Excerpts previously published in Calvin’s literary magazine, Dialogue. Names have been changed.
The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who:
Owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.
They are stateless, trapped in a country that doesn’t want them, knowing that they cannot go home. “Persecuted” is too gentle a word. These people have been raped and tortured, their families killed in front of them, their homes burned to ash.
To be resettled in a third country, individuals must appeal to the United Nations agency that works with their camp. They must pass a rigorous series of interviews and background checks. Many do not make it through this stage at all—due to a lack of resettlement resources, out of tens of millions of refugees, only about 180,000 were resettled elsewhere last year.
In the chaos of reactionary rhetoric, it can be easy to lose sight of these individual stories, to forget that we are talking about people with families and fears and dreams whose lives continue even as the arguments fade. In this space, I want to share not arguments, but stories from my brief time working in refugee resettlement.
We are an unlikely pair: Sadiq, a Somalian refugee in his thirties, and me, barely twenty, still finishing my degree. The secretaries at the temp agency don’t honor his gender or his seniority, but talk only to me. If this bothers him, he does not show it. In the two months that he’s been here, he has learned to accept whatever help he can get.
I show him where to print his name and information, and as he fills the tiny boxes that define him here, he refers to the stack of papers that name him a legal permanent resident of the United States. He prints in tiny capitals, his hand accustomed to elegant Arabic loops. He doesn’t ask about the job, where he’ll stand pulling the skins off turkeys with one muscle-straining tug, hundreds in a shift until his fingers one day won’t unclench. When they hand him a plastic cup, I point to the bathroom and manage not to blush when I explain to him exactly what they are asking.
As two hours become three and we wait for more paperwork, we talk. I know how improbable this conversation is—a single, middle-aged Muslim man and a young, white Christian girl. In the United States, my Nepali friends tell me, castes are blurred, and then they disappear.
I try to explain this to Sadiq. “We value achievement here,” I say. “People think you are important because of what you do and not because of who you are.”
Sadiq can accept this, if not understand it. “In Somalia,” he says, “if I see a man the same age as my father, I will respect him like I respect my father. We respect people because their age deserves it; not because they are a big man or have a lot of wealth.”
I stop and think about the homeless man with the cardboard sign on the corner before my bus stop. He is probably my father’s age, if not older.
“Is there anything else that seems really different here in the United States?” I ask him.
Sadiq stops and thinks for a moment, then grins. “I would have to say, men with earrings,” he says, shaking his head at the idea.
Nara is from Sri Lanka, the tear-drop-shaped nation off the coast of India. We call him Nara because his real name is as long as a page in a book and employers look at us for help when they see it. He needs a job. Next week, his four short months will be up, and the resettlement payments will stop. His travel loans will begin to accrue interest—the United States expects back every penny of the plane ride over here. Now all at once his rent is due. He has small children to feed.
I am preparing Nara for another interview: his fourth or fifth. He is soft-spoken and his pronunciation is muffled, like he’s speaking through a mouthful of rocks. While he talks I find it difficult to concentrate, my eyes drawn to his neck. A purple scar coils around the base of it, disappearing down his pressed collared shirt.
I coach him through the formalities of a job interview. “Why should I hire you?” I feed him. “I am a good worker,” he sounds out. He is nervous. He rubs his neck. I can’t take my eyes away. I can’t stop thinking someone tried to kill you.
I know nothing but the facts about these people—that Liah is from Eritrea where she spoke Tigrinya, or that Paw Htoo fled Burma months before finishing high school. I know only what can fit on a resume or a government form. Cubans, Iraqis, Sri Lankans and Somalis; Christians, Muslims, Hindus; young and old and soldiers and prisoners brought together into the great American melting pot that is the box on the form checked “refugee.”
“Employers often find that refugee employees are highly motivated and dependable,” I wrote in the informational packet. “They are committed to establishing a new life here in the United States, and know that this is only possible through stable employment.”
How can I be the voice and the face of thousands? Who am I to say who’s committed, or dependable, or motivated? Some are sullen. Some are slow. Some have tempers, and don’t they have the right? When you splinter into pieces, of course you have sharp edges.
Gasaan held back in his job interview. He was tongue-tied in the posh office, and when addressed he averted his eyes to show respect. Afterwards, the human resources manager looked only at me when she told the two of us, smiling, “We’re looking for more English,” but I knew she also meant a little less broken. A quicker smile.
On the drive home I feel flattened. Gasaan fiddles with his phone.
“It is common to have many interviews before you get a job,” I tell him. “This is good practice. I think you gave good answers.”
“Here?” he points down our turn-off as my car shoots past it.
“You’re right!” I groan, embarrassed, as I pull the van around in the next driveway. After three months in the city, Gasaan knows it better than me.
I wish Gasaan were driving, but they handed the keys to me.