What I Learned Working With Refugees

Last year I worked as an intern for the Refugee Council. During my internship I met and surveyed countless elderly refugees, visited Afghani, Bhutanese and Ethiopian homes, and attended mosques and community centres. Sitting in refugee and immigration law had not prepared me for face-to-face interaction with refugees, neither had my political science major.

While I was technically a “researcher” I felt this word was too clinical for the work I was doing. So I approached my work as a professional listener. When I walked through the door for my first survey session I was ushered into a room where Ethiopian refugees were being surveyed. The woman in charge gestured for me to take a seat next to an elderly man. I do not remember his name, but I do remember the look on his face when I asked him to write it down. He carefully took the pen out of my hand, checked to see that the tip was pressed down, and thoughtfully formed letters on the consent form. After some time he moved his hand away, turned the paper to face me and beamed. I looked down at the dotted line which now had his name in large, bubble letters written across it and smiled back at him. I remember a lot about this man. He was from Ethiopia, due to an accident he walked with a cane, he had trouble remembering his age and needed glasses but did not have have them. I cringed when he told me he had not been to the dentist in years and listened as he told me about his children. He also clearly and loudly informed me he had a New Zealand passport and he was a Christian.

Many of the refugees I spoke to were separated from their families and were stressed about reunification. Most were in regular contact with their family members back home and could tell me more about current events in their country than any news journalist. I met one man who watched the news in four different languages in order to achieve an in depth understanding of the situation in his country. This only caused more anxiety because he was acutely aware of the danger his family was facing. This is not an extraordinary circumstance. Instead, this man’s anxiety represents statistics which show most refugees suffer from anxiety and depression attributable to family separation.

Inevitably my work as a professional listener shaped my understanding of the refugee experience, however it did so in a surprising way. Through listening to different refugee experiences, I learnt while the dangerous journey asylum-seekers make is an important part of their story, it is only half of it. The other half, which is not commonly discussed, is refugee resettlement, which refers to everything that happens after refugee status is obtained. This is when factors such as isolation, community engagement, (including education, employment and language lessons), family separation and reunification, racism, mental health and countless other factors come into play. Resettlement is an ongoing process and its success highly impacts how well refugees can contribute and live in their new societies. Yet the media traditionally forgets about refugees when they are not a statistic drowning in the Mediterranean or fighting for refugee status. When the media does mention resettlement, it does so in a negative light when refugees and/or asylum seekers are allegedly involved in anti-social activity.  

Working with refugees is challenging for all parties. The language barrier is the first obstacle. It is not an absolute barrier because communication is not limited to words alone. However, it breeds confusion and misunderstanding. The other substantial challenge is cultural differences. As a research team we had to be mindful of our dress code, separation of male and females and other potentially offensive behaviour. Although, being aware of these factors did not necessarily mean we always behaved “correctly.”

When I arrived for my first visit at an Afghani mosque I was so preoccupied with securing a scarf to cover my hair that I ran into the building without contemplating whether I should take my shoes off. As I bolted in I was greeted by a sea of bare feet. As I retreated back outside, a young girl, around my age, followed me out. She smiled and said it was fine, and showed me where to put my shoes by the front door. Unfortunately I would make another cultural mishap when another volunteer and I entered the women’s room during a time of prayer unaware we were not meant to be in there until a community leader alerted us.

No one ever got mad at us for our mishaps. Instead, the whole community was grateful to have us present caring about their needs. No one seemed suspicious, in fact, I think they enjoyed seeing us participate in their culture. A couple of young women came up to me and thanked me for wearing a headscarf and hoped I did not mind. They told me many people had commented I looked beautiful (which doubled the amount of times I have received that compliment in one afternoon). I was scared my behaviour would be perceived as an empty token gesture. Instead, I was pleased to see it was received as it was intended, a sign of my respect for their culture and beliefs. Just how I would want mine respected if someone came to my church.

Although the language and culture was different—the community reminded my of my own church community which happened to congregate one block over. The way children interacted with each other and adults in their community, the nurturing women welcoming visitors, the men grumbling in a corner, the social butterflies and wallflowers, the organizers, helpers and followers, it was all a familiar dynamic to me, just done under a different roof.

These similarities are important to remember in light of recent world events. The alleged role of asylum-seekers and refugees in the recent attacks in Cologne and Paris breeds xenophobia. Emphasis on the role refugees and asylum-seekers played in these events, without balancing it against the positive contributions the majority make within their communities, contributes to anti-immigration attitudes, which lead the way for people like Donald Trump to make sweeping statements condemning all refugees and asylum-seekers to criminal status. This allows the legitimate aim of increased security and background checks to be conflated with stricter immigration practices and potentially non-existent participation in international refugee resettlement. This dialogue does not treat refugees as forced migrants with turbulent, traumatic pasts with nowhere to go. Instead they are depicted as illegal migrants, extremists and criminals, while most refugees are in fact women and children. In order to combat this damaging dialogue it is important to remember similarities that connect us all. There are parts of the human experience that are truly universal including the desire to be safe and with family members in order to have the happiest life possible.

While I do not support strict immigration practices, I am a supporter of intelligent ones. Bringing refugees into a country only to abandon them during the resettlement process may be just as cruel as abandoning them in refugee camps. Many refugees are separated from their families, and undergo lengthy and costly family reunification applications and legal procedures. Without family, refugees are commonly isolated from their wider community because their ability to learn new languages and seek out employment is impaired. Without proper support, many refugees live in inadequate or over-crowded homes and find it difficult to make rent. Even if healthcare is provided, many refugees are not aware of how to obtain it. Therefore, it is unsurprising when refugees are not properly supported circumstances creating isolation and potentially extremism may arise.

We have a responsibility to help our fellow man. Racial and ethnic differences do not justify inequitable treatment. Everyone is equal in rights and dignity, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. My internship taught me the approval of refugee status does not signify the end of the refugee’s battle. Instead a new and longer battle begins. One which requires strong and clear support from the host state. Resettlement requires timely and effective avenues to family reunification, provision of information regarding education, health care systems, employment and language lessons. It is only then chances of resettlement are at their best, allowing refugees to be fully functioning, happy members of society. If smart policies are not in place to look after the world’s most vulnerable, trauma continues just under different circumstances.

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