Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya

[serialposts]Over the past year, as I’ve had a crash course in refugee resettlement, I’ve learned so much. I am grateful every day for the stories I’ve heard and the facts I’ve gleaned about this vulnerable, misunderstood, and often forgotten population.

I’ve learned:

  • That only one percent of the 14 million-plus refugees in the world will ever be resettled.
  • That many of our planet’s refugees languish in camps for years, if not decades. Catholic Family Service employs one interpreter who was born, raised, married, AND had a child in a camp in Burma.
  • How crowded and dangerous some of the camps are. (Research Dadaab camp in Kenya to see what I mean). One of the families I’ve met spent eighteen years in Dadaab, where all five of their boys were raised. The mom woke up at 4 in the morning to get in line for water, and sometimes she still went back to their tent empty-handed. The family received rations every two weeks, but the meager corn, rice and would only last for one.
  • How extremely difficult it is to start over in a new place when you don’t know the language—and you may not even know what a toilet, light switch, or refrigerator is!
  • That refugees pay taxes and have to pay back the government for the flights that brought them here.
  • How many of the refugees send money—often earned by working long hours at physicall-taxing jobs—back to their loved ones in camps.
  • That most of our U.S. population doesn’t know about refugee resettlement and thinks refugees are illegal immigrants. In fact, they are legally here by a mandate of the government and can hold a job, open a business, and attend school. After one year, they apply for a green card, and after five years, they can take the test to become a citizen.
  • How resilient refugees are. They are hard-working, grateful, resourceful people who only want a chance at safety and freedom. One of my co-workers always has a smile on his face, and loves working as a case manager for new arrivals. You’d never know that his entire family was massacred in Rwanda during the genocide in the 90’s. Out of forty family members, only he survived. His continued faith in God inspires and convicts me daily.

Working with refugees can be challenging–especially emotionally. We hear stories of rape, torture, and starvation on a regular basis. I want to adopt every barefoot child of war that comes into our offices. And I long to throw my arms every dark-skinned woman I meet who has only known oppression and hatred. These precious daughters of God treasure something as small as a piece of paper stating they’ve come to one of our English classes for twelve weeks.

But oh, the joys. There’s nothing like watching a group of teenagers play soccer with a multi-colored group of kids or connecting a former teacher with a group of Burmese adults who’ve never held a pencil. More often than not, our volunteers continue helping us long-term, because they fall in love with the beautiful people they’re serving.

One volunteer in particular, who had struggled with depression and was almost homebound by anxiety before she started regularly helping out in ESL classes, has become a champion for refugees. She calls them “my people” and talks about them to everyone she meets. “They changed my life,” she says.

I know what she means.

the joys and challenges of working with refugees, part two

by Dena Dyer time to read: 3 min