Refugees are individuals who flee their home country due to fear of persecution based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, etc. This summer I am interning with a refugee settlement organization in Denver. I am working specifically with refugee children entering elementary and middle school, who have been in the United States for less than three years. One month into my internship, here are 10 things I have learned:
1. Home is not always where you were born – home is where you chose it to be.
The average refugee family spends 17 years in a refugee camp before coming to the United States, which means almost all of the children I am working with were born in refugee camps. If you ask them where their home is, they will say the country they were born in, the country the refugee camp was in, the country one of their parents is from, the United States, or other countries they have traveled through.
2. Language is sacred and special.
The children always connect over shared language, it is comforting to them in a new English-speaking environment. Speaking a shared language is helpful when someone does not understand all of the English, but someone else can help translate. Knowing a common language helps one feel secure and safe in a new environment. Language is part of our identity, and for refugees, it can be especially meaningful as they may have been persecuted for speaking it in their home country.
3. You cannot assume to know someone just by looking at them.
Everyone has a story, but you cannot know that story by looking at the individual and making assumptions. You cannot look at someone and assume they are a refugee - they could be Americans, they could be on vacation, they could have moved to the United States for work or school - there is no way to tell.
4. Human beings are strong and courageous.
Some of the children I have worked with have lost a parent, left family in their home country, seen violence, lived in truly awful conditions - but they persevere. It is incredible.
5. Not all refugees are from Syria.
They aren't. Just because that is the conflict major people know produced refugees, does not mean that those are the only refugees - Syrian refugees are a minority in terms of refugee groups entering the United States. In Colorado, there are four Syrian families - that's it. It takes years for refugees to be classified as a refugee and then years to be admitted into the United States; thus Syrian refugees have a few more years before they start arriving in larger groups. There are refugees from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Nepal, Iraq, Somalia, etc. - refugees can come from any country.
6. Family is everything.
For those who have lost family members or left them behind in their home country, their family is everything. Siblings stand up and translate for one another and they know how much they have seen and been through because they have done so together.
7. The United States is the land of opportunity.
Refugee families have risked everything - their lives included, for a better life for themselves in the United States. The opportunities refugee children get here in the United States greatly differ from that of their peers back home. They are given the opportunity to go to school and learn. They are given the opportunity to live their lives without fear of persecution. They are given the opportunity to start their lives over and live the American Dream.