Every evening I hop in bed, pull out my phone and scroll through the news. My mama heart is tugged in all sorts of directions. Sometimes the troubles of the world can be utterly overwhelming. We don’t need to look far to find some incredibly deep sadness. For me, the refugee crisis has not only been a subject that breaks my heart from afar, but it’s also been one that has moved closer into every part of who I am, right here in my own home and community. Women I once saw as newly arrived strangers have become sisters, the closest of friends, teaching me about giving and receiving in new and necessary ways.
This is not a post about sadness, though there is a place for that, and this is not a post about pity. This is a post about some of the strongest, bravest, most impactful women in our community and the importance of their friendships. It is a post about the resiliency and strength that our sisters who call themselves refugees bring to our community.
When you scroll through your news feed you may see images of men, women and children in dire need of food and safety and housing due to conflict and political unrest. You may see images of tent cities and long UNHCR lines with malnourished children awaiting food rations. Frail infants awaiting urgent medical care and children in dirt-floored schools. This is real. Real people are behind these images. After a great deal of vetting and travel and separation from all they’ve known, “these people” become our neighbors. The family next door, the woman in the line at the store, the driver at the light next to you- the world is all around you.
The impact the refugee community has had on me started when I was a kid. I didn’t know the word refugee at the time though. I just knew them as my classmates and friends and I knew they resettled in our community due to persecution in their homeland. It was a lot to try to understand as a kid. As a young adult, I moved to Minnesota and quickly fell in love with the hundred languages in my South Minneapolis neighborhood. I began to learn the stories of my neighbors in the refugee communities around me.
In college, I began working with a refugee resettlement agency and pretty much never stopped. The impact of the communities I worked with is long-standing. They have changed who I am as a woman and a mother. It would start as a cup of tea or a ride to an appointment, maybe a lesson on how to navigate the local bus line or how to purchase food at the grocery store. My favorite would be standing at the arrivals gate at the airport to welcome a newly arriving family moving into our community. Quickly it would turn to sharing stories and jokes and long meals. Somali sambusa or Egyptian stuffed grape leaves or Bhutanese momos are some of my favorites.
The hugs goodbye grow longer and the phone calls become more frequent. And the next thing you know, the young woman that started as a timid stranger is one day standing up as a bridesmaid in my wedding and we’re holding each others’ babies.
As I became a mother I’d seek advice and my friends would seek mine. When I struggled to provide enough breastmilk for my baby and worried about giving him formula, a friend told me about her journey out of her village as a young child. Seeking refuge with neighbors from her village in the jungle, she was in charge of caring for a newborn baby separated from his mother. She told me about how she would pick bamboo leaves and collect drops of water to pour into the baby’s mouth until they found safety at the border. I am forever grateful that I have options when I feed my babies and think of those who do not, grateful for the wise thinking of my friend when she was just a child herself.
When you’ve sat on the floor and held your new friend as she watches home videos of her wedding, seeing her husband she buried months ago in her homeland flash across the screen, your perspective on life changes, too. When you see her get up each day and send her children to the best school she can find, while welcoming you into her home for meals and conversation, you begin thinking differently about how you welcome others into your own home and the smile that someone you walk by might need. Her courage to do her best in a new land starts to give you courage in your day to day, too.
When you pick a new friend up who has just arrived in our country to go to the long list of appointments she has and realize she’s never stepped foot on an elevator before, needing to hold your hand out of fear, your ability to be kind and gracious with others in public takes a sudden shift. You never know who just traveled the world over to start anew. Her bravery to step one foot in front of the other changes me, and gives me a sudden reminder that we’re all trying new things each day and patience with each other is vital.
I’ve watched women come their first days in our country with fear on their faces and worry in their hearts, only to rise to be some of the most impactful women in our community in a short matter of time. A friend of mine found out her unborn baby had a serious medical condition just two days after she arrived from a refugee camp in Southeast Asia. She felt like her life was crumbling before her in a new land. I’ve watched communities come around women like her, befriending her and wrapping her in their arms, just to see her take off and prove her strength to all of us. This friend is now a medical interpreter in our local hospitals and knows more medical terminology than my young self tried to once teach her.
I’ve found that the women who come into our community as refugees are strong. They have a depth of skills to offer. However, it’s difficult to share these skills when you are in a new environment in a new country with new languages and culture all around you. This is why these friendships are so important. I’ve learned a new word from my friends; interdependency. I’ve learned that it’s important and necessary for us all to give and receive, that there isn’t a them and us, but that we are in this together as women. Our job is to help bring out each other’s potential while allowing others to help us find ours.
I’ve been there when babies were born. And they’ve been there when mine were born. We’ve stood by each other through grief and joy and our lives have been changed by each others’ friendships. When I first met some of these women as a college student I showed up to help. It didn’t take long to see that these women had just as much to give to their community, if not more than I did. There was no place for pity, just friendship. Their stories began in unfortunate circumstances, but resiliency and strength quickly, and sometimes fiercely, pushed through.
For me, World Refugee Day has become a day to celebrate and grieve all at once. My feelings on this day are conflicted. On one hand, I am extremely grateful to have so many incredible friends who have moved here from around the world. Everything that they bring to our community is irreplaceable, special and impactful. On the other hand, the circumstances that brought them here are grievous and truly unfair. I can’t emphasize enough the pain that has taken place in our dear friends’ lives. And that is why I choose to celebrate their strength and beauty on this day.
I have always said that these women who call themselves refugees are my favorite people who I wish never had to come here, but since they are, I am forever grateful.
If you are looking for ways to welcome newcomers to your community, please seek out your local refugee resettlement agency for more information. There is a whole world of wonderful women around you!