June 21, 2004

Refugee lessons


Katrina Connolly, ’03C, was an intern for the Institute for Comparative and International Studies during 2003–04.

Old couch, used clothes, small TV, unfashionable dishware. What can a refugee in America offer aside from a home for our discarded products?

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 period.

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 goal.

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 traveling abroad.

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.