Saturday, September 24, 2016

You Don't Have to Live like a Refugee

Asalamu Alaykom,

My last post was about my time as a teacher for Somali students---refugees from their war-torn country on the east coast of Africa.  Basically, I said that there are problems, which if you've been following the news you already knew.  The problems were there within their community before they even arrived in the U.S.

One loyal reader, Deanna, followed up with some questions:

You have obviously seen the Somali community up close based on the family dynamics you describe. What would the solution to the discontent be? If you were in a position to make sweeping or subtle changes what would they be? I am flummoxed really. How do you encourage people to do well for themselves and the society they now permanently live in given their cultural or circumstantial underpinnings. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Deep breath.

What has already happened with the Somali population in Minnesota is done.  We can't go back and fix so many wrongs.  The situation could run better, but it was messed up before they even got here.  The same is going to be true for each new group---the Syrians, for example.  

I think the first thing to consider is that a country which takes in refugees is not simply moving people in.  Here's what I mean:  if you were accepting people into your home, you would want to make sure they were comfortable.  Simply put, their level of comfortable translates into a general easiness for everyone within your walls.  Everyone gets along better when needs are met.

Now, guests are different than family.  Who are the refugees?  Are they guests in America?  Is their goal to stay just as long as it takes for their country to find stability?  Then, will they be on the first plane back?  If that's our understanding, they are only guests.  We should leave them to do as they wish; not try to assimilate them into the American culture's melting pot...or tossed salad... and put up with them.  However, I don't think that's a long-term solution. 

The Somalis are staying in America and they are going to be a part of the interwoven fabric of a diverse, but often divisive, country.  Part of the problem is that THEY don't believe it and the other part of the problem is that the REST of America doesn't believe it.  History shows us, through every wave of troubled peoples, that, even after homelands resolve their issues, the vast majority of immigrants stay.  

Position them for success by taking care of their mental health needs.  Check the systems they have in place for rearing children, and for educating them.  Focus on women and children.  Don't push them into the mainstream before they can swim.  Honestly?  Let them decide how much they want to participate in society.  Which first generation has ever been fully assimilated?  My great grandparents from Ireland and Norway surely weren't.  They kept to themselves in their isolated communities.  Understand that it is NORMAL for the process to take a couple of generations.    

OK, so back to envisioning us as homeowners who have people staying with us.  They are going to be living with us FOREVER.  They are not guests.  This is long-term and it is going to be costly unless we help them be productive members of our team.  There can't be two teams---us and them.  That's going to create discord and disruption.  We've got to redesign our agenda.

1.  Redesign the agenda for the long-term

Canada is also getting refugees, of course.  It's not as if the United States is the only country in North America receiving anyone.  Canada has a different system.  At first glance, it seems unfair, as the government doesn't sponsor the incoming asylum seekers.  An organization has to sponsor the families.  This has led to a disproportional amount of Christian Syrians, for example, than Muslim Syrians, as churches have been able to sponsor more.  When the issue actually gets analyzed, it makes sense to only allow those in who have a support system.     

It's a very Islamic idea to have helpers or ansar who guide newcomers through the transition.  I had that when I first came to Egypt----and ended up marrying the man who had done the most for me.  It is not easy AT ALL to navigate a new place.  Anyone who has relocated has felt that odd sensation of loss and of being lost while still trying to go 60 mph through their day.  It is stressful and overwhelming.  Knowing that someone really does have your back; someone is on the other end of the phone day or night, is calming.  Better decisions get made when in a calm state of mind.

Lambasting the newest members of society to step up to the plate, pull themselves up by the bootstraps and so many other unhelpful idioms means the onus is on those LEAST LIKELY to have the resources to do so.  Really?  The onus, the responsibility, needs to be with the citizens who have the ability to assist.  It is kind, caring, and in the long run, it is a necessity.

The way I always think about those who are falling between the cracks is that you WILL have to deal with them.  You either volunteer, tutor, give money, provide a meal, etc. NOW or you will see that same at risk person turn to alternative to get their needs met.  Maybe they turn into the thieves and the murders because no one cared.  

That bully in your kid's class?  Talk to him or her every time you pick your child up.

The woman who can't seem to clothe her family properly for the weather?  "I have some things that we can't fit any more.  Can I bring them over to you?  I bet they'd fit your kids."

As for a family new to your area, "We would like to have you over for dinner."

I invited over a Bosnian family once, in my days as a unhappy homemaker.  They were most worried about that beef roast I was serving.  Although I never thought about it much at the time, they must have been Muslims.  I was not in Islam at the time.  I simply was a church goer who wanted to help the family who needed it.  

Even now, as an immigrant in Egypt myself, I look out for those wandering lost in our neighborhood.  On the first day back to work, I discovered two tourists who were a long way from the Pizza Hut and needed some directions.  I had them stop at our house to get out of the heat and drink some water before we all escorted them to the restaurant.  It was beneficial to them AND it was fun for us.  NO ONE was the loser for this chance encounter.   

2.  Help has to be lined up

Information.  Where is it?  Who is providing it?  Is the news media the correct dispenser?

When I was little in the 70s, the newest wave of immigrants were the Hmong who had aided the U.S. in the Vietnam War.  I didn't know much about them BECAUSE NOBODY PREPARED ME FOR THEM.  Because of who I am, I made friends right away with Pow Kong.  We walked to school together.  

Yet, I was unprepared for her stories of her sister's baby being killed.  I didn't believe her.  She was weird.  She didn't know what I was talking about that my parents were divorced and I only lived with my mom.  Even though her family had showed me kindness as I ate up their offers of spring rolls, I dropped her as a friend.  I couldn't handle the gap between us.

What if I had been TAUGHT about where she was coming from?  What if she had been taught in school assimilation groups about where I was coming from?  It would have been better for the school to educate the young about respecting differences.  Maybe the boys could have gotten over her name and stopped teasing her.  Maybe the girls could have gotten over her height or the length of her hair.  
I don't know.  I'm only guessing, but as a teacher, I feel that the best equipped in society to close that gap are the educators.

Unfortunately, even the teachers are left clueless.  The focus becomes, months down the line, how to address bad behavior.  Ridiculous stuff!  Where was the care when the school year started?  Administrations are responsible for teacher training and no preventative measures seem to happen when a new culture comes in; it is all knee-jerk reactionary measures once teachers start complaining and grades are dropping. 

Instead, what happens is that the differences are hushed up and ignored.  Needs are not addressed as if they will go away.  Somali students have more needs within the school day than others.  For instance, girls might be wearing hijab and long clothing, both boys and girls feel uncomfortable getting too close to each other, parents worry about halal meat and avoiding pork products, students are supposed to wash and pray at mid-day, fast during the month of Ramadan, and learn Arabic.  These are not issues that are going to go away UNLESS their Islam goes away---and even though some wish this would happen for Somalis, it would leave them hollow cores as human beings. 

At the same time, new immigrants need to get a grip.  I can't come into Egypt and change every aspect to their society.  I can't!  "Malish" can drive me crazy, but it is their country-wide motto.  It's worked for them for THOUSANDS of years.  Who am I to say that my home country of only a few hundred years has the solution for the world's ills?  Somali immigrants need to also back down from so many demands of their new home.  No, they shouldn't have to put up egregious xenophobia, on the other hand, some of what they see as worthy of a protest simply isn't.    

3.  Preventative Education

Will my three suggestions cure all?


I do think that effort has to be made from many sides---never underestimating that an evil element will always want those who claim the country as "theirs" not want to share it with those searching for a stability.   

The refugee problem is not happening outside our homes.  Our world is our home and their problem is ours.

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