Statue of Liberty through refugee children’s eyes – World Refugee Day 2018
New Haven, Connecticut – Holding light: the Statue of Liberty seen through the eyes of refugee children
I keep trying to tell my refugee friends, “I’m sorry.” Your hometown was burned down again. You don’t know if your brother got out alive. That MRI reminds you of the war. Your only chance to take a GED class is after your 12-hour shift at a plastics factory. And the U.S. president is shutting refugees out of the country.
“I’m sorry,” I told my friend Sudanese friend Azhar. “No,” she told me. She’d seen the stars larger than ever that night, after looking through a telescope for the first time. She reminded me of her dream of starting a children’s home for refugee kids who lost their parents. “It is far, but I am on my way,” she told me. “If you work every day for a better day, it will happen.”
Some people have a way of drawing out light. Like Azhar, who has eyes to see through a glass, brightly. It is a light you can barely perceive, and it means more light. Enough to sustain us through dark hours, and astonish us sometimes.
One visitor described IRIS, the refugee resettlement agency where I work, as Goodwill meets National Geographic meets the DMV. Any given day could see a vanload of donated coats, a drum circle of kids from Africa and the Middle East, and people from all walks of life trying to navigate bureaucracy. A Yale graduate and a glass blower from Damascus are no match for tax forms. But life prevails over paperwork in this place I’m called to be. To borrow a phrase from Fredrick Beuchner’s Theological ABC, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
In the hallway where refugees wait to see their case managers, there’s a sixth-grader’s drawing of the Statue of Liberty taped to the wall. A crayon-green lady standing above New York City. The tallest skyscraper comes to her knee. Her right arm becomes her torch, as if it’s grafted onto her wrist. As if the kid who drew her were illustrating the lines of the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty that break my heart these days: “[The] flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome.”
The White House has slashed the number of refugees who can come to the country this year. And the Department of Justice just announced that the U.S. will deny asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. Millions of lives are at stake, as refugees wait in camps where even water is rationed, and asylum seekers try to hide in cities where they have no protection.
Every day I go to work, I see refugees who’ve been there – in the arid camps and the hostile cities and the concrete detention facilities – waiting for a safe place they can stay. I get to hear them learning English, laughing at mishaps, sometimes speaking their dreams.
How can they feel safe in a nation that bans their kind? And yet, they’re helping me grieve, and even celebrate, the light they bring to this country. They’re helping me see: Light has no borders.
Working with refugees is not a good deed or a noble career; it’s a gift to me. As the powers that be decide the fate of tens of thousands of people who need to take refuge in the United States, the refugees in my life keep welcoming me like family. They’re helping me turn my eyes toward the light that holds, no matter what cruelty claims victory.
Some refugees bring the kind of light that makes grieving bright. I felt it when I drove a couple of refugee kids on a field trip to East Rock Park. On the way back, one of the girls was chattering away – “Did you see the swan? Did you row the boat? Wonder what we’ll have for lunch?”
Her new friend from Sudan, Azhar’s daughter Lames, didn’t understand much English at the time.
But when her friend started talking dessert – “Wonder what we’ll have – cookies or ice cream…” Lames chimed in: “I love you, ice cream!”
“I love you, too, ice cream!” I yelled from the drivers’ seat.
One of the things I love about working with refugees is hearing the beautiful ways they speak English as they’re learning – turns of phrase that are often more poignant than the standard ways of saying things. That you in “I love you, ice cream,” makes all the difference – especially to me, the daughter of an Egyptian immigrant who made a new home in Alabama.
My dad was not a refugee: he chose to leave Egypt, in the brain drain of the Nasser days. But like the Middle Eastern and African refugees who are now trying to navigate New England, my dad found himself in an unlikely place, with a language all its own. His English was good, but his idioms were a little off: “It takes two to dance in the tango,” he would say. “Don’t be so half-hazard.”
Part of my heart is hollow since my dad died over five years ago, and it’s that hollow part that fills with light when I make friends with refugees, knowing how much they’ve lost to be here.
Lames has never been to her homeland – the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where there’s a genocide happening as I write. Like thousands of Sudanese refugees, Lames’s parents fled over the border to Egypt, where they faced hate crimes and police brutality on the street. They waited ten years to get out of Egypt.
The week they finally got their visas to come to the United States, Azhar’s dad died back in Sudan. All she wanted to do was to go home and grieve with her family. But if she did, she would lose her 1-in-22-million chance to come with her husband and daughter to the US.
Azhar’s 11-year-old brother is in South Sudan, where he has to work long hours in a market to pay school fees – child labor, just to get a basic education. Azhar wants to bring him to live with her in Connecticut. But he’s from one of the countries whose people, even unaccompanied children, have scant chance of getting in to the United States. As for thousands of refugee families, it will be nearly impossible for Azhar and her little brother to be reunited. It’s a long shot in the dark, but when I spend time with Azhar and Lames, I see sparks of light.
Not long after they arrived to the US, Lames’s dad told his case manager how they made it through the worst times: “You have to do picnics. Otherwise, you’ll get depressed.”
For his first birthday in America, they went to New York City.
“What did you see?” I asked Lames.
“The lady in the water.”
“What lady?” I asked.
“The lady in the water holding light.”
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World Refugee Day 2018
This month, to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, US-born Americans across the United States honor newcomer Americans with a story from their state – a story of a refugee, asylee, or immigrant they admire. From soldiers to politicians, employers to students, social workers to business people – everyday Americans tell their stories to celebrate the goodness and courage of the newcomers who make the United States a better place.
Every day in the month of June, the Refugee Center Online will publish a new story from a different state. Check back for new stories each day: therefugeecenter.org/world-refugee-day.