Crown Thy Good With Brotherhood: Welcoming Refugees in the U.S.

12/06/2013 05:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

Right now there are more refugees in our world than there have been in two decades. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) puts it, every time we blink another person becomes a refugee.

Whether in camps or in cities, 14 million refugees find themselves in dangerous and sometimes deadly situations. Thousands will apply to be resettled in the United States, but only 1 percent will be admitted. A few hundred of these will end up in my office in Silver Spring, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

I work at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nongovernmental organization that helps refugees build new lives. The people I see each day -- elderly, infants, multiple generations of a family -- were forced to flee their native countries to escape war, natural disaster, or religious or political persecution.

I open the door for them: for an 84-year-old Bhutanese woman who spent decades in a refugee camp; for a Sudanese family who had never seen a refrigerator or toilet before entering the U.S.; for an Iraqi family rushed to the hospital from the airport to have their children treated for shrapnel wounds. They all smile at me and reach out to shake my hand or touch my shoulder. We walk in together.

Of the people I have met since I began work at the IRC, the Angulu* family -- mother, father and five young children from Congo -- have touched me the most. They arrived in the U.S. with critical health issues: the oldest daughter was a victim of rape and other family members had experienced trauma, malnourishment and dehydration.

When the Angulus landed at Reagan National Airport, an IRC caseworker named Nick greeted them the moment they stepped off the plane. The family was excited to start their new lives but also anxious and scared by the unknown. Nick worked with a Congolese interpreter to teach the Angulus about the resettlement process. He brought them to their first home, explained public transportation, taught them about safety, showed them how to grocery shop, and enrolled the kids in school and both parents in English classes.

An IRC health specialist named Sarah worked with the daughter and other family members who had experienced trauma. Sarah connected the Angulus with an IRC employment specialist who helped them practice interview skills, create resumes, and eventually find work: Mrs. Angulu at a local grocery store and Mr. Angulu at a waste management plant. The IRC cultural orientation team found mentors for the Angulu children to help them with homework and offer social support.

Before working at the IRC, the word refugee evoked in my mind images of sad, starving people in a squalid camp. Now when I hear the word, I think of the brothers from Togo who worked their way up the job chain to become managers of a restaurant. I think of a mother from Ethiopia who persisted against formidable obstacles to be reunited with her family in a faraway land. I think of the little victories: achieving a firm handshake, taking the bus alone, learning to fill out paperwork like the forms the Angulus submitted to become American Citizens.

It's not that refugees aren't haunted by the horrors they experienced in the past, or aren't aware of the challenges they face as they build new lives. They have plenty of reasons to be jaded or upset, but most days they choose to be hopeful. They know that they are fortunate: fortunate to be together, to be safe, to be part of the 1 percent who have gained an opportunity to begin again in a better place.

Those of us who work with refugees also feel fortunate. Courage and determination are inspiring and infectious. Once you hear their stories, you want to help them succeed. You put yourself in their shoes.

You remember that the United States has a history of embracing oppressed peoples and that our generosity and compassion are our greatest strengths. Welcoming someone and giving them the tools to succeed is what our country is about. Nothing can feel more American.

*Refugee names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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