life. Who no longer thinks of himself as a refugee ,  (nor should we), but instead,  just a man, like any other working and living his life.

An individual who deserves to be happy.

 

Tagged , , ,

The Unknowable Reality of the Refugee


“While every refugees story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage: the courage not only to survive , but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”

Antonio Guterres

The lives’ of refugees are often unknowable, unfathomable, though they are often portrayed in one of two ways: either as the noble and unfortunate sufferer or the unwelcome undesirables who should go back to wherever they came from. I understand and recognize the dichotomous thinking, how easy it is to be tempted to put a person or a situation that we do not know or understand, in a box, a category. In my encounters with refugees, I attempt to speak as honestly with them as possible . It is I that usually seeks them out , either in refugee camps, reception centers or on the streets of the Sicilian town in which they attempt to live and work and begin their lives’ anew. It is rare for them to initiate contact with me, but it happens.

One day in the open market, I stood with a few of my bright, curious students, under a large umbrella, tasting cheese and otherwise enjoying our day, when a man approached me, by tapping me on the shoulder. I turned around and he stood in front of me , smiling. My students assumed that I knew him, but in fact, I do not ever remember seeing him before, but he insisted that I had.

He handed me a photo and a piece of paper in which he scrawled his name , some Arabic writing and a few other things. He asked me to help him find a job. And then, just to help him, period.

Refugee I met in the open market.

Refugee I met in the open market.

He engaged my students in some conversation, but , kept his eyes on me the entire time. He kept asking me to call him, to help him. Again, he referenced that he’d seen me in the camp and assumed I was an aid worker, in a position to offer, well, aid.

These are the times when I question the responsibility of my encounters with such a vulnerable population. There are severe limits to what I can do. There are limits to so much of what any of us can do for the refugee in any given situation. I saw the desperation in this man’s eyes. When I relayed the story to a friend upon my return home, she felt he probably wanted to exploit me, in some way, perhaps taking advantage of what he perceived to be my kindness. Another friend shook his head slowly, wondered if I knew what I was doing at all.

 

Notes, written.

Notes, written.

I saved his photo and the piece of paper. It serves to remind me of the limits of my work. It also reminds me of the importance of doing what I can in fact do.

I never saw this man again.

A week later, my mentor called me back home in the states.

Hey,” he said. “Remember that refugee who gave you his photo in the open market?”

I told him that of course I remembered him. I could not get him out of my mind.

I saw him surrounded by police the other day, on the street. They arrested him.”

For what?” I asked.

A soft,  chuckle on the other end of the phone, one of frustration, not of mirth.

That,” he said, “I do not know. It could be anything.”

In fact, my mentor was right. It could be anything at all. And no one will ever know.

The unknowable life of the refugee is the reason why I do what I do. Their stories matter. But in fact, it takes patience in the telling , in the understanding.

Their lives’ are often ones of desperation. They are not perfect people—in that way, they are just like the rest of us: imperfect in our humanity, just trying, trying every day.

But the playing field, as they say , is not a level one.

I do not know where this man is, what he wanted from me that day, or what might have happened to him.

But I think about him nearly every day and I still, I wonder. And of course, I hope for the very best.

Tagged , ,