By Nell Green
We just finished a conference sponsored by the Refugee Highway Partnership for North America. We have participated in this partnership for quite a few years. This group was networking and addressing the needs for refugees long before the current crisis of historical record high numbers of refugees.
It was impressive to see the myriad of ways that individuals, churches, ministries and business were working to address the needs of refugees. At the heart of the issues was helping refugees thrive in their host countries. The theme of the conference was “Love Ignited.” A sincere love and appreciation for the other indicates that we genuinely want the best possible transition and settling for the peoples who seek respite from violence, hunger, persecution, etc. What can we expect? What can they expect? What is the best scenario?
Here is the thing, I have been the immigrant. I have been the other. I have been the one who can’t figure out how to call a doctor. I have been the one trying to figure out where and how to get a driver’s license. I have been the one who tried to read a school supply list in a different language that I had not mastered and get my kids enrolled in school. I have been the one in a group looking around uncomfortably as everyone was talking rapidly in a language that I did not understand effectively walling me off from the group. I have been the one in an accident without sufficient cultural and linguistic skills to navigate the crisis moment.
Our refugee friends want to navigate these waters with as little stress and as much success as possible. I see three possible goals as we come alongside refugees.
Our refugee friends can integrate into their host societies. Integrate means to meld with and become a part of a dominant culture. Look at that word dominant. Wikipedia states that a dominant culture is the most powerful, widespread, or influential within a society. It is dominant in language, religion, values, rituals, and customs. To meld with and become enfolded into this means that you sacrifice language, values, rituals and customs. To not do so means that you lose power, place and influence. You remain forever the other. You remain walled off. I confess I resisted this in my years overseas. For example, I felt a need to remain in some ways “American.” I wanted my children to know what it meant to be American even though they didn’t live there. One way I did this was Thanksgiving. No matter where we lived I took my children out of school and kept an American Thanksgiving even going to great extremes to find a turkey – not always with a success. To this day, Thanksgiving is our family’s most treasured holiday.
Our refugee friends can assimilate into their host societies. To assimilate they conform to customs and attitudes of a group, society, or nation. I don’t know about you but I do not conform very well at all in any context. One woman asked a worker how she should respond if a man greeted her. The worker responded, “Smile and greet him.” Doing so in the worker’s opinion would help bridge the gaps and fears that people in the host society might have about her.
I understand that, yet most of us do not understand what it would take for that woman to do that. After 20 years living in places where a woman does not shake a man’s hand, does not look him in the eyes, and certainly doesn’t smile at him, I myself had horrible fright and culture shock when I returned to the United States and a strange man greeted me and began talking with me. My husband had to remind me that we were in the South where greeting, smiling and chatting with strangers is perfectly normal.
Our refugee friends can acclimate. They can become accustomed to a new environment and adapt. This is where I feel like I personally landed in my years living overseas and it is what I strive for as I minister to and work with refugees. While that woman may not smile at a man’s greeting, perhaps she can learn to not be suspicious or run away scared. While they may keep their holidays, perhaps they can learn about and embrace a new holiday or two. While they may not agree with certain mores of their host society, they may nevertheless acclimate to the difference in media, dress, or gender roles. When one acclimates one does not have to sacrifice cultural identity or lose a sense of self and empowerment. Rather, they are free to be who they are even as they accept and become accustomed to the society they now call home.
To acclimate however puts a greater responsibility on the host society. The host society must recognize the power that being the dominant culture permits and seek empowerment of the other. They must recognize the values, practices, languages, etc of the refugee as viable contributions to the society as a whole. The host society would welcome (and if not welcome at least accept) the diversity of other customs and attitudes. And dare I say, the host society would understand a love and certain loyalty to the refugee’s nation of birth.
When we work towards acclimation we are all working to become accustomed to a new environment and adjust. That for me is indeed “Love Ignited.”
Nell Green serves as a CBF field personnel alongside her husband, Butch, in Houston, Texas. Learn more about and support their ministry at www.cbf.net/green.