I once met with a refugee who was days away from graduating from college. He was proud of this accomplishment, not only because he was the first member of his family to achieve such a feat, but also because he was proof that his family had made it in America. He was the first member of his family to leave their refugee camp, as he received his visa first. He was forced to leave on his own and almost 24 hours later arrived in sunny Florida. He recounted his long journey and remembers stepping off the plane and being met with resettlement staff at the airport. He smiled remembering their warm welcome, and laughed at his shock over seeing the highways and skyscrapers all around. He was whisked away and soon arrived in his new apartment. He was shown where everything was and asked if he had any questions. Here is where I assumed that he would ask what was next or maybe state that he was hungry and wanted something to eat or was tired. Instead he pointed at the square box in top of the kitchen counter and asked what that was. He meant the microwave.
Being an immigrant in the United States, I thought I understood the mixed emotions, the hope, sadness, the fear, excitement, and nostalgia that follow someone who migrates to another country. While that feeling is shared by refugees, this story shows a different reality for those who flee their home and seek refuge in this country.
This young man is one of the 80,000 refugees who arrive each year to live in America. He and his family were forced from their home because of fear of persecution and lived in a refugee camp before being resettled in the United States. Refugees, unlike immigrants, are individuals who migrate somewhere else because they fear harm due to their race, religion, nationality, participation in a particular group. They seek asylum while in their home country and then are granted the chance to be resettle in another country that offers them a safe haven, such as the United States
I came to know this young man because right out of college I “accidentally” began working with an agency that resettled refugees. I say that because I knew they helped victims of conflict but didn’t really understand the population they served. South Florida is a mecca for vacationers who want to enjoy the sand and sun; investors and financiers looking for a nexus between Latin America and the United States; and immigrants looking for a better economic life. Unbeknownst to most is the fact that it is also home to one of the largest refugee populations in the country.
Refugees; however, are found in most communities in the U.S. There are Congolese and Bosnian refugees in Boise, Idaho and Serbians in Arizona. You can find Bhutanese refugees in Jacksonville, Florida and Iraqi on the East Coast. While not all groups experience the culture-shock the young man in my story experienced, they all need assistance acculturating. Agencies who resettle refugees do a great job with assisting in finding them appropriate housing, jobs training and placement, food and medical assistance and helping them thrive in their new home communities. However, these programs are funded by the federal government and with budget cuts, they are being affected. Many times we look for places to volunteer our time or donate our money. I encourage people to reach out to these agencies and help others start their journey towards the American dream. Money is not the only necessary thing. Sometimes, helping someone learn to ride a bus has a bigger impact, as it gives the person a sense of purpose, freedom and independence, and the opportunity to explore a new world.
To look for refugee resettlement programs in the United States, please see the following link.