What Abiba has taught me

Kate Willson with Abiba and family members.

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.

What Abiba has taught me

I live alone, in a house where everything has a place and everything is clean. I don’t have a television, host parties, drink, or stay up late. I don’t like conflict. I keep too busy for close friends.

But one Tuesday last October Catholic Charities called me in a pinch. A woman from Central African Republic was scheduled to land at midnight, and the case worker hadn’t found her a place to stay; no surprise in Portland’s restrictive rental market.

They knew little about the woman, other than she was 22 years old. I had a spare room that I rarely used. It was a kind thing to do, even if I feared that a young person would mess up my order. I agreed to take her for a few days; just until the resettlement office could find her a more permanent solution.

The young woman who stepped off the plane hadn’t slept in 2 days. “Do you have any family here?” I asked in French. Looking dazed, the woman, named Abiba, said, “Aren’t you my family now?”

What could I do, but nod?

I took Abiba to eat her first tacos, carve her first pumpkin, rake her first leaves, hold her first baby pig, carve her first Turkey, open her first Christmas gift, hike her first trails, soak in her first hot springs, apply for her first job, and for her first semester at community college.

I sat with her late at night as she made out the words in an English children’s book. I sat at the pool’s edge as she swam her first lap. I sat at my office as she learned to ride the bus and find her way back when she got lost. I sat in the passenger seat and held my breath as she learned to park a car.

It might sound as if I were the benefactor. But all these firsts were actually her gifts to me: patience, tenderness, compassion. She even taught me that connection is more important than checking tasks off my to-do list.

Abiba taught me silly things, like how to use my microwave, cook goat and make my iPhone photos move like videos. She taught me big things too, such as how to ask for help with carrying groceries or cleaning the house. She taught me to talk through frustrations of high heat bills and water spills. And she taught me to let someone hug me.

She’s become family. She calls me “Mom.” She calls my own mother, “Mom.” She calls my grandmother, “Grandma.” They exchange text messages and emails. When Abiba landed her first job, they drove up for celebratory dinner and made sure Abiba had her first pair of pearls. “Every professional woman needs a pair,” my mother would say.

It’s been more than six months since Abiba came to stay with me. She needs me less these days. She has a growing circle of friends, and a self-command that has earned her two jobs and good pay. She’ll strike out on her own soon – to launch a business, pursue a degree, start a family.

She’s got big dreams, and she’s unstoppable.

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 Kate Willson
Kate Willson writes about programs that serve immigrants and refugees as part of the communications team at Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon. Prior to her equity work at the County, Kate worked an investigative journalist. She spends her free time riding her bike, climbing rocks and reading the Sunday New York Times.