Knowing refugees restored my faith in humanity

Matt Lyon
Matt Lyon with Monga and Eca

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Knowing refugees restored my faith in humanity

I first heard about local refugee resettlement through a close friend. He – being a good North Dakotan – was involved with the local Lutheran Church and had been impressed by the pastor and his sermons on inclusiveness. The church was working to make Northwest Arkansas a refugee resettlement site, and had formed Canopy NWA to enact this vision. I attended an informational meeting last fall and agreed to lead a co-sponsorship team to help bring a refugee family to our community. Little did I know that this was the first step towards restoring my faith in humanity.

Our team got word from Canopy in December that they were receiving families shortly and we should prepare for our family’s arrival.

We jumped into action.

We reached out to our networks seeking furniture, clothes, and household items. We set up a crowdfunding page to help with the costs of buying what couldn’t be donated and to help with other moving and resettling expenses. Items and donations came pouring in. Americans are famously generous, but I was still surprised at how quickly and robustly people responded.

People from all over the country saw value in what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it. Faith in humanity: restored.

At the beginning of the year, we got word that our family had been placed and flights were booked. They would be arriving on February 4th. The only information we had was a redacted biodata form. Names, ages, nationality, education and skills. These are people. They have names. Eca. Floride. Mbleci. Monga. They are Congolese, but have been living in Burundi for 13 years awaiting permanent placement.

Our team began to see them come into focus. It was starting to become real. We planned the move-in. Who had trucks? Who was buying groceries? Who was cooking the welcome meal? Then more immediate logistics hit us. Do we have a native speaker? Do they have dietary restrictions? What if someone is sick or in a wheelchair? How much luggage are they bringing? Do we have enough room? The anticipation was palpable. Then the travel ban happened.

The weekend of the travel ban hit me like a ton of bricks – I was sick about the family finding out that, after 13 years as refugees, of applications and interviews and medical checks and family history and terrorist vetting, they were just five days too late. The notion that escaping a civil war and conscription as a child soldier was somehow not a valid reason for receiving placement was not only absurd but inhumane, and it felt downright evil.

When I saw the reaction in airports across the country that day, I started to become hopeful. I saw the protests at JFK. I saw my rock star immigration attorney cousin sitting in with John Lewis in Atlanta. I saw the trickle of detained people let free and the fear and confusion on their faces, and I said to myself, ‘This ban cannot last.’

I praised the injunction and listened in intently on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals conference call the following week. When the ruling came back upholding the stay, I was ecstatic – but also angry. What had just happened? What kind of test on our country had just occurred?

Our family re-booked travel for February 13th and we had cautious optimism that they’d arrive this time. Canopy scrambled to find them a new place to live – with the travel ban, they had to cancel the apartment or risk losing the deposit – and we had to re-plan the move-in, groceries, and first meal. The morning of their scheduled arrival, I got a call from Canopy telling me that they would come the following night. Nobody was really sure why – did they miss their flight out of Burundi? Where they held up at customs? All we could do was perform the fire drill once more the next day and hope that all would go well. The next night, on a rainy Valentine’s Day and after a rushed but loving dinner with my girlfriend, we welcomed our family into Northwest Arkansas.

They were clearly exhausted from their three-day trip. With muted excitement, we greeted them and tried to make small talk as we waited for their luggage at the baggage claim. There were at least three greeters for every family member, and I’m sure it was all a bit overwhelming for them. We shuttled them home in a van, offered them a warm meal, and bid them goodnight to get some rest.

The next day, another co-sponsor and I offered to show them around town. We walked through the University of Arkansas campus, made copies of their International Office of Migration documents (their only identifying papers), walked them down the main street of our quaint university town, and got them pizza for lunch. In the evening, my girlfriend and I took them to the local grocery store to show them a typical American grocery shopping experience. We could tell they were a bit shocked at the sheer number of items, but also excited and curious. One of them remarked at how many choices they had for everything: from potato chips to hand lotion. “Why are there 15 different hand lotions? It makes choosing difficult.” Yes. Yes it does.

The next several weeks were filled with new experiences for both the family and the co-sponsor team. Intake meetings, trips to the doctor, learning the bus system, applying for a social security card. One day a few of the family members asked if we could take them to the local mosque. I had regrettably never been and didn’t even know where it was. I found their website and emailed the imam and arranged a time to meet.

That evening, we entered the mosque and the foyer was filled with hundreds of flowers, cards, signs, and letters. “We love our Muslim neighbors,” “You are welcome in Fayetteville,” “You are loved.”

The mosque representatives said this was just a portion of what had been received – they had run out of space. I was blown away. Faith in humanity: restored.

I was so proud of my community at that moment, yet upset with myself that this was my first visit to the mosque and that my card was not among those they received. I was contacting my representatives and speaking out on social media against Islamophobia, hate crimes, and the travel ban, but I had failed to reach out to my brothers and sisters in my own town.

Until this point, the demeanor of my new friends was rather serious. Sure, we’d laugh while playing volleyball in the park, or Monga would giggle as he told the story of arriving at JFK and walking outside to see snow for the first time in his life, but all of us were taking the resettlement seriously. There was too much to do in these first weeks to spend much time other than the tasks at hand. But that changed that night as I saw the family engage with members of the mosque. They found fellow French speakers and were able to more fully express themselves. There was a great big smile on Monga’s face as he told me that he was going to wash his feet in preparation for the evening prayers. The imam began his call to prayer and like, a puzzle piece solving itself, I saw Monga and Eca scurry back from the ablution and fall perfectly in line with the 20 or so devotees. The group began to recite their prayers and perform their gestures, and for a moment I couldn’t tell them apart from the rest of their brethren. Humility and gratitude and recognition of beauty washed over me and I began to tear up.

It was then that I realized that they were going to be all right. They were here. They were safe. They were happy. Faith in humanity: restored.

We took the family out to play billiards one evening and they needed to show their ID to get into the pool hall. As we approached the bouncer, I got nervous. Would he accept their strange, wrinkled paper as identification? Would he be cold and inhospitable to them? How would other folks in my community accept refugees into their midst? The bouncer looked at their papers. I anxiously explained that they were our newest community members and didn’t have state-issued IDs yet. He looked at them, he looked back at their papers. “Sure, come on in. Welcome! I hope you have a good time tonight, and we’re glad you’re here!” Our new friends grinned ear-to-ear. “Thank you,” they replied in their new language. Faith in humanity: restored.

We played pool for two hours: great shots, scratches, setting up and missing trick shots. They told me stories of the times they were able to play pool in Burundi and how it was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult life.

We felt a common connection, a shared experience. We were not so different; in fact, we were pretty similar.

Over the next two months, we worked hard to get them set up in America. State IDs, bank accounts, jobs. Through our network, we were able to find jobs for all of them as hotel housekeepers and warehouse workers. Entry-level jobs for sure, but jobs that bring confidence, a sense of belonging, and a harbinger of good things to come. Our family has now reached 90 days and they are self-sufficient. We are showing them how to pay their bills, how to order at restaurants on their own, how to drive.

Now the really fun stuff can happen. Baseball games, picnics, camping trips in the Ozarks. There will, of course, be challenges ahead – what life doesn’t have them? But they’ve been able to pull themselves out of the existential muck and onto solid ground. They have shown me what true hard work is, what years of struggle look like, and that the American Dream is still alive. Faith in humanity: restored.

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.

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About Matt Lyon

I’m a mid-30s sustainability consultant living in Fayetteville, AR. My job allows me to teach others about the environmental and social impacts of the products we consume and how to find solutions to reducing the unwanted outcomes.