Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Leave the Ivory Tower, Now!

After 5 months of learning, talking and getting up to speed here at International Rescue Committee, I finally got myself out into the field. I visited our San Diego and Phoenix resettlement operations. This post is a sneak preview to the official version that will go up on our blog shortly - but I think for marketing purposes, it's important for me to share it here as well.

"Dreams and Disorientation"

When was the last time you were moved to take action?

This post isn’t intended to get you to take action, or to make a donation to the IRC. But there’s a good chance you just might because you will most certainly be moved, surprised and compelled to, at minimum, learn more about what I’m going to talk about. If I can manage to write what I have in my head you will literally be astounded.

Americans take the “American Dream” for granted. Big time.

For me, growing up in Westchester County, NY, college, a career and a family were only ever a question of time. It’s a given for many Americans that if they work hard they can live the life of their dreams. But to me, the "American Dream" isn’t really “American” – it’s more of a statement about the spirit of ALL human beings and their desire to live the life of their dreams.

I spent a few days last week with our San Diego and Phoenix resettlement offices seeing first-hand how “the dream” works for refugees. These offices are in the business of delivering the "American Dream" on a daily basis.

I bet you haven’t heard about the ’72 Burundians. I hadn’t. They are a group of refugees who fled their homeland in 1972 following a campaign of violence against them by Tutsi-led forces. What happened is sometimes referred to as the first genocide in Africa’s Great Lakes region and -- two decades before the atrocities depicted in “Hotel Rwanda” -- resulted in 200,000 deaths and triggered the flight of some 150,000 refugees to camps in Tanzania, Rwanda and Congo.

These folks have lived in refugee camps for 35 years. Two generations of people growing up in refugee camps. The government of Tanzania has made it clear that it doesn’t want them to settle permanently – but isn’t 35 years of living somewhere “permanent?”

What if you were kicked out of your house and run off to a foreign country – then after 35 years told to leave?

As for “the dream” - I have to give pause and wonder to myself how these people had any hope at all for a better life.

I met Augustine and his beautiful family (his wife and 3 young boys) as part of my tour of the Phoenix resettlement office. Resettled refugees like Augustine typically travel for up to 4 or 5 days to get from their camp to the United States. Our trip to Augustine’s house was the IRC’s “24 hour” visit – a chance for staff to check in on the family and answer any additional questions they may have.

Before my visit, I could only guess at how confused and disoriented refugees like Augustine must feel when they first arrive. But then the reality of his experience started to sink in. It was confusing and disturbing to me on so many levels:

Augustine grew up in a refugee camp and doesn’t know what an air conditioner is, or butter for that matter. He asked us what a bag of pasta was for – he held up a box of Pop Tarts and with a look of hope and confusion listened while we told him it was a breakfast food, sort of like bread with fruit inside. But Augustine now finds himself in a furnished apartment, with an opportunity for education and a job--and, of course, Pop Tarts and Cheerios. Thanks to the IRC, he's standing on the doorstep of "the dream."

In my eyes, Augustine is a hero – he is a man that I can only bow down to and honor. He has survived something that for any American is completely inconceivable. He is raising his family amid all kinds of upheaval, he speaks 5 languages and he has found a way to build a better life for them. I’m in awe.

Later that evening, I decided to go along with IRC staff to the airport to pick up another set of incoming Burundians who had been traveling for 5 days. At 11:16, a group of African men wearing standard issue gray shirts, blue pants and basic sneakers came walking down towards us, their eyes bleary, holding on to their IOM issued bags with their papers – their permission slips to "the dream."

As we stood around baggage claim, communicating in smiles and gestures, we soon learned that 3 of their 5 bags had been “lost” by the airlines. Americans get upset when they lose a bag with their pool toys and bathing suits. These folks lost bags with everything they own in them. The airline representative made us fill out forms and told us to call in 24 to 48 hours. Welcome to America!

Imagine if you packed your house to move cross-country, and the moving truck got into a wreck that destroyed everything inside.

I can imagine it – and it’s just horrible. But the newly arrived refugees just smiled. One of them picked up a copy of USA Today (he speaks no English at all) and found the weather map. He was looking intently at it and I leaned over to see if I could help him make sense of things. He pointed to Arizona and smiled. I pointed out New York and made an airplane motion with my hands - I think he understood me perfectly well.


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