Old couch, used clothes, small TV, unfashionable dishware. What
can a refugee in America offer aside from a home for our discarded
Perhaps, with their stories, refugees quench our curiosity about unimaginable
peril. Yet, as we seek closure from their incredible stories of hardship, we
are disappointed by their difficulty in learning to live in this foreign society.
They burden our social support systems and depend on our material donations,
as well as on our volunteered time to teach the skills necessary for survival
in the United States. Most communities develop through mutually beneficial relationships
intertwining members by providing them a place, a purpose and responsibilities.
Are refugees in our community beholden to charity?
Atlanta’s growing international population holds a dramatic appeal to Emory’s
vision of opening our minds to worldwide knowledge. The increasingly international
demographic in our own backyard provides fertile ground for research and teaching
while offering opportunity for personal exploration similar to cross-cultural
experiences abroad. Perhaps Atlanta’s international diaspora can offer
a starting place as the University explores its role in the global community.
In March, the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS) began
sponsoring a refugee family as a service project. ICIS staff and other members
of Emory community gave generously of their possessions, money and time. However,
ICIS took a step further.
Earlier this year, Mariam, age 22, Hassan, 42, and their 3-year-old son Mohammed
stepped off their first plane ride at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
They had arrived from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, to which they fled from
Ethiopia 11 years earlier.
While most Ethiopian refugees left in the 1980s to escape famine and military
dictator Mengistu, many Oromo (Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group), including
Hassan and Mariam, fled in 1993 from political unrest arising from the country’s
reconstruction. Ethiopia’s attempts at democracy spawned an ethnic federalism
common to African countries. In 1992, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) withdrew
from the interim government and boycotted elections, raising tensions to a violent
level. Most of Kakuma’s current Oromo population (about 5,000) are educated
and professional political refugees; Mariam’s father is a medical doctor.
But inquiring minds should not stop with this family’s intriguing background.
The cross-cultural challenges that accompany their transition to the United States
are equally daunting. Indeed, a community driven by teaching and research could
learn from these newcomers as they acclimate to American society.
In addition to macro-level issues about immigrant policy, the work force, health
care, etc., researchers can explore more intimate questions. For example, what
are the behavioral effects of adolescent socialization in a refugee camp? How
do they manifest in U.S. society? Mariam grew up in a bleak situation that necessitated
dependency on humanitarian agencies. While she fervently desired work, she simultaneously
expected things to be given to her. “Give me a job,” she demanded,
fully expecting to be accommodated. The concept of apartment rent, completely
foreign to her, also demonstrated her lack of experience with Western culture. “Whose
house am I living in?” Mariam repeatedly asked.
I could have satiated my curiosity by reading other people’s analyses,
or, as the family’s sponsorship coordinator, I could investigate myself
to try to understand the very real frustrations she experienced during this transition
In helping the family make the transition to U.S. society, I came to recognize
what lay behind the language barriers and curtains of cultural differences. Keen
intelligence is sometimes hidden beneath unfamiliar manners, body language and
use of English, but I discovered Mariam is extremely bright—even if her
comments seem odd to an American. Her inquiry-driven mind challenged me to think
about fundamental concepts of our society’s operation.
One of the more daunting explanations came in response to her comment about the
$1.75 MARTA fare: “The driver must be very rich.” How to communicate
maintenance costs, government grants and subsidies, a board of directors, drivers’ wages,
etc., with no vocabulary? Educating Mariam about checking accounts and traffic
laws was equally difficult, but she rewarded me with interesting uses of my own
language. “Even when you don’t have job,” she said, “your
sound makes me happy.” She was telling me that, even when I am no longer
volunteering for them, she would like to hear my voice on the phone because it
makes her happy. My favorite question is, “Why were you lost?” Hassan
and Mariam ask me this every time I have gone a few days without talking to them.
Mohammed amazed me with his rapid improvement in pronouncing English words. He
first attempted English when I put him in his car seat. I said, “arms in” and
he repeated the syllables, ohm sin, ohm sin. He then tried to call me by name,
and in doing so created a new one: Katadina! One day he mastered pronunciation
of the phrase, “You got it,” with which I encouraged him as he worked
to drag a chair across the floor. After I said it, he shouted at the chair “You
got it!” through five minutes of grunts and groans until he reached his
I gained a great deal of respect for Hassan’s patience and acute perceptiveness.
Even without English, he doggedly attempted to communicate, sometimes understanding
situations before Mariam because she was distracted with translating the words.
I delighted in Hassan’s euphoric expressions when something that puzzled
him finally made sense. I shared in those moments, recalling my own experiences
Rather than merely waiting for refugee populations to “catch up” to
American society—not only catch up, but do so on our terms—perhaps
we can welcome them into our community as people from whom we can learn a great
deal. International migrants are gifts of mind-opening insights who teach us
about culture, society, humanity, globalization and ourselves.
In our community, refugees are not simply opportunities for our charity and volunteer
hours, nor are they only dear friends grown from profound emotionally vulnerable
moments. They also make important contributions of the kind of cross-cultural
learning most necessary in an increasingly global world.