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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Refugee Christmas

Four more days until Christmas. Maybe you’re wondering where you are going to put all those gifts. Or maybe you’re already starting to clean out the closets to make room for all the goodies. Before you call the usual charities to pick up all your old stuff, consider helping out your new neighbors, the local refugees.

Our town has an active refugee resettlement program. In the past, we’ve welcomed folks from Bosnia and Somalia. Lately, they’ve been fleeing Afghanistan and Iraq.

No matter where they come from, their core story is the same. They came to this country with only what they could carry, hoping to find a safe place to raise their children and follow their religion. They want to work. They want to learn English. They want their children to go to school and have professional careers. They want to become American citizens.

It’s the Mayflower story we Americans celebrate at Thanksgiving each year, and it hasn’t changed much since 1620. Yet, it’s still a thrill to see someone who barely escaped with his life go on to be a successful, contributing member of the community.

Every refugee has his own unique version of the immigrant tale:

The little boy whose family was being slaughtered and the only way he could escape was to walk through a mine field. . .at night…leading his blind uncle.

The teenager who lay in a ditch for three days, playing dead, eating insects and sipping rain water until the killers moved on.

The family who fled Iraq, thinking they would be safe in a refugee camp in Jordan, only to have a brother murdered there.

These are just a few of the true stories I‘ve heard while meeting refugees in Boise, Idaho. No matter how the story starts, no matter how empty their pockets, the ending is always the same, “Thank God, we have arrived. We are here now. Thank God we made it here alive.”

Sometimes I think I should write their stories. But deep down inside, I know I’m incapable of capturing the depth of their experience. I go home and hug my children tightly and wonder why I have so much junk.

Last week, I heard from a new family who had just arrived with nothing but the clothes on their back. What did they ask for? Clothes for the children to wear to school so they wouldn’t be made fun of, school supplies so they could learn English, and curtains so they could sleep without the neighbors watching. A far cry from most kids’ Christmas lists.

One image permanently etched in my mind is that of a ten year-old Somali girl in Boise, walking home from school in the snow, wrapped in a bed sheet and wearing flip-flops.

Do my kids really need three coats and five pairs of shoes each? Probably not and I bet she wouldn’t even care that they were designed for boys.

I go through our closets again and come up with 5 jackets, 13 pants, 22 shirts, 7 pairs of shoes, and 26 stuffed animals we don’t need. Not exactly Christmas presents, but they’re sure to be put to good use.

Do you have an active refugee settlement program in your community? Have you ever helped a new family settle in? I would love to hear your refugee success stories.


  1. The story you are sharing about refugees is far different from one I've experienced in my area. When a family from Romania settled in my area several years ago, the entire family received stipends from the government, even the 78 year old parents of the woman I knew. Her tuition was paid to train as a cardiovascular technician. Her daughter's tuition was paid to a ritzy private school for girls by the government. She purchased her clothes from Lord and Taylor. Not the same picture you've described.
    There are so many homeless people who have lost everything because of the recession. To move to a strange country where the citizens themselves are suffering must be very frightening. I applaud your generosity.

  2. Hi! Thanks for commenting. It is true that refugees do receive some support from the resettlement program. With the family we visited this weekend, they had been given gift cards to local stores, but didn't know how to get there. They'd been given information on the food bank and free medical care but couldn't understand the forms that had to fill out. A major part of helping the Iraqi refugees is translating their mail so they know what services are available to them. My husband teaches Arabic, so we are happy to do this for them.

  3. Incredible. I feel so clueless. I know we have so many families in need here, but never thought about refugees. We do have such a large population of foreign students at our local university, maybe there are refugees here as well. Thanks so much for giving me something to think about!

  4. We help a family every year at Christmas, but I never even considered looking anywhere besides the Angle Tree. Thanks for opening up my eyes to other people in need of generosity, support and friends.

  5. Clarissa, your story tugs at my heart. I was one of them, some thirty years ago, coming to the US through the Catholic Bureau of Refuges. I promised my kids, born in America, that one day I will write a book about my personal memories. You are right one must have experienced this kind of situation to be able to write about it, to describe the emotion, the fear, the hope. God Bless America.

