Who Identifies as a Refugee?
Refugee: A person who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence. A displaced person who has been forced to cross national borders and cannot return home safely.
Refugees in America are often confused for being an alienated and helpless community of outsiders; separate and out of touch from the general population. Contrary to popular belief, one might be surprised to know of how easily they are able to adapt to new environments. Chances are, you live nearby a family who identifies as refugees, but if not, you have most likely interacted with someone of refugee status in your life without knowing.
This past Spring semester I had the chance to get involved with a refugee youth mentoring program at my university, in partnership with IICONN, the International Institute of Connecticut. I had heard of the organization prior to signing up, but I was not fully aware of the extent to which they were involved in the surrounding refugee community. However, I signed up as a volunteer with the intention of “what can I do to get involved for the organization’s sake,” rather than “what can I get out of this?” Essentially, we met with youth refugee students of neighboring school systems roughly aged 12-18 and gave them a space to hang out, have fun, play sports, and let loose with some cool older college kids for a few hours a week.
The Inspiring Experience of One Girl with Big Dreams
One Thursday afternoon while volunteering, a young woman singled me out and asked if I would be her homework aid that day. We sat in a corner of the bustling campus center, where she showed me her assignment for a group she was involved in at school called the Hope Club. Essentially, it is a safe haven for refugee students in her city’s school system. She had to summarize a set of laws pertaining to refugee rights and deliver her findings in an easy-to-digest way for the rest of the group the following day. She was super nervous to present, but I could already tell she was a natural born leader; as she already shared with me, with full confidence, her dream to be a lawyer when she grew up. Some of the concepts were difficult for her to understand, which led to her asking me questions such as “how do you become a US citizen?” and “if the Immigration Services comes to our school, we don’t have to tell them anything about our identity?” I was stuck. I did not know how to answer her inquiries in a way that was informative and easy to comprehend. Truthfully, I did not even know the answers.
I do not know her country of origin, as the program recommended keeping conversations less focused on their past and more about the present and future. However, as I spent more and more time with her, I quickly grew to love her…she is hard not to love. She has a quick wit and light attitude, and is practically good at everything she does: from homework assignments, to personable conversations, to any sport she plays. Curious, driven, talented, focused, kind, confident, soft, independent, hard working and grateful only scratch the surface of what this young woman has to offer. She has an undeniable inner beauty, but she does not always expose her soft side that is kept hidden behind the hard exterior.
I specifically remember the day she pulled me aside and shared one of her original poems with me. It was a metaphor for the different kinds of people in your life as different parts of a tree: leaves, branches, and roots: each with a different role and importance. Leaves are easily swayed and do not stay long, branches will stay close to you but you cannot depend upon them because they are fragile, and roots are those who will stick with you through “hurricanes.” The moral of her piece was to recognize that leaves are those who will breeze through your life, but how you cannot blame them for their actions, because they are only leaves, they roll with the wind. The short and messy, pencil-scribbled poem to reached a higher level of insight into the way the world works than what people I know are capable of.
Refugees are not some fictitious group of people disconnected from our day-to-day world. In fact, the group of refugee students I had the pleasure of meeting displayed how hard the community works every day to situate themselves within their new place of refuge. I met some of the most radiant and inspiring individuals through this program. They are eager to perfect their English, attend University, learn our favorite pastimes, listen to popular music, and earn a proper living. It is time for Americans and global citizens alike to destroy their preconceived notions of refugees, and expand their minds to the different ways in which their fellow inhabitants of earth are working to balance their past life and cultural norms with a completely new and understandably scary environment. IICONN is just one organization that serves to support and empower New Americans. After all: refugees are people, too.
Find out more about the mission and vision of ICONN here.
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