Being friends with a refugee has taught me the value of friendship

Beth Moon with her friend Lana
Beth with her friend Lana

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Being friends with a refugee has taught me the value of friendship

I think being from a small town definitely has its advantages. You feel safe, you know practically everybody (this can actually be good and bad), and life isn’t very hectic. The disadvantages are a serious lack of diversity and practically no experiences with different cultures. To say the majority of my graduating 8th grade class was Caucasian would be an understatement – with the exception of maybe two classmates, we were all Caucasian. I wouldn’t necessarily say the people in my town are bigoted, though I’m sure some of them may be, just ignorant of other cultures. That’s how I was, ignorant, that is until I met someone in 5th grade who changed all of that.

I can’t remember the first time I met Lana, but nor can I remember a time that I didn’t know her. She was in my class in 5th grade, and Mrs. Gjerde was our teacher. I remember how Mrs. Gjerde would always emphasize that Lana was from Europe – not Croatia (which is where she was from), but Europe. She would show us a picture of the Eiffel Tower, or the Greek Parthenon and immediately turn to Lana. “Lana have you been there? It’s in Europe.”  Of course, we would all stare at Lana while she shook her head no, not understanding that she had just escaped a war-torn country with her life, leaving everything she had ever known behind. How could we? To us Lana was the little dark-skinned European girl. She had probably spent all of her days eating pasta and running around on cobblestone streets.

It wasn’t long before I saw Lana simply as my friend. She wasn’t a foreigner, she wasn’t weird, she was one of my closest confidantes.

We had sleepovers, staying up all night lying in my Mom’s driveway talking and dreaming about which boy band member we were going to marry. Yes, we were absolutely obsessed with boy bands and went to way too many concerts. Thinking back on elementary and high school, something that sticks out in my mind is all the questions poor Lana always had to field once someone found out she was from another country. “Do they have badminton in your country?” Yes, that was an actual question. Or her favorite demand: “Lana, say something to me in your language.” She got that one a lot, and I must admit I have been guilty of this request. Of course, going to Lana’s house was always an adventure. She always had the best food, and her dad would let us surf the internet as long as we wanted. I got to listen in as Lana would talk to her dad in Serbo-Croatian, something that still amazes me to this day.  Yes, her house was completely different from mine, but it was a good different, it was fun.

The value of friendship between Americans and refugees

I never thought about how amazing it was then, but I can’t help but marvel at her now. Lana came to this country barely knowing any English, and before the school year was over she was fluent. Fluent! She did all of her work in English, she spoke to everyone in English, and she was even at the top of our class! No one else I know would have been able to do that; I know I couldn’t.

I should probably also mention that along with escaping a war zone at the age of nine, Lana had lost her mother to cancer as a young girl.  When she left Croatia, she had to leave behind all of her friends and family. She, her dad, and her younger brother all had to start over in a different country, which for most people seems impossible, but it wasn’t for Lana. She is bar none the strongest person I know, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that she has not complained once about the hand she’s been dealt. She has taken her experience and made it a  goal to help people in need, refugees just like she was.

Lana and I grew up together, we went through our awkward pre-teens together, we graduated high school together. To this day I still consider her to be one of my closest friends. She taught me that although we are different, we can still have numerous things in common. We may have been born in completely different parts of the world, but she and I are more alike than most of the people I know. There’s only one thing about Lana that will always frustrate me though. I’ve known her for half a century and I still cannot pronounce her last name correctly, I can spell it though! I love you Lana, and I’m so happy that you chose me to be your first American friend all of those years ago.

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.

About Beth Moon
My name is Beth, and I was born and raised in a small town in northern California. I have been married to my husband Grant for thirteen years now. We have a two-year-old daughter, Ella, and we are expecting our second daughter, Mia, this November. I have worked as a registered dental hygienist for the past seven years, and in my spare time I love to spend time with my family.