“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
They come through the doors of the tiny office where I work every day. I am one of three staff working at a small nonprofit refugee organization in Atlanta, Georgia. They are the women, men and children who have come seeking refuge in the United States.
They walk through our door as they begin to “resettle” into new lives in an unfamiliar place where they rarely speak the language. They are refugees, asylum seekers, and those with special immigrant visas who worked to support the U.S. military – our military – in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. They are individuals who left everything they knew to escape persecution and death.
They carry trauma like I cannot ever imagine. But you would never know it from their kindness, their patience, their graciousness, their humility. Their resilience. They come to us at the end of a long journey that has taken them to places I cannot even begin to imagine.
Their homes and the lives they have always known turned to rubble.
The loss of livelihoods, careers, educations, family members and friends. Community.
The dangerous journeys into unknown temporary places where they wait, often for years.
Weeks and months of vetting before it is deemed they are “safe” for us to accept into our country.
Do you know how much vetting a refugee has to go through before they can come here?
They arrive with the clothes on their backs and the few items they were able to bring with them, all this way; nothing compared to all they have lost.
They are resettled into tiny apartments for often large families, nothing like the places they knew before.
They are given the minimum they need: a family of five gets five plates, five glasses, five forks, knives and spoons, one set of pots and pans, five towels, two or three beds.
They get help finding jobs – but not the jobs they used to do utilizing the skills they have; instead jobs for $8 an hour with no benefits, unreliable hours, long distances to travel, harsh and often dangerous conditions.
Do you know what goes into preparing the chicken we buy wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic wrap at the grocery store? Do you know the people who do this work?
They sign up for English classes at the local community college, but the community college doesn’t provide childcare, so some with small children – usually women – get left behind.
They connect with other refugees who speak their language, perhaps some who have been here longer, and they form new communities.
Word of mouth brings them to our door.
We help them with basic needs – diapers for their children, feminine hygiene products for the women, laundry detergent, dish soap, toothpaste, shampoo, linens, items to complete the kitchens of women who love to cook, cooking oil, rice, lentils, cribs, car seats and toys for the children.
We help them understand and file their paperwork for food stamps and Medicaid, help them navigate the transition when those benefits end, help them read confusing letters from landlords. We help connect them with emergency aid when an unexpected event prevents them from making their rent.
Do you know what it’s like to arrive in a new country needing open heart surgery, and then to not be able to work to support your family? Do you know what life is like in a refugee camp when your heart is failing?
We help them find better jobs with better pay, perhaps even benefits. We help them register for training and credential programs to improve their opportunities. We help them research what it would take for them to do here what they did in their home countries.
Do you know how many years of school it takes for an Iraqi dentist who had a private practice for twelve years to become a dentist here? How does he go to school for four years while supporting his family?
When they come through our doors I do all I can to welcome them, to let them know in a small way that they are home. The people who walk through our doors are scared, apprehensive, unsure. On top of the traumas they carry and the challenges of their new lives, the messages they hear in the media are not those of welcome. They, too, read the words of accusation thrown their way in the media: that they are a threat, that they must be terrorists, that they are undeserving of our help, that they are overwhelming our system, that they are Muslim. Even their faith is thrown at them as a flaw, a danger.
Do you know how it feels for a traumatized person to be retraumatized?
I hope they also read what the media wrote about the thousands of people who rallied at airports around the country this past weekend to protest the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim executive orders of our new presidential administration.
These are men, women and children like all of the men, women and children you know. They had lives before like the lives you and I live. They took their children to school in the morning in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and welcomed them home with a snack and helped them with homework in the afternoon. They went to college, built careers, went to their jobs, celebrated births and weddings, prepared meals for family and friends. They sat and watched ball games and shows on TV.
Before they were refugees, they were people. They are still those people. When I look into their eyes that is what I see – humanity. If ever you aren’t sure, just look into their eyes.
The lamp beside the golden door of our small office remains lit and the door remains open. All are welcome here.