Should We Embrace the “Refugee” in All of Us?
There is something that connects the refugees who are served through Catholic Charities and all those born and raised in the United States. We all have “refugee moments”; times in our lives when our world is turned upside down and we need to pick up the pieces and start over, oftentimes with the assistance of someone who helps us get back on our feet. Our refugee moment may be due to illness, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, divorce, and natural disasters, such as the tornados that recently affected the Midwest and the Japanese earthquake that impacted lives throughout the world a year ago. The list of “refugee moments” is as endless as our imagination can take us. Anyone who has attended my presentations about refugees knows I usually start off my talks pondering this idea with those in the room. We gaze at each other, as if we can actually see the wheels turning, and inevitably many heads start nodding in confirmation, realizing the connection.
Why is it then that so many refugees come to me feeling uncomfortable when someone in this country labels them with the word “refugee?” As I gaze outside on this incredible spring day with buds bursting off limbs that seemed barren and dead, I wonder if it is because we have come to feel that struggles, weaknesses, and our need to put our pride to the side and reach out to others to lend a helping hand is something undesirable. It’s funny how one person can look at a blanket of fresh snow and see a winter wonderland, while another frowns with disgust. It makes me think of times I have heard homilies at church telling us to embrace our crosses in life. When I was little, I pondered those words and couldn’t figure out why anyone should embrace the tough stuff. It was like telling my teacher thank you for giving me five chapters to read and that pop quiz. Really, you want me to embrace a cross? Seriously?
Each time I meet a refugee family at the airport and see their suitcases circling the baggage carousel, cradling their life’s possessions, I see the similarity in the Bible of young parents and their newborn son escaping their homeland and fleeing to Egypt from a terrorist named Herod. The parents I serve file for refugee status with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees; they leave their homeland in order to keep their children safe. Their journey to the United States, similar to that holy family fleeing to Egypt is a long one replete with uncertainty, challenges and struggles, i.e., filled with refugee moments. I see the face of Geetanjali Sharma, a young Bhutanese girl who recently arrived with her parents and younger sister. “Geet” is a beautiful girl, inside and out, and despite the challenges to start over again she has hopes of becoming a doctor someday; perhaps practicing at Mayo Clinic alongside the same individuals who help so many refugees get back on their feet. Geet walks with determination and grace and answers questions directly and honestly. She appears self-assured and optimistic. You might say her demeanor has taken a dramatic turn since the evening she arrived at Rochester Airport this autumn, scared, apprehensive, and unsure of her destiny. When Geet and I spoke recently over ice cream, we reminisced about her first evening in this country. She and her family spent their first evening in Rochester feeling jet-lagged. Because of the time difference, they stayed up the entire evening writing me a note of gratitude. I asked Geet what she remembered about our first meeting. She told me her feelings of fear and apprehension lifted when she saw my eyes, because according to Geet, she felt they were courageous eyes she could trust, and that made her feel strong. She said because I told her she had nothing to fear and we would be with her every step of the way, she knew everything would be all right. Since then, Geet has made friends at her new high school in Rochester. Her friends come from various parts of the world and they too have hopes and dreams. Geet is an excellent student and I have no doubt many of her dreams will come true, although I cannot guarantee she will not experience other refugee moments in her life. I marvel at her desire to become a doctor because her motivation is selfless. She says she wants to be able to make a difference in the lives of others who need a helping hand, and she wants a better life for her parents. Money is not the motivation and neither is status or power; she simply wants to give back to her community and her family.
Now, let’s come back to that young couple traveling to Egypt at the hands of Herod, in order to bring their son to safety. Money, status, and power did not motivate them, or their son. In fact, the young boy embraced his refugee experience, and the cross, in order to save others. He taught all of us that Easter joy only comes after embracing the refugee experience and our crosses in life, and that providence dictates that greatness can come from something we define as tragic. When He told us that the weak shall lead the strong and the last shall be first, I believe He was letting us know the value of sacrifice, humility and, yes, even our brokenness.
Ironically, a few months after Geet’s arrival, I was faced with my own “refugee moment” when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am on the road to good health and many blessings have come my way through those who love me and have given me a helping hand. It was I who looked into the eyes of loved ones and caregivers, seeing their courage and support, and knew I could handle whatever came my way, with them by my side. But, it was the example of that young boy escaping Egypt, selflessly accepting his cross in order to save me, who guided my every step and continues to do so. The answer is yes! We should all embrace the refugee in us.
Submitted by: Mary Alessio/Past Director of Refugee Resettlement