This trip is not my first encounter with a group of people who have declared refuge. I’d like to take you back seven years ago, to the summer before I entered my sophomore year of high school.
For six years growing up, every summer, I would go for a week-long mission trip that would place me somewhere in the Midwest. It would be myself and some of my closest friends from either the middle school or high school level that belonged to the church I attended. As a middle-school student, you start off doing work such as painting houses, weeding a garden, cleaning houses, etc. As you got older, the tasks that you were assigned were more interpersonal. Working with The Arc (for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities), building relationships with citizens at nursing homes, helping at day-care centers, and so forth.
That particular summer we went to Louisville, Kentucky. Myself and two of my closest friends were assigned to work with refugees from the Ivory Coast on their English language skills.
What were refugees? Where was the Ivory Coast?
When I heard refugee as a 15-year-old high school student, I had a rough idea. I knew it was something in relation towards being forced to leave due to bad conditions. As for the Ivory Coast, one of the refugees, in very broken English, was kind enough to point out to me on a globe where it was located.
I can remember being very intimidated working with these people. Their English was not very good and I had never had experience working with ESL. I was not sure how to help them at times, and I was nervous to ask them questions. There were obvious language and cultural barriers, and I was not sure how to connect with them.
Being as young as I was at the time, I don’t want to say I was fearful of these people, but I was not accustomed to working and communicating with those from other cultures, especially those that were forced to flee. I figured that it was something bad, something they did not want to talk about. To me, it was almost a topic of taboo. Or something just completely over my head.
While I remember at the end of the week being very grateful I got to work with those people and understand refuge better, I also went home a bit relieved that that particular task was over due to some of the anxiety that the communication (or lack thereof) gave me.
Well now, isn’t this ironic.
That was seven years ago and here I am now listening and creating incredible friendships with people who sought refuge, and of course, writing about it. It was not until I got here and remembered that I had once worked with refugees before that I actually started to reevaluate that week in my life.
I am ashamed to admit it, but it was not until this past week that I first ever looked up what was occurring in the Ivory Coast in 2010. Like I said, I was 15-years-old at the time and was intimidated to ask them questions. Particularly because I thought that they would not understand me, or I would not understand them.
When I reflect back, I am slightly disappointed in my lack of engagement. However, I wish I would have gone into this situation learning more in school or even from my leaders on the trip what constitutes refuge.
I wish I would have been told to engage beyond the lesson plans. To hear these people’s stories. Not just to create relationships, but to continue to educate myself on the hardship people, no different than you or I, are forced to encounter around the world.
If I could make a note to my 15-year-old self, I would tell her this:
Go beyond your intimidation. The issue is not that these people cannot speak English. It is not that they struggle to communicate. It was that they were displaced from their country due to catastrophe and adversity. They wanted to live peacefully. They wanted the best for themselves and their families. That it was not an easy decision to make, but rather one of survival. Don’t be afraid to ask a few questions. Questions and curiosity lead to a broader knowledge. Of course be respectful and kind with your questions. Go in with love and compassion, but don’t be fearful of the unknown.