Knowing refugees has helped me recognize my privilege and be grateful for it

Privilege
Daniel and Dr. Kaplan

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Knowing refugees has helped me recognize my privilege and be grateful for it

Recognizing privilege

Hearing the stories of people who arrived as refugees always sends shivers down my spine. All of the people I’ve met who arrived in the US as refugees are just like me: ordinary people who just want to lead safe, ordinary lives. And yet, through no fault of their own, something happened that they can’t control.  Hearing those stories makes my own privileges clear: I am physically safe, able to plan for a future in which my life improves, able to access stable systems of resources and networks of friends and family.  I suddenly see how easy life is for me. I also see how easy it is to share some of my own advantages with others, and how much of a difference it makes to them. Recognizing my own privilege puts my own fortune into sharp relief.

The first person I met who arrived as a refugee

The first person I met who arrived as a refugee was Daniel, who came from Ethiopia in 2011. I work at a university. When I met Daniel, I had just come from teaching a class of freshmen who didn’t really understand why they were in college yet. They were there because that is what you do in America when you are middle class and have graduated from high school. They often don’t really want to learn; they just want to get through, enjoy their time in college, and be credentialed to make money. The contrast between the relatively privileged kids I was trying to teach who didn’t really want to be there, and this young man who was hungry for education and was making the most use out of any connection he could just to get to where my students were … how could I do anything other than help him? It took very little effort on my part: I made a couple of phone calls to figure out the process and then and went with him to a meeting with someone in admissions.

Dr. Kaplan with Daniel at his graduation ceremony

Then through some luck and a rich network of friends and acquaintances, I connected Daniel with someone who was able to help financially as well. He worked hard and took every opportunity that presented itself. Now he is a graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and a job with a major engineering firm.

This isn’t a story of any great act of generosity on my part … I’m no hero

Daniel made this happen. His drive, his hard work, his ability to network, his native intelligence are all what made him successful. This is a story about how very little help it takes to make a big difference to someone who came as a refugee. All it took was a willingness to step outside my normal, safe world to meet someone who lacks all that normalcy that I take for granted, and then bringing him into my network of privilege. As an ordinary middle-class American, I am so privileged that it took very little effort to make an enormous difference to someone else.

My own family’s history turns out to be a refugee story

I am grateful to be able to do this for others. My own family’s history turns out to be a refugee story. My ancestors were Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe. My great-grandfather found out that he was going to be sent with the Russian army to fight the Japanese, and so he fled certain death in a war that was not his. He made his way across Europe and finally to America. He came as a refugee (though there was no such program yet) and thank goodness, as he would have been swept up in the Holocaust if he had stayed.  I don’t know if that makes me privileged, but it is certainly extraordinary good luck. The story honors my brave and lucky Jewish ancestors who faced tremendous fear and then loss in their lives. It helps me connect to my own family to help others who have washed up on these shores through no fault or even choice of their own.

Refugee resettlement

Now, you also have to be extraordinarily lucky to become a resettled refugee. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are 65.3 million people who are forcibly displaced in the world, and only one third of them, 21.3 million, have received official refugee status. Of those, only about 100,000 are resettled each year anywhere in the world … that is a tiny, tiny, percentage. To become one of that tiny fraction who actually end up in Jacksonville or anywhere else in America, you have to have faced persecution (that is part of the definition of a refugee: someone who can document a legitimate fear of persecution or worse); you have to have had the wherewithal to flee; you have to have found a refugee camp and lived there, documented your story, and persisted through endless scrutiny to be eligible. You are probably a woman or child, as a majority of refugees resettled in the United States are. And then you have to wait, and you have to be extraordinarily lucky, and you have to work very hard to be successful in a new country with a new language and new customs.

Mostly the adult generation lives a diminished life in terms of career, but their children may be successful. It is an act of hope and sacrifice to choose to emigrate. My great-grandparents were the ones who recognized the danger in time, fled, and then worked very, very hard to become American, never quite learning the language, never quite managing to recreate what they left behind. But their children and children’s children were able to be successful, safe, and privileged. How bad would it have to be to uproot like that and never return? Few leave home just because someplace else looks good. They leave permanently because they don’t feel like they have a choice.

Making new friends in America

Deeper connection to my own past

Daniel and his family have become friends, now, and I have met other refugee families and helped my American-born friends meet my refugee friends as well. I live in a richer world full of different flavors at dinner, different holiday celebrations, and new ways of looking at the world. I have a clearer understanding of my own privilege, which makes me grateful for what I have instead of envious of what I don’t. I have a much deeper connection to my own past, to my ancestors as I think of my work as returning the favors my family was given when we fled here. I am much enriched through my experiences and I feel honored to be allowed into other people’s lives and privileged to be able to make such a difference with so little effort.

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017, the Refugee Center Online is collecting stories of how refugees make our lives better.

The Refugee Center Online believes newcomers make our country a better place. Refugee resettlement is not just the moral or ethical thing to do – it benefits us and our communities as well. These stories from individuals around the country show how knowing, teaching, working with, and perhaps most importantly, being friends with, refugees have improved the lives of Americans.

Refugees shaking hands

World Refugee Day June 20, 2017

Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.

Learn more
About Leslie G. Kaplan

Dr. Leslie G. Kaplan, Associate Director of the Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida. She has lived in England, France, and Greece as well as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California before settling in Florida. Her academic research spans a range of folklore topics, including articles on King Arthur, archaeologists and early European travelers to Greece, children’s food culture, and study abroad. In 2010, she partnered with the Jacksonville refugee resettlement community (Lutheran Social Services, World Relief, Catholic Charities, and the Department of Children and Families) to provide support for Jacksonville’s growing refugee community. The ongoing program connects college students with refugees in mentoring, tutoring, and coaching relationships. She has given multiple presentations on the subject at both academic and professional conferences. She works closely with the grassroots organization Welcoming America and multiple local non-profits to make Jacksonville a more welcoming community for immigrants. She is involved with several other community organizations focused on education, culture and community, including the Children’s International Summer Villages and the Slow Food First Coast.