What Refugees Want You to Know
The refugee crisis can feel like something happening to people far away that we can never understand - something to big and overwhelming to be changed. When we begin to see refugees as the "other" our compassion for them will dry up. Unfortunately, many people have never met a refugee, so it is even harder for them to see how much they have in common with refugees. So today I want to share five things that refugees want you to know. These are things a refugee might want to tell you face to face if they had the chance, things that show how much we all have in common.
1. I didn't choose to be a refugee.
Refugees don't choose to be refugees. They don't choose for their country to enter a five year long (or fifty year long) civil war. They don't choose to be persecuted for their beliefs or religion or race or political opinions. Refugee women don't choose to be sexually assaulted. Refugee children don't choose to give up their education, their childhood, and their friends. Refugee men don't choose the situations that force them to make unimaginably difficult decisions for their families.
But they have no choice.
The situations that cause people to flee and become refugees are outside of their control. If you found yourself in a similar situation, you wouldn't choose to be a refugee either.
2. I want to go back home.
The vast majority of refugees just want to go back home. They want things to return to normal for themselves, their family, their community, or their country. Refugee children want to be back in school, refugee parents want to be working and providing for their families again, and all refugees are getting tired of having to lean on charity month after month or year after year. CNN did an excellent piece highlighting the stories of of 55 Syrians. If you read a few of them you'll find that almost every individual interviewed dreams of going back home eventually to rebuild the country they love. If you had to flee your country to save your life, you too would be counting the days until you could go home.
3. I am thankful for all the kind people who have helped me.
Yes, refugees want to go home, but those who can't have to lean heavily on the assistance and protection of others for their basic needs. Most refugees are abundantly grateful for that help. They are thankful for the volunteers and staff of organizations that provide them with food, shelter, and healthcare. They are thankful for the education that their children are sometimes able to receive or the mental health services that are sometimes available.
Sometimes, even though they are thankful, refugees can also be frustrated with their own situation and the fact that they can't provide for themselves and their families. Most refugees don't have the right to work, and so they can often feel like they are a burden on the society that is hosting them. If you weren't allowed to work and had to live on charity, I imagine you would be frustrated too. But many of us don't think about refugees that way, because we take for granted our ability to work and pay our own way. So, if you hear a refugee who doesn't sound very thankful, it's probably because their frustrated that they can't provide for themselves.
4. It's hard to always be painted as a victim.
Refugees are most often portrayed as victims of war, persecution, and other terrible situations. While this may be objectively true, we obscure the inherent dignity of refugees by only telling this side of the story. While refugees do find themselves in very difficult situations and often have to rely on help from others, they are also strong and resilient people who often began their journey to safety entirely by helping themselves. They can continue to improve their situation for themselves and their families through creativity and innovation, but often certain laws and policies will not allow them to. The world needs to find ways to allow refugees freedom to tell the other side of their story. If you were a refugee, wouldn't you get tired of always being a helpless and pitied victim? Wouldn't you feel adamant that you can work hard to make a difference in your own situation? I would.
5. I will never forget what I've been through, and it may take me a while to recover from it.
Many refugees struggle with PTSD and other mental health issues due to the trauma they may have witnessed and endured. Unfortunately, mental health care for refugees is not as widely available as it should be, but that's a post for another day. Refugees will never forget what they experienced (unless, of course, they were very young children when they fled, or were born after their family fled), and it can take a long time to recover and adjust to life in a new place. Many refugees are also undergoing re-traumatization or secondary traumatization because of long periods of waiting and uncertainty in refugee camps and bad conditions. Yet when refugees are resettled they are expected to become fully functioning and contributing members of their new community within weeks. This lightning fast transition can be very difficult for refugees, so we must learn to be patient with them. If you were starting out in a new country, learning a new language, culture, and system for everything from paying bills to buying groceries, and were expected to have a job within 6-8 weeks, wouldn't you be overwhelmed too?
I hope this article gave you some insight into the refugee experience. What do you think would be the most difficult part of being a refugee? If you don't work with refugees or haven't met a refugee, do you think this will help you understand them better?