“Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” [Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity by Anna Badkhen]
Imagine with me for a moment.
Imagine that you have spent the last seven years in a refugee camp. You live in a tent with nine other family members. A water truck comes by twice a day and you make sure you and your family are there with your water containers, because water is life. Food bags are distributed once a month and give you lentils, oil, powdered milk, rice, sugar, and tea. At the same time you are given a bag with soap and detergent.
You registered your family with UNHCR when you first arrived, and the last two years you have been to so many interviews that you have lost count. You have been asked if you have ever trained child soldiers; if you’ve ever sold your body for sex; if you have ever communicated with a terrorist–so many questions, questions that embarass you. You have gone through medical exams where you were probed and prodded, where blood was taken over and over for laboratory tests, where you comforted your screaming three year-old with a soft “shh,shh,shh” desperately trying to hold down their tiny arm so blood could be taken from an almost absent vein.
And then one day, the word came. Your papers have been approved. You are going to America. You, your parents, your spouse, and your five children– nine of you in total. The next weeks are a blur. The camp has been your home for seven years. Your youngest two children were born here. You know everything about the residents, you have lived in close quarters for a long time. You can hardly believe that this is happening.
Stories periodically circulate around the camp about America. “My Uncle lives in Detroit,” says one of your neighbors. “Please say ‘hello’ to him.” “My cousin says that children don’t respect their parents,” says another. “Children run off and do all sorts of things.” You are quite sure that they are simply envious of your lot.
The day comes. You’ve never been on an airplane, and it smells funny and feels slightly claustrophobic. You feel like you are in a dream. Can this really be true?
“Everything is held together with stories,” the writer Barry Lopez once said. “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” But for all of our new accessibility, we know each other’s stories no better than before.
Hours later, you arrive, exhausted and beyond emotion. But there is more to come.
Your family waits for a long time in an immigration line, and you are grateful that there is someone who is helping you who speaks English. There are other refugees with you, but they are not from your camp. You don’t know them, but conversation comes easy when there is shared experience.
25 of you pile into a bus. The noises of crying babies, confused adults, and talkative children mix together – an orchestra of humanity.
You arrive at a brown building. There is a door that moves around and around, but you’re not sure how it actually works. So you go for the safer option–a double door to the side.
It feels like hours before you get to your room – a ‘suite’ they call it. The space looks huge. There are beds and a table and chairs. You’re told you will be staying there for a few days, just until an apartment is arranged.
But as you look around, the confusion only continues. There is shiny silver and ceramic and a bright flourescent light. The person in charge has been joined by others. They are all friendly, but so loud.
“This is a machine that takes your bread and cooks it.” You are dumbfounded. You learn later that it is called a toaster.
“This is a bathtub.” “This is a refrigerator.” “This is how you turn the lights on and off.” “This is an electric stove – DON’T let your children put their hands on these round things! They get very hot. Your children will burn their hands.”
You want to cry, but you don’t want to seem ungrateful. Finally, they all leave. All of them. They have left a cell phone with a number on it. You can call if you need anything, anything, they insist. “Welcome to America!” Their smiles are genuine, their voices are still loud.
Your youngest two children have fallen asleep on the floor, your older ones are rushing through the rooms. To them, it’s all new. it’s all exciting. Your mom and dad are rapidly fingering their prayer beads, dazed looks in their eyes. Your husband has the loud voice he gets when he feels out of control.
It takes another hour to get everyone settled, and when you go to look at your sleeping children, you see that they have taken blankets off the bed and all five are huddled together on the floor, a tangle of legs and arms.
You feel strangely comforted by this. Somehow, you know that if you stick together, a tangle of arms and legs, heads and bodies, you will somehow make it.
In fact, it might be the only way to survive.
“Unless the world finds compassion for this new communality, learns to make sense of one another’s voices, its humanity will perish.”
Note: All quotes are from Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity by Anna Badkhen
Note: This piece was inspired by the Checking in to a New Life in America as well as by conversations with refugees and resettlement organizations.