Why My Work With Refugees Is A Gift To Myself

They’re helping me turn my eyes toward the light that holds, no matter what cruelty claims victory.

The walls of the refugee resettlement agency where I work are like a scrapbook of living history. A poster that says, “Einstein was a refugee.” A construction paper speech bubble of marker and stars, where a Congolese girl wrote “I have a dream…that when I grow up I want to be a doctor and a singer. And I dream that every countries should never have any wars…I also dream that I should have a beautiful ipad.” A sixth-grader’s drawing of the Statue of Liberty: a green lady standing above New York City. The tallest skyscraper comes to her knee. Her right arm becomes her torch, as if it’s grafted to her wrist. As if the kid who drew her was illustrating the lines of the Emma Lazarus poem that breaks my heart these days: “[the] flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome.”

These days, the refugee resettlement community is reeling from the Supreme Court decision to reinstate part of Trump’s ban on refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, until it will hear the case in the fall. Waiting for the court to reconvene after its summer recess and then deliberate is not just a matter of patience for the tens of thousands of refugees who need to come to the United States. Their lives are at stake, as they wait in refugee camps where water is rationed, and in cities where they have no protection. They are the imprisoned lightning “yearning to breathe free.”

Every day I go to work, I see refugees who’ve been there—in the arid camps and the hostile cities and the concrete detention facilities—waiting for a safe place they can stay. I get to hear them learning English, laughing at mishaps, sometimes speaking their dreams. I want to say I hear them breathing free, but I don’t. These days, they’re trying to navigate the jarring roller coaster of U.S. doors slamming shut, then cracking open again. How can they feel safe in a country that bans their kind? And yet, they’re helping me grieve, and even celebrate, the light they bring.

Working with refugees is not a good deed or a noble career; it’s a gift to me. As the powers that be debate whether or not to welcome refugees to this country, the refugees in my life keep welcoming me like family. They’re helping me turn my eyes toward the light that holds, no matter what cruelty claims victory.

I keep trying to tell my refugee friends “I’m sorry.” Your hometown was burned down again. You don’t know if your brother got out alive. That MRI reminds you of the war. And now, a ban that feels like the persecution you came here to escape.

When the talk of a Muslim ban started in the 2016 Presidential campaign, I tried to tell my friend Azhar I’m sorry. “No, I’m happy,” she told me. She saw the stars larger than ever last night, after looking through a telescope for the first time. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a bottle,” she said. “But I want every day to be better.” The day after she and her husband appeared in a New York Times story on the uncertainty caused by the recent Supreme Court decision, Azhar was planning a picnic for the refugee community in New Haven, Conn., where she and her family are making a new home. It’s time to celebrate Eid, the holiday after Ramadan, and the 4th of July.

Some people have a way of drawing out light. Like Azhar, who has eyes to see through a glass, brightly. It is a light you can barely perceive, and it means more light. Enough to sustain us through dark hours, and astonish us sometimes.

Some refugees bring the kind of light that makes grieving bright. I felt it when I drove a group of refugee kids on a field trip. On the way back, one of the girls was chattering away—“Did you see the swan? Did you row the boat? Wonder what we’ll have for lunch?”

Her new friend from Sudan, Azhar’s daughter Lames, didn’t understand much English at the time.

But when her friend started talking dessert—“Wonder what we’ll have—cookies or ice cream…” Lames chimed in: “I love you, ice cream!”

One of the things I love about working with refugees is hearing the beautiful ways they speak English as they’re becoming Americans—turns of phrase that are often more poignant than the standard ways of saying things. That you in “I love you, ice cream,” makes all the difference—especially to me, the daughter of an Egyptian immigrant who made a new home in Alabama.

My dad was not a refugee: He chose to leave Egypt, to become a cardiologist in the United States. But like the Middle Eastern and African refugees who are now trying to learn what “light n’ sweet” means to work at Dunkin’ Donuts, my dad found himself in an unlikely place, with a language all its own. His English was good, but his idioms were a little off: “It takes two to dance in the tango…Don’t be so half-hazard.”

Part of my heart is hollow since my dad died over four years ago, and it’s that hollow part that fills with light when I make friends with refugees, knowing how much they’ve lost to be here.

Lames has never been to her homeland—the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where there’s a genocide happening as I write. Like thousands of Sudanese refugees, Lames’s parents fled to Egypt, where they faced hate crimes and police brutality on the street. Many risk their lives to get out of Egypt. Hundreds die in the Sinai trying to get to Israel. Others load up in boats that might sink.

“These people lost hope,” Azhar told me.

But she did not. She believed—“one percent of one million,” she said—that better days would come. When her husband asked if she wanted to go to Israel, she said no. “The way is dangerous. Let’s wait,” she told him. “If we stay in Egypt, at least we can get an education. And maybe one day the world will change.”

Although Lames’s parents got out of Egypt with university degrees, their people are not free. Sudan’s Islamist government is massacring Muslim Africans who don’t want to live by Shar’ia law.

Not long after they arrived to the U.S., Lames’s dad told his case manager how they made it through the worst times: “You have to do picnics. Otherwise, you’ll get depressed.”

For his birthday, they went to New York City.

“What did you see?” I asked Lames.

“The lady in the water.”

“What lady?” I asked.

“The lady in the water holding light.”

Ashley Makar is the Outreach Coordinator for IRIS — Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven, CT. Her writing on refugees has appeared in The Washington Post, Tablet Magazine, and Killing the Buddha. She has an ebook of essays called You Were Strangers.

Illustration provided by author. Parts of this essay were originally published in Killing the Buddha.

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