A refugee girl from Sudan – The girl that would grow to be like a sister to me
In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: A refugee girl from Sudan – The girl that would grow to be like a sister to me
I encountered a refugee, only … I didn’t know it then
Knowing a refugee caused me to redefine my mental image of what it means to be a refugee. Often, we are bombarded with pictures on the news and from organizations showing us the plight of families whose lives have been uprooted by war or political unrest. We know the word refugee, and most of us have an idea of what a refugee looks like. As a student of International Studies, I was no stranger to the diversity of the world. However, it wasn’t until the first day of my Master’s degree in Cross-Cultural Education that I encountered a refugee, only … I didn’t know it then.
Being a refugee is one fraction of an individual’s life
The girl that would grow to be like a sister to me, with her whole family accepting me as one of their own, seemed liked any other student that first day we met. I remember thinking that her skin color indicated she might be an African immigrant but that her accent seemed to contradict that. She sounded just like me – with what I like to call the “generic American” accent. And when we did introductions, she said she was from Milwaukee.
She was from Milwaukee. She’d spent the last eight years of her life as a resident there. Soon enough, though, I would learn Wisconsin was not where her story began. Keji didn’t often speak of her time in Sudan, though she was old enough to remember much of it. It always came as somewhat of a shock when she would shed some light on what life was like. For me, it was difficult to comprehend the mythic quality that many of her offhand comments about life in Sudan had, but I always had the feeling that the absurd things she said happened, were the truth.
Keji had come to the country in grade school with the rest of her family, refugees from a turbulent and religiously and politically divided Sudan. But that is not who they were – it was simply an unfortunate fact of their lives. Her father is an intellectual, a scientist, her mother, a nurse.
The school she and I attended together was a fifteen-hour drive from my home in Arkansas, and driving was my fastest and cheapest option. For me, that meant visits home would be rare, and for the first time I found myself away on a major holiday – Thanksgiving. But I wasn’t alone. Keji’s family had recently relocated to a city about four hours away from us, and she invited me to join her for Thanksgiving. I didn’t know what to expect. Would a family from another culture celebrate Thanksgiving like we do? Would they celebrate Thanksgiving at all? Would there be turkey and pecan pie? I can’t say I was too preoccupied with those details though, because I was happy to be with a family on Thanksgiving, even if it couldn’t be my own.
When I arrived at their house, I was instantly treated like family. It felt normal for there to be extra guests brought along for family affairs. We were offered leftovers when we walked in the door, and soon enough we were assigned the task of cooking the turkey. I asked Keji if she had any idea how to cook a turkey, and she said, “No, we’ll Google it.” I laughed. For the next few days, I learned about her family: her brother’s entrepreneurial preoccupations – a music video producer, designer, photographer; her mother’s long shifts but persistent dedication to providing for the family; her father’s academic pursuits and travels; along with other family members and their unique personalities.
On Thanksgiving Day, I guess Keji’s mom had little faith in our ability to cook, and she made the turkey after all. We all sat down together at the table to eat the deliciously prepared meal, including turkey and ham, rolls, and several pies. However, we also had a host of traditional Sudanese dishes in front of us. After the past few days of food that must have been sent directly from heaven, I filled most of my plate with the Sudanese dishes – as did everyone else. We happily ate our food and then were told we needed to eat more. So, we had seconds … and thirds.
Refugees are also the people who innovate, who give freely, who educate, who persevere.
When the time finally came to leave, Keji’s family made sure we had plenty of snacks for our journey, then told me to come back for Christmas. I laughed and told them that I would go home for that holiday, but I appreciated the offer. When I reflect on my time with Keji, that memory epitomizes it, because that is who she is. I had always thought of refugees as people who need help; people whose situations force them to make unbelievably difficult decisions. But, being a refugee is one fraction of an individual’s life. Refugees are also the people who innovate, who give freely, who educate, who persevere.
Over the past year, we collected almost 2,500 books and $1,000 dollars to start two libraries in African countries (Kenya and Sierra Leone). That was Keji’s idea, and she went above and beyond to contact people and get them involved in our mission. When I think of refugees now, I think of what could be if every refugee was given the chance to start again, free from persecution, free to be themselves, and free to bring their diversity and resilience to a new land.
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.
World Refugee Day June 20, 2017
Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.