Chapter 4: An Autobiography of an Idealist

Why I Help Refugees

I do not believe refugees deserve help more than anyone else.

Nor do I believe they deserve it less.  In fact, “deserve” is a word I would like to go ahead and throw out the window when it comes to helping others.

I stumbled into helping refugees kinda by accident, as is wont to happen with major changes in my life.  Before images of the European “refugee” crisis started really pouring into US news channels, and before many Americans had given a passing thought to their country’s refugee resettlement policies, I was a college student fresh from a year living in Costa Rica.  I wanted a summer internship somewhere along the lines of transnationalism to improve my graduate school prospects.  I also wanted to help people while I was at it, which is what first turned my attention to refugees.

At the time, I knew little more about refugees than that they are foreigners adapting to life in a new culture.  That’s hard, terrifying, and overwhelming, and I can relate to that (on a comparatively minor scale).  So, I sent a letter to the refugee resettlement department of Catholic Charities, like the old-fashioned Catholic woman I am, and a couple of months, FBI background and fingerprint checks, and a protecting-children-from-abuse training later, I found myself in a sometimes border-line chaotic office building with a stack of papers and instructions to make copies of I-94s and passports.

What’s an I-94?

That summer, I worked mostly with Cuban parolees, interpreting and maintaining paperwork and files so the case managers would have more time to actually serve clients.  I had comparatively little contact with actual refugees.

At the end of the summer, I left town and wandered for a bit.  A year and a half later, I moved back to Houston.  I stopped by Catholic Charities to drop off some household goods donations, and somehow ended up leaving with a job application.

Fast-forward six months, and I am an AmeriCorps member who has functioned as a full-time refugee case manager.  In the past few months, certain events have transpired, and now everyone has an opinion on what I do.

I’m a generally extroverted person who loves getting to know new people.  However, lately, the excitement of meeting others has been somewhat marred by the dread of the initial conversation.

“What do you do for a living?”

As soon as I mention refugees, I know the political affiliation of my new acquaintance (or old conocido I haven’t seen in ages).  A look passes across his or her face, usually followed by some loaded questions, ranging from curious to accusative.  As it turns out, by helping a specific group of people, I have branded myself as an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer, a selfless angel, or a misled idealist, depending on whom I am talking to.

How do you solve a problem
“She’s a headache!” “She’s an angel!” “She’s a …girl.”

So why do I help refugees rather than somebody else?  Simply put, I want to help somebody, and my experiences and interests make me best-equipped to help transnational people.  I have experienced culture shock and living in another country, I like learning languages and communicate well across language barriers, and I enjoy learning about different cultures.

My job is to help refugees access resources, give them guidance in adapting to life in the US, and put them in a position where they have the dignity and knowledge to build their own lives in their new country.

I was floored when people protested Starbucks’ resolution to hire refugees, saying that vale la pena más to hire veterans, that veterans deserve the jobs more.  A kindness towards one group of people was perceived as an attack against another.

Catholic Charities
“People of faith helping people in need achieve self-sufficiency and live with dignity.”

Kindness and help are not limited resources.

Kindness and help are not limited resources.

You think veterans need more job opportunities?  Great, hire a veteran.  You believe all fetuses should have the right to live? Help provide resources and community support for unprepared mothers so the children can grow in a healthy environment.  You think prisoners should be treated like humans?  Visit a prison and give them an opportunity for human connection.

I work at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which is a very large non-profit organization in which there are many departments.  There are departments that help expectant mothers, victims of disasters, seniors, people without homes, woman veterans, and children in vulnerable situations, among others.  Refugee Resettlement is not the most important department; all the departments are equally important, and I do my work trusting that others are doing theirs.

I cannot save the world sola, but I can be part of the effort to offer support and kindness to build a kinder world.

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King


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