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.