While volunteering to help resettle refugees in Texas, I came face to face with a different view of Americans.
“Are you feeling welcomed here?” I asked Kareem.* He—along with his wife and four kids under age 7—had been resettled in Texas through a refugee agency. I’d spent this particular October afternoon driving the family around Fort Worth to find and pay for needed prescriptions and school supplies. They’d only been in America three weeks, and Kareem told me that he had spent a previous afternoon waiting for buses and trying to locate a specific pharmacy, only to return home in frustration.
Kareem, who spoke excellent English, was talkative and energetic, sitting in the front passenger seat as we did errands. His wife, meanwhile, attempted to corral and entertain the children in the seats behind us, Kareem shared snippets with me about his extended family, his religious traditions, and a previous job (he’d been a translator for the American military while living in the Middle East). He also asked questions: why are medicines so expensive here? Why couldn’t he cash a large check at Target? Where he could find the cheapest groceries for his family?
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I tried to answer each of his queries honestly and clearly, and I hoped I was doing a good job. But toward the end of errands, the once-verbose Iraqi man seemed more thoughtful and cautious. “The people helping us are good,” he said. “But other refugees tell me that some Americans think we want to kill them. Is this right?”
I swallowed hard. How do I answer him? I wondered. This was tougher than any of the questions that had preceded it.
I needed to explain to my new friend that most people don’t know much (if anything) about refugees, and what they do know is often incomplete or wrong. “Some Americans might think that,” I said, carefully pulling into the right lane. “But if they do, they probably don’t know any refugees personally.”
We were nearing Kareem‘s apartment complex, where I would drop him and his family off. Would I see them again? I wasn’t sure, since my volunteer assignments were varied and my schedule erratic.
Though I understood where the question had come from, I felt frustrated by the complexity of the issue at hand. I recognized that many Americans either lump illegal immigrants in with refugees (which is incorrect), or only see problems with the admittedly-imperfect resettlement process. I wanted to assure Kareem that he and his family were not anyone’s enemies, and that most Texans have hearts as big as their home state.
“Right now, refugees are a big topic on the news because there are elections coming up … and some people use the subject to cause fear or get votes.”
Kareem nodded. Did he understand? Had I said enough—or too much? It was so hard to convey that sometimes the word “refugees” becomes a more theoretical political stance rather than a real, individual family, starting their lives over in a small apartment in Texas.
I pulled into a parking space near his apartment, and we began to unload my car. The children ran towards their new home, clomped up the stairs, and scurried around their sparsely-furnished rooms. I followed, carefully placing a few full shopping bags on the floor near the sofa. Kareem’s wife walked to the kitchen, and I could hear her removing dishes from the cabinets.
“Thank you for helping us,” Kareem said. “Stay? We drink tea.”
I smiled, wanting to stay, and checked the time on my phone. “Thank you so much. I wish I could, but I have to pick up my son from school.” I showed Kareem my home screen—a picture of my youngest boy. “This is him.”
“Handsome!” Kareem said, smiling. He then tapped his own device and gestured to my phone. “Here—I give you my number. In case you need anything.”
As I walked out of his apartment, his difficult question lingered in my head. I thought of his children’s future; their squealing voices trailing behind me.
*Kareem is a pseudonym used for identity protection.
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