I have only been working with refugees for a few weeks now, but I have seen and heard so much that I really feel the need to share.
In the little time I’ve spent at my new job, I have heard so many terrible stories. I haven’t gotten to know any refugees really well yet, so all my stories are secondhand. But in a way, I think that might make them more truthful. From the refugees I have met, it seems unlikely that they would speak up all that much about the suffering, and I’m of the opinion they probably downplay it. Why would I think that?
They smile more widely and more honestly than I’ve ever seen before, just from a simple “good morning.”
Obviously I was aware that a refugee’s life in the camp is not ideal. We’ve all seen pictures of the crowded ramshackle huts, the famished children writing on scraps of paper on the ground for their classes.
But somehow meeting them in real life, it was hard to imagine these same people going through all of that. After seeing their sun-shiney and eager-to-learn faces so many days, it was easy to forget how their lives had been. But stories trickle through on random days.
For instance, today I learned that any refugee from Bhutan over the age of 12 can remember seeing bodies hanging from trees near their camp. Suicide. And in a place like a camp, it wouldn’t have been a stranger…Many of them recalled a stranger setting fire to their camp, destroying most of their homes, more than likely killing some people as well.
Since a majority of the population we provide services to is Bhutanese, it’s taking me awhile to learn about some of the other countries our clients come from. There are a great many, all with different religious, political, and ethnic reasons for being forced out of their homes. And it’s a hard subject to approach; some are glad to talk about it, and I can see the pride in their eyes. Others are either bashful or there are dark memories.
So I don’t ask. I listen closely when I can. I research in the moments I have time.
A week ago someone brought in art done by a refugee from Burma/Myanmar. It was beautiful, stunning work. Especially when you realize they had no formal training. But it was heart-wrenching. There was a series of related pictures of kids caught trying to escape the camp. The girls were sold into sex slavery and the boys sent back to the camp. Another showed an old woman returning to her burnt village to try and bury the dead, but someone had planted land mines to kill anyone who dared return. One showed a young woman holding her dying husband. You know these are not secondhand stories. You know he painted what his eyes had seen.
I’m glad I saw the pictures, I feel like those things should be shared and people should know, and it opened my eyes for when I speak to people from Burma now…but it is haunting. Like the pictures I saw drawn by those that survived Hiroshima, they are important, but heartbreaking. And they will probably come back to me now and then.
I’ve met a little boy from Africa with scars from fire on his hands and scars from dogs on his face.
And it doesn’t end there.
Once they get here it is not perfect, and it is still far from safe.
They are thrown into this entirely new world, and they have no choice but to trust people. And there are many people who take advantage of them. Ask for their credit cards so they can ‘help’ them. There are those who beat them. There are people who mug them. There are people who harass them, both verbally and sexually. And you know what? A lot of them don’t know about 9-1-1 or other helpful tools. They are stuck in the worst part of town because that’s all they can afford, and that’s where their community is.
And they don’t survive off of welfare and government help for very long – they have a very limited time slot to learn English and find a job.
The younger ones who know English well enough to enter school are made fun of. Adults have to adapt to a place where the rules they lived by no longer apply. In a camp, kids run free. There are watchful adults everywhere. Some adults that moved here from the camps still tried living with those rules, letting their kids roam free, and sometimes the results are fatal. Adults themselves experience a huge change in roles, as they now have to rely on their kids to learn English and fill out forms and make sure everything is in order. It is so hard for the elderly to get outside, out of their homes. Some turn to alcohol, drugs, or even suicide.
These same people are the ones that smile at me, so widely and so sincerely. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around that. They deserve a better life than this.
It’s all so overwhelmingly sad. I had always known refugees had difficult lives.
I’m only now beginning to understand what that really means.
And I’ve only scratched the surface.