Knowing refugees taught me the importance of slowing down
In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Knowing refugees taught me the importance of slowing down
A few years ago, life was anything but ordinary for me. I was halfway around the world in a small village in eastern Chad, working with refugees from the Darfur conflict. I was there as part of an NGO team, charged with coordinating the preschool and elementary schools in a refugee camp that had been home to thousands for ten years. This meant collaborating with 137 refugee teachers within a community participatory framework.
Working with refugees
When I arrived, I brought my strong sense of productivity with me. I could grow impatient if things weren’t going as planned or if I arrived at the camp in the morning with to-do tasks and not many things got checked off the list. But that approach was misguided.
Faced with many challenges, we started holding community meetings with some of the refugee teachers and administrators to hear what was going on for them and try to problem-solve around the issues at the schools. In essence, the meetings turned into multiple listening sessions, sometimes four hours long. The group would arrive with a list of 15 speakers who wanted to say something and each one would speak at length.
I was nervous. There were so many complaints, things I felt powerless to change. I just kept writing things down, feeling overwhelmed. All this was amplified by my difficulty adjusting to 110 degree heat. I thought that it would be appropriate after each speaker to respond to their concerns. Explain what could or could not be addressed, based on the constraints to our budget or realities.
At the first listening session, I recall that I started to indicate to my coworker I had something to say to prompt him to be ready to translate from French to Arabic. He immediately waved me off. I tried again and was given this succinct advice, “Just listen.”
The time for a response would come later. Now was the time to take in their viewpoints, and more importantly, their stories. I was struck by how many of the people started their comments and views on small, present-day issues at the schools with the phrase, “Ten years ago, when we fled Sudan …” It became clear that I could only begin to understand their current struggles in the camp through the lens of the ongoing struggles of the last decade or more.
I had nothing to offer during my time there if it wasn’t centered in a need to slow down, listen, and try to understand. Once I let go of my sense of trying to “fix” things and focused on relationship building, the work was transformed.
In reality, I was transformed.
Back in Portland, the challenges refugees face also loom large. Access to affordable apartments, jobs, finding community … all while navigating a new language and culture. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and think, what could I possibly do that would make a difference?
Then I remember the lesson from Chad: “Just listen.” That’s the first step.
I hope to tap into that sense of presence and be open to the stories of those refugees who also call Portland their home. How can I contribute to our joint sense of community – and ask what they want to contribute – if I don’t first seek to build trust, hear their stories, and offer up a piece of my own?
The other steps will reveal themselves in time.
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.