*I am going to be posting some excerpts from my book in the next few blog posts for those of you who have not yet read it.*
A yearning for community fills many refugee’s hearts with longing for a home to which they can never return. According to a newly-arrived Syrian refugee in Maryland, one of the first things he noticed was the silence: “Where are the people? Are they staying in their houses?”
An Afghan refugee to Chicago ponders, “How can I possibly feel unhappy sometimes? I have no right to sorrow. And yet at times I find I can’t enjoy what I have. I come home through empty streets to our quiet little apartment, to my mother, who sits in her chair, rocking relentlessly hour after hour, lost in her thoughts, and I start to feel so lonely. I eat something, and the food seems to have no flavor. I worry that I’ve lost the capacity for excitement that I used to have in such abundance as a little girl, living in Afghanistan with my family.”
My family was given a window into the lives of a Burundian family: elderly parents, a young husband and wife and their 4-year-old son. I picked them up at their apartment less than 1 week after their arrival in the United States. They still needed help in understanding how to buckle their seat belts. On the drive to my home, I could see their wide eyes in the rearview mirror as they took in their surroundings: an Interstate system with overpasses, beautiful brick churches, the Tennessee River, unfamiliar trees. It was as if I was experiencing these things for the first time, knowing that they had only been accustomed to life in a refugee camp for a dozen years and before that, similar primitive conditions.
My 6-year-old daughter with 2 of our Burundian friends
Upon entering our house, they were greeted by our curious Siberian Husky, ‘Juno’. We learned they had an intense fear of dogs (which is shared by many refugees). Americans keep dogs as pets. Indeed, many dogs are considered to be family members. But to refugees living in African camps, dogs are competitors for food. They come to attack and steal. Throughout the night of our visit with the Burundian family, we kept Juno downstairs, but the 4-year-old son kept opening the door, trying to take a peek at this “wild animal” in our basement, occasionally yelling, “Go away, dog” in Kirundi.
Also on this night, they got to experience a delicacy they had never heard of: ice cream. As we brought bowls of ice cream to the table, my husband attempted to mentally prepare them by explaining that this food was very cold and they needed to eat it slowly. When the elderly father took his first bite, his eyes lit up and his whole countenance changed. With a look of awe on his face, he announced in Kirundi: “This is the best food in the world.”
While sitting around the dining table, we found a YouTube video on my husband’s iPad of the camp in Tanzania they had lived in for 14 years. Their understanding of technology was so elementary that they thought our family had visited the camp to film. On this video, we watched the anguished interviews, gaining a deeper understanding of the traumas these people had been through. They pointed with excitement and mentioned the names of their friends on this video they had left behind, wondering where they may be now. Watching this video together, it was a bridge to help connect a middle class American family with a persecuted African family. While they were overjoyed to begin a new life here in the United States, I could feel a sense of loss over what they had left behind in the refugee camp: community.
The United States is an extreme example of an individualistic nation, one in which its citizens are focused on self, looking out for #1 and pursuing personal achievement. Even in church settings, we focus on our own personal calling. There are some low-income communities in the United States that are not as individualistic. On the streets of the poor, we see neighbors hanging out on front porches, playing card games or grilling. Children have freedom to play in the streets and visit with neighbor friends freely. This is the vibrant, bustling life from which the refugees have come and for which they yearn.
One of my goals in befriending these new neighbors is to help fill the void of a deep wound, the wound of permanent loss of their homeland and culture. In its place, they can create a sense of comfort and belonging with their new community. Refugees cannot do this alone. They need Americans who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones of individualism and help bridge the gap for these newcomers. The question is: Are we willing to make the sacrifice? Do we have time for community?