Disappearing like thieves in the night, our Afghan/Iranian refugee family is gone. Off to Columbus, Ohio. Greener pastures. Hope for a better future.
Last week, Embry spent a day with them helping them cram the last few pieces of furniture and assorted stuff into their car and rental truck, which towed the car the next day all the way to Columbus. The wife and two kids rode in the towed car while her husband drove the truck. The evening before, our daughter, Jessica, and husband, Peter, hosted a neighborhood goodbye party at their house attended by 25 or 30 people, with great food, toasts, speeches, hugs (no hugs by men with the mother, of course), and a few tears. Pure Americana 2019, I thought as I looked around and saw a mix of people with various shades of skin color and a broad range of ages. Another immigrant family from Mexico/Honduras was there as well with their seven-year-old son. The father, a DACA recipient, has built up a very successful business as a builder/contractor, and they are now pillars of this mixed race/income community.
Only in America, I thought. As bad as things are at the national level in the Era of Trump, on the ground in neighborhoods all across America, immigrants and refugees are accepted and welcomed and become “ordinary Americans.” This is who we are– a nation of immigrants, of people who took great risks and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps against almost insurmountable odds.
Consider this refugee family. They moved into Jessica and Peter’s basement apartment about two years ago with not much more than what they were wearing. The father fled years ago from death threats by the Taliban, ending up in Iran, where he married his now wife. Two years later they both escaped death threats again, this time from his wife’s irate father. With a toddler in tow they hiked for several days climbing mountains and crossing streams ending up in Turkey where they spent five years in internment camps and temporary housing before they gained official UN refugee status and were awarded a coveted refugee visa. Then they finally ended up in the Promised Land, speaking almost no English, having few skills, and knowing no one.
And it turns out the Promised Land is not all milk and honey. The refugee agencies help a little by providing a small, temporary stipend, Medicaid, and hand holding, but it is still up to the refugees to figure things out, to get a job that pays enough money to cover rent and the basics, to get their kids in school, to learn a new language, to find a doctor, and to make friends—in other words to start a new life. Much credit goes to our daughter’s family and to Embry for stepping up to the plate. Were it not for them, and others like them providing a helping hand for other refugee families, I do not see how they–or any refugee family without the ability to read or write English, with minimal education, and few job skills–could have made it. But this is America, and we Americans do step up. In neighborhoods throughout the country this is happening despite what we hear from the White House.
Of course, a successful resettlement ultimately depends most on the refugee family. This is what this family has accomplished during their first two years here: Husband and wife have both gotten driver’s licenses, and both now drive. They acquired two cars, one a brand new SUV. The other, a gift from our church, they just sold for $800 before they left. Within a few weeks after their arrival the father landed a job without help from anyone as a welder paying $14/hour with lots of overtime. A year ago they found and moved into a new, larger apartment on their own and have a wide screen TV that is almost the size of the wall it is mounted on. The mother has made additional income by cooking for others, house cleaning and chauffeuring another Afghan child to and from school. Their two girls are in school and preschool. They have made friends. They have paid their bills (with Embry’s help doing the paper work.) They have been to the doctor many times and appear to have gotten their health problems addressed—and there are many. The most important was getting the father’s eyesight restored in one eye with a special contact lens. This all happened because the Wilmer Eye Clinic at John Hopkins Medical Center is the best in the world and happens to be only an hour’s drive away. And now they have moved to Columbus where they have a better apartment for lower rent in a nicer neighborhood and where the father now has his dream job, a driver of big trucks transporting goods across the country.
The two years have not been easy, for them or for us, but the progress they have made is, in my view, remarkable. Others who know more than I do about immigrants and refugees would probably say their story is pretty typical. Their grit and determination are beyond anything I have ever seen. They simply refuse to take no for an answer and charge ahead, let the rules be damned. I never thought that they would get a drivers license, that they would qualify financially for a larger, more expensive apartment, that the father also would get a commercial drivers license permitting him to become a truck driver, or that he would quickly land a job as a trucker. But they set their eye on a goal and go for it, kind of like the proverbial junkyard dog that hangs onto your leg and does not let go until he gets his bone.
Is all going to be well in Columbus? Of course not. They know people there, so hopefully that will help with the transition, but still it will be hard. That is the way it is with first generation immigrants and refugees. It is never going to be easy. The parents really need to improve their English. Doing routine paper work and paying bills will be a challenge. They have to find new doctors. There are already desperate text messages from the mother about needing help enrolling their kids in school. (We have contacted four churches in the area with pleas for assistance but have not been able to get any of them to call back or email.) But will they get through this next challenge? Of course they will. Their grit, courage and determination will get them through it.
Before we had actually met the family, we asked Josie, our 10-year old granddaughter, how it was going with the refugee family living in their basement apartment. She said with a twinkle in her eye, “Well, we love them, but they’re a handful!”
Yes, a handful, but we will miss them and wish them well on the next leg of their American journey.