The refugee reality

By Danielle Young, Carmel Christian School (Matthews, North Carolina)


Broken, isolated, scared: these emotions dictate the lives of many refugees as they step foot into an alien country. After abandoning almost everything they have ever known to flee persecution or devastation, they are met with incredible obstacles — both those they have been prepared for, and those they did not know existed.

“When we arrived here, my son was 4 years old, he didn’t know any English at all. He did not have any friends, and it was difficult for him. When he sees people in the window, he says ‘hello! hello!’ because he wants to make a friend,” Myat Htwe, who resettled from Burma to the United States in 2007 with Lutheran Services Carolinas, said of her son’s transition to America.

The longing of human connection: it drives the global community. A young boy, yearning for a friend is the heart and soul of what these refugees go through. No matter what age, religion, origin, language, they all can identify to some degree with that little boy longing to just say hello.

With assistance from Lutheran Services Carolinas , they learn to replace brokenness for resilience, abandon isolation for readiness, and replace fear with hope. But that change does not happen overnight. There is a lot that happens in the gap between the dubious, trust-deprived new immigrant, and the excited, lively new resident.

The process of resettlement goes way beyond finding steady employment or learning the language. The true transformation is adjusting to a whole new reality: a different culture and a foreign lifestyle, all while fighting against stereotypes and legislation that complicate the lives they are building.

Lutheran Carolinas Services (LCS) works with new refugees to assist with employment, English language immersion, transportation navigation, and adjustment to American culture.

Dylan Gunnels, who serves as the employment specialist at LSC said, “It is easier for some who have more skills from their home country.”

The diversity ranges to those who have an international driver’s license and speak English, to those who have never driven a car and speak not a word of English.

“Some cultures adapt quicker to other cultures,” Gunnels said. “Some are just more stubborn.”

Under the current political climate, many barriers are now in place that were nonexistent before.  Lindsay LeDuc, the head manager for the LSC offices of Columbia and Charleston, recounts the first time she heard the strong voices and contentious opinions of the other side of the argument. She was new to the political scene, and did not understand the vicious perspectives of the opposition.

With an anti-resettlement bill presented to the South Carolina government in early 2016, LeDuc was exposed to these opinions for the first time in a startling wake up call.

“There was one particular committee meeting open to the public where we could give testimonies about the (anti-refugee) bill going through the state,” she said, “It was crazy to sit there and listen to testimony after testimony of people who had never met a refugee claim that they were murderers and rapists and terrorists. People had so much misinformation about what was going on there and who was coming here.”

LeDuc continued: “The tension was evident but also to think about the refugees sitting there. It was mind-blowing to think about what these refugees were going through listening to this.”

Lindsay Seymour, employment specialist at LSC, agrees with the weight of the opposition.

“When some of the political structure took a turn within the last few months, There was definitely a heaviness in the atmosphere,” she said. “Everyone was just taking a deep breath of what’s going to happen, because we didn’t know.”

Society often shifts to these radical realizations and profiles refugees as  dangerous terrorists or potential criminals. These epiphanies of incorrect institutionalization lead to incorrect profiles.

“These portrayals include suggestions that immigrants spread infectious diseases, that refugee claimants are often bogus, and that terrorists may gain entry to western nations disguised as refugees,” an article from University of Western Ontario states based off a study by the Springer Science+Business Media.

Their status, education, and identity is ripped out from underneath them. For a lot of them, the only thing they have left is their faith and their family. Once landed in a foreign country, with little to take with them, they only meet more obstacles. Transportation, language, acceptance, and social connections that American society thrives on, and often takes for granted, are things refugees often struggle during their adjustment.

For Htwe, who came to the United States in 2007, this reality was very true. Originally from Burma, Htwe had to flee from a political situation while working in Bangkok, Thailand. Her seemingly most prevalent concern once arriving though was unexpected, which was her fear of being a burden on others. Like most refugees, she had to battle transportation issues and language barriers.

She moved to Columbia as the bus route availability was much more sufficient here, so that she would not burden the family she was staying with her transportation. As many, she arrived helpless, exhausted and dependant as she was forced to face the unknown, and the unimaginable.

Fast forward nine years later, she is a Case Manager at LSC, the same organization that helped get her on her feet. She now works directly with refugees that shared her same struggle.

Laurann Gallitto, the Education Coordinator at LSC says “Seeing people, refugees and immigrants, come from nothing and make something of it inspires me so much because I believe that change happens, sometimes in big ways, mostly in strong, progressive steps that I see everyday with the people I work with.”

[Check out Danielle’s tweets about CJI2017.]


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