“They are here,” read the email which we received from our daughter. “They” referred to a refugee family, who moved into her family’s basement apartment about a week ago. The husband is from Afghanistan and the wife from Iran, and they have two young girls, a three-year-old and a six-year-old, both very cute children whom our eight-year-old granddaughter described as “sweet but a handful.” When we made our first visit to meet them last week, we were not sure what to expect.
We hardly had a chance to sit down before the door to the basement opened slowly and out bounded two beautiful children followed by a smiling mother probably in her mid to late thirties, wearing a headscarf. The younger child raced over to Embry and gave her a big hug around her knees and then came over to me and did the same. The older one was a bit shy and stood off to the side sporting a broad grin. The mother gave Embry a big hug and extended me a hand. Immediately they felt like family. The father emerged a short time later, a bit more reserved but smiling broadly and extending a hand.
So here they are. Since no one speaks a word of English (well, maybe a few words, and my daughter’s husband has an app on his iPhone which translates English into Farsi, and the wife has a similar device), it was a bit hard to communicate. However, it was not hard to miss what seemed, to me anyway, like overwhelming joy. They were here. They were in America. They had made it.
Yesterday Embry brought the family a stroller and two American Girl dolls (with numerous outfits) donated by some of our friends and spent the better part of the day with them, taking the mother shopping and helping out where needed. When they returned from the grocery store, they would not let Embry leave. The mother plunged into the small kitchen, the father spread a tablecloth on the floor (even though they have a table), and within a few minutes food miraculously appeared, carried from the kitchen by the father. Then more food. Embry was beckoned to sit on the floor, and the feast began. Embry said she had never tasted any food from the Middle East that was so delicious.
How they got here is a long story, which will come out as they learn to speak English. From the social worker assigned to help them, we learned that their life has been difficult but not as difficult as what many refugees go through. At some point the father must have worked for the U.S. in Afghanistan (which we presume is the reason for his visa) but fled Afghanistan for Iran, where he met his wife to be. The wife’s father rejected the marriage, threatened to kill him, forcing them to flee on foot over the mountains to Turkey. That was over five years ago. We do not know yet what their circumstances were in Turkey, but they could not have been good. There probably was a period in a refugee camp, perhaps some time homeless or as squatters. This will all come out in good time.
As I was thinking about the hardships they must have experienced, I saw before me four seemingly, remarkably happy people. How could they have gone through all this and kept up their spirits? How could the children seem so natural and outgoing and well adjusted?
Their struggle is far from over. They all have to learn English. It is not clear if the father is actually able to read. (He also suffers from double vision.) And the financial support they receive from our government is quite meager and lasts for only for three months. They have got to find jobs, get their kids into day care and school and somehow make enough money to pay rent and get food on the table. They know few here in the U.S. They have limited support from a caring but overwhelmed social worker and have no host family or network as many refugees have. I can’t help wondering how I could ever have survived such challenges.
But then I realize that this is what has made America what we are. We all have ancestors who migrated here, many, sadly, against their own will. There were casualties, but many made a good life for themselves in the New World. They overcame extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
I am proud of our country for welcoming immigrants. The United States has taken in so many people like these families. If you go back far enough you may find that the story of your ancestors was not all that different. This is what America is—a nation of immigrants and refugees, who came here in search of a better life. For many this was their last and only hope. That so many made a good life for themselves here is both a testament to the decency of the American people and to the extraordinary courage and determination of those who arrived—and continue to arrive. I understand the issue is controversial today and hope that our Congress will find a sensible and fair solution. But this post is not about politics. It is about the human spirit. The story of this refugee family occupying that basement apartment is testimony to the indomitable human spirit.