Refugees taught me to focus on opportunities rather than obstacles
In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Refugees taught me to focus on opportunities rather than obstacles
Focusing on opportunities rather than obstacles
I have been fortunate to spend many years working in immigrant and refugee services in Portland, Oregon. My job has been to help newly arrived refugees adapt to living in the United States. In the course of this work, it has been common for me to see individuals on a daily basis during their first months, when they attended classes, and then later to run into them out in the larger community. It’s rare for me to get on a bus or the Max and not see a former student. The best part of that is seeing how, over time, by focusing on opportunities rather than obstacles, their ability to communicate grows, and they are able to share more with me about themselves and their lives than when we first met.
Mushroom hunting with the Karen community
Of the many, many refugees who have had an impact on my life in the course of my work, I would like to say a little bit about my friend Lucy Htoo and her husband Saw Kwah Htoo. They are members of the Karen community who left Myanmar and lived in refugee camps in Thailand for many years before coming to the United States. I met them in Portland, Oregon, in 2012 or 2013 … I’ve forgotten exactly. I think Lucy and Saw Kwah Htoo were probably in their late fifties or maybe sixties at that time, making them some of the older attendees in our class. I don’t know much about their educational background before coming to the U.S., but they demonstrated such commitment to participating in classes and making the most of their opportunity to learn. Many times, once adults pass their twenties or thirties, they take on the attitude that they are too old to learn a new language, but Lucy and Saw Kwah Htoo never let age slow them down. They showed up every day with their game faces on, and made tremendous progress in our time together, learning how to fill out job applications and doing job interview practice, even though (because of their age) they would more likely be acting as caregivers to their grandchildren than actively looking for work. They saw an opportunity to learn and took advantage of it. They taught me a lot about making the most of what is available to you, about focusing on opportunity rather than obstacles.
At that time, most years, I was fortunate to go mushroom hunting in the fall with members of the Karen community in Portland. What I enjoyed most about seeing Lucy and Saw Kwah Htoo out in the forest together was seeing them in an environment that they were much more adept at navigating than I was. In the classroom, they were adapting to “my” world, but out foraging, they were entirely in their element. They climbed up and down embankments and walked along slippery fallen trees and crossed streams with such confidence and grace. More than that, for every mushroom I found, they would have a bucketful. That’s no exaggeration. It was such a pleasure seeing them engage in something they were great at, to spend time together, and to switch roles as they taught me about what to look for when hunting mushrooms. And they always brought lots of tasty Karen food to share for lunch.
All of those things were wonderful experiences that I learned from, but what most moved me about knowing them was one of the habits Lucy developed during our time in the classroom. She was my student for probably four months, and every day as she left the classroom, she would come to me and look me right in the eye and say, “Andrew! Thank you! God bless you!” I grew up going to church and I’m accustomed to hearing people say, “God bless you,” but when Lucy said it, every day I FELT it in a way I can’t really put into words. It was like experiencing the Hindu greeting of “namaste” (“the divine in me bows to the divine in you”), and every time she said it to me, I could feel something pass between us that was so profound that it honestly brings tears to my eyes even now as I write this. She really elevated me with her presence. I am eternally grateful to her for that and will always remember her as one of the most lovely people I know.
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.