  6. Clarissa, thanks for opening my eyes to something I hadn't even thought of before. Even tough times are a little tough for me right now, I still have a lot of stuff that could be better used by someone else starting over. I'm off to find a local place that could benefit from my "stuff".

  7. I meant to say "Even THOUGH times are a little tough". Grr. I need a 24-hour spelling guru right now! LOL

  8. Hi Donna! Hi Mona! Thanks for your comments. I hope you both have a very Merry Christmas!

  9. Clarissa, thanks for publicizing the need of such a vulnerable population. I work in refugee resettlement but never knew much at all about refugees until I started job-hunting. It's been a huge learning curve. Most refugees are very hard working, and just want a chance at a fresh start. And the resettlement process is not perfect--but people like you make it less frightening and overwhelming for the ones who make it here. :)

  10. My area has a large population of Hmong people. They settled here after the Vietnam War after fighting alongside the US. I'm not sure what it was like for the older generation when they first came to America, but their children and grandchildren are part of our community. We don't have refugee housing that I'm aware of.

    I give to the women and children's shelter. They often flee their homes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing, and they need everything to start a new life and set up a new home.

  11. Wow! That is wonderful that someone started that program. I don't think there is one in this city - - - maybe Chattanooga? I know we have had a lot of immigrants in this area. Many have been sponsored by church groups.

  12. What a lovely story, Clarissa. We don't have many immigrants in our area but the ones who come are wealthy and well-educated. I decided, therefore, to tell you about a refugee who came to our shores. A Jew, Louis Borchinsky came from Russia, the only member of his family to escape. He spoke no English and worked his way from his port of entry, in Houston, to southern Kansas, learning English along the way. In Kansas he met a woman named Bonita (Nettie) Flanary and married her. Along the way he changed his last name to Barr. From a sort of travelling salesman, he bought a small dry goods store and then several of them across northern Oklahoma. Louis and Nettie had three daughters together. One of them was my beloved grandmother, Katheryn. There's a lot to say about my great-grandparents but their story has already been told, more than once actually. A writer named Lynn Riggs wrote a play about their love story called GREEN GROW THE LILACS and Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a musical you may have heard of called OKLAHOMA! Not all imigrants are recently come to our wonderful country but we value each and every one of them. They were our forbears and we're part of who they once were.

  13. Clarissa, this post brought tears to my eyes. I am not sure if we have a refugee settlement in our area, but I am going to check into it. My mother-in-law came here as a young girl with her parents from Lithuania for a better life and they worked until they physically could work no longer due to age. I can't imagine how scary it would be to step off the boat or plane, lucky if you have your family, in a completely foreign land, with no idea what your future holds. Like, Julie, we usually take names from the Angel Tree. When the kids were little they liked to pick a name of a child who was the same gender and age and do the shopping themselves. They had a really fun time doing it.

  14. Gail: thanks for a sensitive, enlightening post. You’re always fascinating, with all your travels, insights and intelligence. Given your prodigious writing talent, I think you’d do a splendid job writing their stories. As some have noted here, the Great Recession has left many more Americans homeless, shockingly so.

    It’s so easy to stay cocooned in our own worlds, to stay so busy that we can lose touch with other people’s suffering or struggles.

    One movie that resonates with me, even though it’s not a holiday film, is “The Killing Fields,” about the photojournalist trapped in Cambodia during the Pol Pot “cleansing campaign.” Two million were murdered. Dith Pran survived these horrors quietly, living by his wits, yet managed to keep his humanity, his heart, his compassion. He was a good man to all, no matter faith, race, etc. I think of that movie and wonder if I could withstand such a moral test.

    People who put themselves on the line, go out of their way to be helpful and help those traumatized by tragedy, always inspire me. Kudos to you, your husband and others for reaching out.

    “People who agonize don’t act, people who act don’t agonize.” Neat quote, relates to the villagers of Le Chambon hid 5,000 Jewish children in their homes and community during WWII, risking their own lives.

    My Irish ancestors came to the U.S. to escape the potato famine of the 1850’s – 1860’s, when roughly a million starved. Life can be so unrelenting and harsh. But the smallest of tender moments sustain us. Thanks for bringing their plight to our attention.

  15. Wonderful post and great comments.