Being friends with a refugee made me appreciate my mobility (and fight for others’)

Jacob Henry
Jacob Henry

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Being friends with a refugee made me appreciate my mobility (and fight for others’)

Last summer, after finishing undergrad, I worked for a college camp program. The host institution was a pretty posh place and I walked through the door thinking I’d have a lot to prove to my elite and experienced new colleagues. Perhaps no single colleague was quite as impressively intimidating as Aker. During our introductions, she shared some of her story, which is worth recounting here:

Growing up as a black African in Khartoum (Sudan) is no easy task. Corrupt cops raided the African slums, taking women in truckloads to siphon bail money and pad their own pockets. Still, Aker told us, she somehow managed to be successful in a school curriculum that was designed to make people like her fail (she’s dedicated and brilliant, that’s the explanation). Even though she had to walk 16 miles, 7 days a week, to an institution that was often cruel and unsupportive, she continued to masterfully and gracefully dedicate as much time as possible to schoolwork and made real strides in an oppressive system. Then one night—out of nowhere from an adolescent’s perspective—she and her family were whisked away to the airport, boarded a plane, and came to safety here in the United States.

As she tells it, Aker was barely able to write her four-letter name in English when she entered the American high school system. Fast-forwarding through a lot of hard work and frustration … she graduated as a valedictorian and put herself through an undergraduate program by taking as many as five jobs at once and by earning competitive scholarships. As a refugee, she says, she learned to go above and beyond, since society often has a great number of stereotypes about minorities, and black women in particular.

This – in an infinitely more humble tone – was the story presented to me during introductions that summer day. Cognizant that exceptional people don’t usually just fall into my life, I committed to getting to know her better. Through that summer we became close friends, enjoyed the city, wrote a cultural trivia game, and generally shared experiences as you do with your friends.

This is all well and good, and for a while Aker was just like any other exceptionally talented, caring, and adventurous friend. However, as I spent more time with her and really listened to her, I realized that there were crucial differences between us. These aren’t innate differences but rather limitations that are placed on her as a black refugee woman that were hard for me to conceptualize before. While she soldiers on, thankful for the opportunities she has and making the most of what is clearly not an ideal situation, I am indignant! I am frustrated! I feel angry for my friend.

I want to briefly tell three stories, themed around mobility, that encapsulate my experience of getting to know a refugee and getting a tiny glimpse into the experience.

Story 1

It’s late, probably about 1 or 2 a.m., and the suburb we are driving through is dead asleep. Aker said we needed to stop for fuel. Okay, no problem – I’m sure most of us have used a gas station late at night. The only place we could find was one of those older gas stations on street corner, the type that only has a shipping container-style building as an office and a row of open pumps. We were chatting in the warm summer breeze when a large pickup truck roared into the lot. The driver, a guy in his late 20s with a bald head who seems to be under the influence of something, rolled his window down and started shouting unintelligibly at us. My body tensed; my heart raced. This would be uncomfortable in any circumstance but standing there with Aker, our multi-racial appearance immediately jumped to the forefront of my mind. Was this guy opposed to a white guy and black girl being out alone at night? Our car was not running. We were both outside. I felt so incredibly vulnerable. Ignoring the man would only make him more irritated, so I decided to shrug in his direction – hoping to convey that I didn’t understand what he wanted. Luckily, he got the message and drove across the lot to harass the station clerk. We drove off but only after a few turns off the main road did I finally feel safe. That night I learned there is a special kind of fear when you feel your skin might be the subject of hostile scrutiny. We couldn’t hide, we couldn’t joke it off, we wouldn’t have been able to deescalate the situation. Aker faces this reality constantly. I wouldn’t usually worry about being out at night, but this is a limited mobility she must consider every day. Having felt a tinge of that fear, I cannot blame her for being cautious.

Story 2

Aker is a legal resident of the USA but since she came as a child refugee, she doesn’t have a green card. She casually mentioned one day that she was headed to the Post Office to refile an application for permanent residency. I asked what that entailed … Turns out that it takes thousands of dollars and seven months to even be considered for the waitlist. The waitlist! You have to prove your identity with a collection of documents (that the Sudanese government wasn’t kind enough to produce) and then the process really begins. But the catch is that the application to get on the waitlist can expire which means more money, more documentation, and more false hope. Now that airlines are considering implementing international ID requirements for domestic flights, my friend – whose Sudanese documents are often considered insufficient – may have her mobility hindered within this country’s borders.

Story 3

For a period of time I lived and studied in Canada. In the weeks before moving there, I crossed the border at Detroit to run a few Canadian errands. Aker came along to Michigan and as we stood on the promenade looking across to the Canadian riverbanks, I became overwhelmed. Because of the arbitrariness of birth, I had the mobility to go back and forth across the border as I pleased. However, that Detroit riverwalk was the end of the line for Aker. She had to patiently wait in America for my return.

It seems to me that refugees like Aker are defined by an extreme and disorienting involuntary mobility. Yet, these people have their ability to participate as global citizens hampered by the limits – formal and informal – on their movement once they arrive. This is especially, cruelly ironic given that refugees are some of the last truly stateless people.

Most of these insights will be familiar to the people who have worked with refugees, and maybe to the wider population. I certainly knew most of these things before I met Aker. However, I have now felt them – if only second-hand – and become even more frustrated with a system that doesn’t feel right in any way. I have called Congress more since befriending Aker than in the rest of my life.

In spite of her physical mobility being somewhat hampered, Aker has just completed a brilliant Master’s thesis that describes the educational journeys of other talented, underrepresented students. Although she hates it when people say they are inspired by her, I am. However, I always remember – and I invite you to consider – that inspiration can often go hand-in-hand with complacency. Because an inspirational person “made it,” that doesn’t mean the system is just or acceptable. For this reason, it’s important to appreciate my own mobility and funnel that appreciation into action to fight for my friend and the mobilities she is entitled to.

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 Jacob Henry

Jacob Henry is a cultural geography PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He reads and writes about tourism and teaching in southern Africa and maintains a friendship with one of the coolest people in the world.