My Experience Befriending the Alien

A Vietnamese nun greets children at a refugee camp in Sudan. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Imagine doing everything required to go back to school — buying books and school supplies, and signing up for classes — but instead of everything being a familiar routine, it’s all new because you’re in a new country where you don’t speak the language. Maybe you’ve never been to school. Sounds a little overwhelming, right? Well, that’s the experience of the 53,000 refugees that resettled in the United States in 2010.

For the past year I worked with refugees from Asia and Africa at Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program in Buffalo, New York. Part of my job was to help refugees register their children for school because very few of them could speak, read, or write English.

Everyone who comes to the United States as a refugee comes through an agency like the one I worked with that helps them do the things that are new to them: rent an apartment, visit the doctor, learn to use public transportation, find a job, and more. However, even with assistance, refugees face many challenges in their new country.

Challenges of resettlement

Before arriving in the United States, refugees live in U.N. refugee camps for anywhere from one to 20 years. Refugees who were only two or three years younger than me were often born in refugee camps. They lived in the camps to escape violence, war, rape, genocide, or other oppression. Many refugees face malnutrition and the threat of attack in the camps. They live in tents without running water and electricity. Comparatively, life in the United States should be a relief, but the transition is not easy.

Language barriers are certainly a challenge in everyday interactions, but they can also prevent refugees from finding jobs and receiving medical care. By law, doctors’ offices are required to provide interpreters, but refugees are often denied care because they don’t speak English. Many employers refuse to hire refugees who are legal immigrants and eligible for employment because they fear repercussions.

Refugees can also be easy targets for criminals. One young woman came to my office because she was mugged as she left the bank. The men who robbed her stole $700, her Social Security card, and her immigration documents. She asked me how she could pay for new documents (costing several hundred dollars) when she’d just had $700 stolen from her. I didn’t have an answer.

Being alone

The biggest challenge refugees face is separation from family members. Refugees can file petitions for relatives to join them in the United States. These applications can be difficult, especially if refugees don’t have documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses, which either don’t exist or were left behind when refugees fled from their homes. I had many clients who applied for family members, received “Request for Evidence” of relationship letters and then wait years to be reunited with their families.

Early on in my work with refugees, a woman from Burma came to get assistance applying for her two daughters and husband to join her in the United States. She told me she was very sad without her family. It made her sick to her stomach, and she thought she made a mistake leaving without them. The woman was about the age of my mother, and her older daughter was only a year younger than me. She could apply for her husband and younger daughter, but not the older daughter since, without permanent residency, you cannot apply for a child who is 21 or older.

I thought of my own mother and how it is to be away from her. I live a 13-hour car drive away from home and I know what it’s like to be alone in a new city, but not in the way a refugee is alone in a new city. Though I could relate to this woman, my desire to be closer to my family must be small compared to hers. And unlike her, it was my choice to move away from my family.

I thought of my own mother and how it is to be away from her. I live a 13-hour car drive away from home and I know what it’s like to be alone in a new city, but not in the way a refugee is alone in a new city.

She cried in my office and begged me to apply for her older daughter, too. I struggled to explain that it wasn’t that I wouldn’t help her bring her older daughter, but that I couldn’t because of immigration laws.

There were many times I could not help refugees who came to our offices with their new lives. Even more frustrating, I felt helpless to stop the situations that forced people to become refugees and separated them from their families in the first place. Not to mention aggravation with my fellow Americans who do not welcome refugees.

Prejudice and racism play a large role in the lives of refugees in the United States, the land of immigrants. When I tell people that I worked with refugees, people assume I worked with undocumented immigrants who are here to “live off the system.” There are a lot of Bible verses thrown around in public discussions on a wide range of social issues, and I often wonder why, outside Catholic settings, people so infrequently quote Deuteronomy 10:19 (or similar verses) when discussing immigration: “You too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”

This verse not only instructs us to care for immigrants, but also reminds us that we, too, are immigrants. Almost all Americans are descendants of immigrants whether those immigrants were our parents or family that has been here since the 1600s. I’m proud that the Catholic Church in the United States resettles refugees, and that it supports the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. Still, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding that needs to be overcome before many people can see the face of God in refugees.