Dec. 24, 2009

The Gifts of the Refugees

By Douglas McGill

The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN – As usual for a human rights journalist, my e-mail inbox this morning is stuffed with radically, sadly, urgently un-Christmasy tidings.

So many people in this world are suffering.

I could describe one or two of these insistent, important messages. But with fresh snow flakes falling and warm family gatherings planned for the days just ahead, another kind of story – with a more uplifting holiday message -- comes to mind.

Last week, I was at the Rochester International Airport one evening with a small group to greet a family of Iraqis who were soon to arrive from Jordan, where they’ve been living as refugees for the past two years.

As we waited, I chatted with an Iraqi man in his 30’s who has lived in the U.S. for only three months. He was forced to flee his Baghdad home because he worked for the Red Cross in Iraq, which made him a target for assassination by local militias.

He said he had a wife and three young children.

“Were you able to bring your family?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he answered. “I would rather have died than leave my family.”

Christmas Gift

It’s not every day that you hear life, death and the family so matter-of-factly assumed – and acted upon -- as equivalents. My Iraqi friend spoke with the authority of one who very recently made this calculation every morning as he got up, made his breakfast, sent his kids to school and went off to his perilous work.

Do I think of my own family in the same way? Do I touch base with them enough, both literally and in the sense of remembering and being grateful for them? Or do I just possibly take them for granted more than I should?

In any case, I’m thinking of my family much differently today than I did yesterday, thanks to my Iraqi friend, and I’m grateful.

I received his fresh perspective as a beautiful Christmas gift.

In its essence, I’ve always felt, working with immigrants and refugees is deeply spiritual work. Because it brings me face to face not just with others, but through others to myself at the ground-floor level of values, morals and ideals – to what really counts. Immigrants always, always show me high ideals to live up to.

Our Souls

Often a spiritually-rich confrontation comes via citizens who’ve lived longer in the U.S. – although not always that much longer – than newly-arrived refugees.

“We already have so many problems in this country,” the question goes. “Why don’t we fix those before we bring in more people with more problems?”

It’s wonderful when that question is sincerely asked, because it offers us a chance to mull it over. Especially, to ask that question of ourselves not just with our  intellects but within the space of our hearts, our souls and communities.

Can the newcomer, the stranger, perhaps help us to fix the problems we’re not doing so well at solving ourselves?

What gifts and wisdom does the stranger bring?

It’s the essence of spiritual work – and community work – to find that out.

And it is an absolute ton of wearying work. Every immigrant’s story is a cross-cultural epic and refugees, who often suffer the effects of war and psychological trauma, have that extra challenge.

Always, there are tears and exhaustion.

Only Love

But there is also a flip side, which happens when the tears and exhaustion suddenly resolve into a knowing with absolute certainty that no kind of work matters more in this world, than the work of welcoming strangers.

At this point there is a kind of lifting up, a second wind, a stiffening of the spine and a resolve to take up any burden against all of the injustice, ignorance, and hurt.

Only now it doesn’t feel like a burden any longer.

It simply feels like life’s right and proper work.

“It’s like a paradox,” another refugee social worker told me recently. “You give until it hurts a little bit. You give until it hurts and then you find there’s no hurt left, only love.”

When we help refugees resettle in this country, we help to give them a new life.

This Christmas, what I remember is that they also give us a new life in return.

Copyright @ 2009 The McGill Report