A “sermon” delivered by Kevin Brooks to the Fargo-Moorhead Unitarian Universalist Congregation on June 12, 2016. [Part 1]
I am a professor of English, and in my professional work I have discovered that there is a field called “refugee studies.” This field is dominated by sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists, and economists. There is also the literature of migration and immigration, only a small subset of that literature being the literature of refugees, but it exists. You may know the NYT’s best seller, “What is the What?” the story of lost boy Valentino Achek Deng told through the powerful pen of Dave Eggers. Or, you might want to read “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” which is going to be the focal point for One Book, One Community this September. Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Everywhere is still the piece of nonfiction I recommend to anyone who wants to get to know the refugee experience, as seen through the eyes of a writer, therapist, and community host in Lincoln Nebraska.
But refugee resettlement and integration is primarily personal, secondarily professional, for me, and I hope to convince all of you to make it personal. Resettlement and integration work can be guided by at least three UU principles—1) respect for the worth and dignity of all individuals, 2) pursuit of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, and 3) the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. But recognizing the worth and dignity of all, offering genuine compassion, and building a vibrant world community will require all of us to get personal with refugees, form meaningful friendships, and accept others from Bhutan, Somali, Congo, or elsewhere, into our broad definition of family.
Let me be a little academic before I get too personal. Refugees have and continue to come to North America from global conflict zones, just as they have since World War II. Refugees coming to the FM area the last 20 years, the modern era of professionalized resettlement, have been predominantly Bhutanese coming from Nepali refugee camps that have been closing down, Somalis coming from badly overcrowded Kenyan camps. Iraqi refugees are coming because many of them worked for the US military and would almost certainly be killed if not resettled; Congolese are coming because of the intense and brutal fighting along the Congolese and Rwandan border and because of the danger to young women and children that still persists. Former refugees, now citizens with a decade or more in the US like many Liberians, are coming to Fargo, not through primary resettlement but through word of mouth: they are leaving Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, and Minneapolis where they might have first settled. They are looking for a safer place, a more personally prosperous place, and will even put up with the less temperate climate.
My involvement with refugee settlement began very abruptly on August 1st, 2005, when Joseph Akol Makeer came in to my office at NDSU asking for help with an essay he was writing about the significance of John Garang for the Lost Boys of Sudan. Since that time, three refugee families have become like family for us: the Makeers, the Buhendwa / Bisimwa family from Bukavu Congo, and the Jama / Gabose couple, Somalis from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. I’d like to share with you a glimpse of the diversity among refugees by highlighting some of the similarities and differences in these three families, and through that diversity also comment on the dignity and worth of these individuals.
Getting up close and personal with three families has shown me, has shown our family, that “refugees” are as diverse as this congregation in education, age, skills, and interests.
The Makeers, whom some of you know through the children we are legal guardians for, are obviously family to me and Betsy, but their parents, especially their father Joseph, and all his siblings, are also very much family to us. When I was first getting to know Joseph, I made all the assumptions that I thought came with the label, “Lost Boy of Sudan.” I assumed he was here alone, single, and he might not know the whereabouts of other family members—if they were still alive. It turned out that he had been married in the refugee camp, that he and his wife Aduan came to the US as a young married couple, they brought three of Joseph’s siblings and one nephew with them. Rather than leading the somewhat magical or charmed life that “Lost Boy” implies, Joseph in fact had multiple adult responsibilities—two sets of families, school, work—and very ambitious plans for himself and his families. All of his siblings had survived the civil war, but they were scattered around the world: two in Boston, two in Winnipeg, two in Australia, one brother and sister here. As the oldest son of his father’s first wife, he takes his role as “head of the family” very seriously. Getting to know Joseph at a deep personal level has shown us the global network of refugee families, the deep sense of responsibility to all family members, and the strong desire to improve the country he was forced to leave as a 10 year old boy.
The second family we are tightly connected with are the Buhendwas. They came the US from the same refugee camp as Joseph and Aduan yet their story is very different. They are a Congolese family of 7, although the oldest son stayed behind to attend college in Nairobi for three years before coming to the US as an international student. The father Jacques, held a Master’s degree in business administration; he was headmaster at Joseph’s school in Kakuma for a time. While Joseph and Aduan started their family in Fargo, Jacques and Brigitte raised their 5 children in Kakuma for 10 years. We had the honor of sponsoring this family, so we got to see the resettlement process almost from beginning to end. We got to see how our role as US anchor expedited their resettlement and brought them to Fargo; we got to meet them at the airport, set up their first apartment and see them struggle through the first 8 months, and subsequently go through quite a mix of highs and lows. Jacques, despite his two degrees and five languages, had to settle for janitorial work; Brigitte settled into almost six years at WalMart, only recently transitioning to CNA work at Bethany. For some of the kids, school and life in the US was easy, for others it was challenging and complicated. Their families are not spread as far and wide as Joseph’s, but they have family living in England, Sweden, and Uganda, as well as family members who have not left the Congo. We got to meet Brigitte’s sister, Linda, and her son Daniel in Kampala last summer, a really profound experience that challenged all the assumptions I had about the survivors of rape from eastern Congo. Linda is raising her son with great pride; he is a young man not angry at the world but determined to become an architect and build a better world, despite struggling to pay modest school fees while living in one of the most dangerous slums of one of Africa’s more dangerous cities.
The third family, a Somali couple by the name of Faizil Jama and Ardo Gabose, came to the US after 15 years in DaDaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. They, like Joseph and Aduan, were married in the camp but Ardo, under circumstances I still do not fully understand, had to leave her first husband and 5 children behind. She briefly explored having them resettled to Fargo, but the complications were immense. I started tutoring them in 2008. When I tried to buzz into their apartment, Faizil answered with “no English” and I said “that’s why I’m here” but he didn’t understand enough to let me in. I eventually got in but had no idea how I was going to work with a couple that had almost no English, very little schooling of any kind, and few opportunities to get out of the apartment because Faizil was in a wheel chair. But as we looked at maps of East Africa, and talked about Republicans with hand gestures that signaled “money” and “army” and talked about Democrats with gestures that signaled “people,” I fell in love with them. Ardo is hired by the State to take care of Faizil but in June of 2009, Ardo’s cousin Abshiro, almost incapacitated by the stress of the resettling two teen agers, a pre-teen and a fragile elementary aged daughter, arrived in Fargo. Faizil and Ardo offered her the support needed to get on her feet—quite literally—and the children have blossomed in Fargo, although not without set backs. Faizil functions as an elder in the community, “a little chief” I was told one day, and he offers Koran classes on the weekend. I haven’t even told you that he was shot 15 times as a boy, spent three months in a coma, was diagnosed as paraplegic only to be told, when he arrived in Fargo, that he is not in fact paralyzed. He is learning to walk again, he has thrown out the medications he was given to treat his assumed-but-not-likely PTSD, and he is making plans to take us to the Ogaden region of Ethiopia—if such a trip ever becomes viable.
Mary Pipher in The Middle of Everywhere says there are two main rules for working with refugees: “Don’t assume anything and Ask Questions” (355). I was slow to follow those rules, but was eventually rewarded with these amazing relationships and introduced to these epic lives. Because one local media outlet constantly questions the worth and dignity of New Americans by suggesting they are a burden on our schools, are responsible for rising crime rates, and they might make us sick, and because the national discourse around immigrants, refugees, and Muslims has become so toxic, I am asking all of you to get to know a refugee or New American family, really listen to their story, cut through all the stereotypes and assumptions we can’t help but start out with, and see the diversity and dignity among our New American friends.