Chattanooga

Welcome to the New World – by Judith Nembhard

Every now and then, a convergence of world events causes us to think more deeply about who we are and where we have been. The current refugee crisis is one such confluence of occurrences that have caught the attention of individuals worldwide.  In the midst of the scramble of countries to make appropriate adjustments in their national lives to accommodate an influx of newcomers, many individuals are trying to do something to ease the refugees’ discomfort.

Some time ago I sat in my comfortable church pew and listened to a passionate plea from two women about helping the refugees who had recently arrived in our city of Chattanooga. As the women spoke, I began to understand that when life touches life, our common humanity becomes evident, and we can begin to see through the lens of our own circumstances and be more empathetic toward the needs of others.

The women spoke about the refugees’ needs, saying that the newcomers had no warm clothes—nothing to keep them warm in the cold winter months. Their words tripped a memory link in my mind and took me back to my entrance into the United States, not as a refugee, but as a newcomer nonetheless. I realized, as I listened, that my experiences aligned me with the refugees, even though only in a tangential way.

For a while my thoughts turned from the women’s pleas to my own journey to a transformed life in a new country. There I was at the airport one tropical January morning in the midst of a small group that had come to send me off to college in a faraway place. After the tearful goodbyes, I went off to greet life on a winter-cold Massachusetts college campus. How well I knew about the need for warm clothes.

I mentally rejoined the presentation. “There are many things they will have to get used to,” one of the women said, without benefit of Power Point or charts—just words spoken with first-hand knowledge and sincerity. Her words awakened dormant memories of some of the things I had to get used to soon after I arrived. Friends from the college in Massachusetts came to meet me at the airport in New York City. They took me to their car and whisked me away to begin a series of cultural jolts

I had never ridden in a car going faster than 35 miles an hour, but in a short while we were gliding over a snow-ploughed highway at a dizzying speed of over 80 miles an hour. Hardly speaking a word, I sat on the edge of my seat for the entire trip and kept my eyes on the speedometer. The newly arrived refugees and I had something in common when it came to things to get used to.

What do we know about the refugees’ stories once they enter the U.S.? Their experiences are varied and often distressing, the women said. Some arrive exhausted and traumatized, overwhelmed or overcome by fear of what lies ahead. I, too, had trepidations about how I would adjust, but my apparel wasn’t one of the things that weighed on my mind. When I arrived in Massachusetts, I was dressed to the nines in a navy suit of a kind of gabardine fabric, complemented by a shell-pink blouse, a pink hat sitting saucily on my head, and bright pink shoes. In wintery Massachusetts, everything I had on was glaringly out of place. A student from Trinidad, who had become acclimated to the Northern mores, explained to me the fine points of dressing New England-style for the winter. I should imagine the refugees will become settled in a similar way, learning to adapt to new circumstances.

One might expect the refugees to feel grateful to be in a safe place, away from the terrors of war. And the report is that they are indeed grateful for all that’s being done for them, so why do they still cry? Because of emotional loss, some having lost several members of their family, and it has made them sad, has left them in need of friendship and a caring personal touch. The women mentioned children in particular who needed someone to sit down with them and show them kindness. They asked for volunteers who could take one or two of the refugees home for a meal and a time of personal interaction.

I’m sure there will be people who will reach out to the newcomers, but not everyone is waiting with open arms to welcome them. Even some members of Congress have made no secret of their reluctance to roll out the welcome mat.

The women said volunteer tutors are needed to help the refugee children learn the English language, a language with a myriad of unusual vocabulary and linguistic vagaries. Because the refugees will experience feelings of discomfort at the outset, they may want to hold on to their mother tongue to give them a sense of connectedness to their past and provide them with an anchor in an unfamiliar setting. But in time, they will learn the language of their new home, and even grow to understand some of its nuances to keep them from being confused or feel unnecessarily offended.

In some places, including Denver, bilingual case workers are provided to assist refugees with using the English language. This kind of support goes a long way toward helping them access medical care, vocational and mental health counseling, as well as social adjustment services.

Despite all the help offered, a survey of refugees reports that some of them feel alienated and many of them miss their homeland, their family and friends left behind. This is something I can identify with. At the airport on the day of my departure for the U.S., when my flight was announced, I cried out, “I don’t want to go!” Of course, I wanted to go, but that was an emotional moment for me. I was severing a lot of ties. Refugees experience conflicting emotions upon their arrival among us, we were told. The first day of their American experience is often filled with bewilderment and agonizing uncertainty, even amidst the joy of reaching the place of their dreams.

My long-ago experiences as a newcomer may seem trivial compared to those of the thousands of refugees now being welcomed to these shores, but I know that the act of settling in a new land has an enormous impact on one’s life. My experience has been about building a new life in a new land, finding room to grow and flourish, and to be a participant in the act of democracy living out its creed that all people are created equal. This is the land that welcomed me. It is the land that awaits the refugees.

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