I am the Rachel that commented on your Instagram post yesterday. I’m a senior at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. I worked for Cincinnati’s refugee resettlement organization as an intern in employment services and ESL, but remain on today as a volunteer. I now student teach at a magnet school of Cincinnati Public designed specifically for English Language Learners, and many of the students are my refugee clients’ children. These people have been the most wonderful addition to my life – I have been culturally, emotionally, socially, and morally enriched for knowing them. Without them, how many Hindu thread ceremonies or traditional Syrian teas do you think this gangly white girl would have attended?
I wanted to share with you a reflection (attached) that I wrote immediately following the end of my formal internship in refugee resettlement. I have so many things I’d love to add to that reflection – facts, numbers, stats, laws, arguments, etc. – to debunk the myths surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis as we know it today. However, I think the part that changes hearts is the humanity of the situation. It’s been a tough job – I’ve seen doctors who were top in their country have to figure out how to apply their knowledge in a new language; I’ve seen little children catch on to English in minutes, and leave their older siblings lagging behind in feelings of inadequacy; I’ve seen Muslim women get screamed at by passersby to “take off your rag, this is America!” But I’ve also seen truly every single family prevail. The fact of the matter is, these people come into communities knowing they need to support each other. They are further supported by the resettlement agency, their religious communities, their family and friends who are already here. There’s no reason to fear people. There is reason to fear terrorism, war, what have you – but where is the reason to fear our fellow humanity?
There are three women I am very close to. They are from Eritrea, a tiny country next to Ethiopia that is often called “the North Korea of Africa”. A few years ago, many countries would not take Eritrean refugees. They feared they would bring terrorism, war, and an oppressive regime. The diversity scared them – Norway tried to send their Eritrean refugees back home. The United States took them in. Spoiler alert: They did not bring terrorism, war, or an oppressive regime.
One of these women fluffs your pillows when you stay in a downtown hotel. She folds sheets with meticulous standards of perfection. One of these women cooks at the Ethiopian restaurant you love to eat at so very much. She wears traditional dress with pride, and we marvel at how stunning she is. One of these women runs an in-home daycare so the other moms and dads can go to work. She is certified and even works on the children’s English starting from birth. They are mothers, partners, neighbors, and community members. They are self-sufficient, have learned English, and know how to work an iPhone just as well as you do. Plus they can make some kickass injera – even with the limited selection of international ingredients found in the Cincinnati grocery store.
…The climate here in Cincinnati is not welcoming – our newspaper posted an article about our first resettled family this morning, and one of the top liked comments was “run this PC BS story again AFTER one of those bastard kids blows up a bus Downtown….” That is arguably quite reflective of what the new Cincinnati Syrian families will face. It is disheartening, but your recent blog post and the comments of the online community you have surrounded yourself with are encouraging. There is a thirst for knowledge, a desire to understand, and the compassion to tolerate, accept, and even celebrate our newest neighbors. I am hopeful that there will always be a desire to see humanity, and that knowing humanity will change hearts and minds.
….My internship at Catholic Charities Southwest Ohio – Refugee Resettlement Services has given me a glorious glimpse of this human experience. My mornings were filled with endless excitement as I prepared for whatever new adventures my makeshift Steno-notepad calendar proclaimed the day would hold… almost all of which were promptly disrupted by some other completely unplanned and spontaneous adventure instead.
Some days, I learned about case management and the importance of patience as I painstakingly went through every step of a food stamp or employment application with a non-English speaking client. I fumbled through my own language as I sat alongside the students in my English as a Second Language class, sometimes with as many different native tongues present as there were individuals. While they quickly acquired new vocabulary and pronunciation skills, I slowly acquired flexibility in lesson planning, gentleness in correcting mistakes, and a sense of whimsy in weaving together elements of culture (namely food, of course) with the English language.
I gained a new knowledge – and, praise God, a better sense of direction – of downtown and our Metro system as I walked and bussed my way around the city for cultural orientations, always amidst a somewhat comical entourage of startled new arrivals still fresh in traditional dress, interpreters jabbing a finger at every landmark, and other miscellaneous interns, volunteers, and even the occasional curious stray. I heard story after incredible story of journeys across nation borders, living conditions in camps, and travels to a new home – a new home that can offer freedom and relief, but also a demotion in career, a struggle for housing, a roadblock in language, and a sense of isolation among so many people. I saw heartbreak and jubilation side by side, and inevitably deeply felt them both as well.
One Friday morning was filled with this juxtaposition as I sat down with an Iraqi client. A strong-willed personality, this man had impressed me with the robustness of both his confidence and his mustache since the day I had met him. However, he entered my cubicle with shoulders hunched in defeat, took a heavy seat in the chair directly across from me and rasped, “No job. No friends. No English. No money. No hope for family.” As he began to weep with huge, heaving breaths, I sat in astonishment of the weighty troubles this man had to carry and felt a deep pain take my own breath away. After imagining some alternatives together, his exit from my office was followed by the entrance of a wispy little Eritrean woman with a bundle of papers clutched to her chest. This woman and I had connected almost instantly on my very first day of work, and I was delighted to see her after such a difficult encounter just moments prior. She thrust her papers at me with an illuminating grin and bouncing toes. The documents were verification of a goal we had been working on for her: a housekeeping job at a local hotel. Their printed words meant food for her son, fare for the bus, rent for her home, and more opportunities for herself. She could be completely self-sufficient. We shrieked and hugged and danced in the tiny confines of my cubicle, all cobwebs of lingering sadness cleared away. It was a moment of elation and triumph that had taken both of us a challenging journey at which to arrive.
Most importantly, I worked in an environment that not only tolerated and accepted new cultures, but truly celebrated them. Every single day in my office was ultimately a celebration of the world, near and far.
These encounters, in some ways unique to refugees, hold the essential themes of what it means to be human hidden within their midst. We feel everything from weariness to wonder across the globe, regardless of culture, race, nationality, language, income, or what have you. We all need a sense of independence, but one that comes from a rooted sense of interdependence and belonging. We face hardship and hurt in some way, but muster up courage from the deepest parts of our souls to carry on, to survive, to thrive. We each interpret our experiences through a lens of our history and focus on the future with understanding of our past. We care, maybe a bit or perhaps a lot, to heal our world, our selves, and our most beloveds in the best ways we know how. This, I have learned, is the core experience of humanity told so clearly through the lives of our world’s refugees….
This was originally posted on the “Girls Gone Child” blog
Rachel Piepsny is a senior Middle Childhood Education major, Peace and Justice Studies minor from Cleveland, OH. She is the co-director of the Encounter retreat, was an SSI intern in Refugee Resettlement, and co-founded Girls on the Run at Evanston Academy. Rachel enjoys riding her neon green bicycle, drinking tea, and doing yoga. Next year, she hopes to have a job teaching adolescents to like books and be gentle with each other.