What I Learned Working With Refugees

What I Learned Working With Refugees

~ From Literally, Darling ~
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Last year I worked as an intern for the Refugee Council. During my internship I met and surveyed countless elderly refugees, visited Afghani, Bhutanese and Ethiopian homes, and attended mosques and community centres. Sitting in refugee and immigration law had not prepared me for face-to-face interaction with refugees, neither had my political science major. While I was technically a “researcher” I felt this word was too clinical for the work I was doing. So I approached my work as a professional listener. When I walked through the door for my first survey session I was ushered into a room where Ethiopian refugees were being surveyed. The woman in charge gestured for me to take a seat next to an elderly man. I do not remember his name, but I do remember the look on his face when I asked him to write it down. He carefully took the pen out of my hand, checked to see that the tip was pressed down, and thoughtfully formed letters on the consent form. After some time he moved his hand away, turned the paper to face me and beamed. I looked down at the dotted line which now had his name in large, bubble letters written across it and smiled back at him. I remember a lot about this man. He was from Ethiopia, due to an accident he walked with a cane, he had trouble remembering his age and needed glasses but did not have have them. I cringed when he told me he had not been to the dentist in years and listened as he told me about his children. He also clearly and loudly informed me he had a New Zealand passport and he was a Christian. Many of the refugees I spoke to were separated from their families and were stressed about reunification. Most were in regular contact with their family members back home and could tell me more about current events in their country than any news journalist. I met one man who watched the news in four different languages in order to achieve an in depth understanding of the situation in his country. This only caused more anxiety because he was acutely aware of the danger his family was facing. This is not an extraordinary circumstance. Instead, this man’s anxiety represents statistics which show most refugees suffer from anxiety and depression attributable to family separation. Inevitably my work as a professional listener shaped my understanding of the refugee experience, however it did so in a surprising way. Through listening to different refugee experiences, I learnt while the dangerous journey asylum-seekers make is an important part of their story, it is only half of it. The other half, which is not commonly discussed, is refugee resettlement, which refers to everything that happens after refugee status is obtained. This is when factors such as isolation, community engagement, (including education, employment and language lessons), family separation and reunification, racism, mental health and countless other factors come into play. Resettlement is an ongoing process and its success highly impacts how well refugees can contribute and live in their new societies. Yet the media traditionally forgets about refugees when they are not a statistic drowning in the Mediterranean or fighting for refugee status. When the media does mention resettlement, it does so in a negative light when refugees and/or asylum seekers are allegedly involved in anti-social activity.  

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