This Sunday: Father’s Day and World Refugee Day
(To protect the identity of the woman mentioned in this story, we have changed her name to ensure her privacy.)
This weekend, many will celebrate grads and dads as we head into another summer season. But Sunday will also mark World Refugee Day, which commemorates both refugees and those committed to assisting them.
For USCIS employees, World Refugee Day is of particular importance. Many of our colleagues are dedicated to identifying, interviewing, and assisting refugees. This weekend, we thought the best way to mark World Refugee Day would be to highlight one woman’s journey.
From Angola to St. Louis: One Refugee's Father's Day Story
Elena's story begins in Angola, where her parents met and married. Her father was politically active, and as the country descended into an increasingly vicious civil war after gaining independence from Portugal, her family faced death threats and was forced to flee. The journey took them to a refugee camp in Namibia and later to the capitol city, where the family had no official status and no real way to make a living. They later decided to travel to a refugee camp in Botswana to apply for refugee status.
"Chased by Thunderstorms"
The border between Namibia and Botswana was closed at the time, so the family of eight packed into an old pickup truck and took off over dusty roads, often chased by thunderstorms that mark the rainy season. The journey took them through Apartheid-era South Africa, where officials pulled them over and took Elena’s father away for questioning. At 8 years old, Elena says, "it was the first time I remember being afraid of anything." Fortunately, he was released the next day and the family made it to Botswana. The family lived in a refugee camp there for 2 years.
Elena's life as a child in Botswana did not seem particularly unusual to her at the time. Like many "poor" children, she did not realize she was poor so long as she had friends to play with and a family to come home to. She attended a makeshift school where, according to Elena, "there didn’t seem to be teachers half the time." Students sometimes had to gather firewood as a sort of price of admission so that beans could be cooked to feed the children. The family lived in huts on the frontier of a desert. Her mother would bake things to sell - even dried insects that locals snacked on to scrape out a makeshift existence. After waiting and hoping, the news finally came that they would be leaving.
Elena remembers flying from a setting with few buildings and a barren climate through London and New York on her way to St. Louis. During the stop-over in London, the impressionable 10-year old saw snow for the first time. She says that the snow and the cold made her feel "like the world was ending." In New York, she remembers "getting stuck in an elevator, eating fast food, and watching The Princess Bride."
The final stop was St. Louis. Elena's family was delighted to be away from the refugee camp, and a refugee resettlement agency was there to help them move into a new home, get signed-up for school, and look for work. Being a new kid in school with little English was not always easy. Elena and her siblings relied on one another and on her parents. Elena recalls that, "with a large Afro and hand-me-down clothes," kids would pick on her and she got into her share of fights.
The initial culture shock diminished with time, and the family moved to a better home and Elena began to learn English, the fourth language that she would have to learn. Her father took the family to a local church, which provided a community they could belong to - and which has since started a program to assist refugees.
A Father's Support
She recalls how her father was key to her "getting past all the drama at school." As Elena puts it, her father said that she "was different, would always be different, and to embrace it and move on." Highly educated and politically prominent back home, her father worked in a home improvement store. He didn’t complain, supported his family, and started going back to school. He encouraged Elena to strive at school and work for a scholarship, though the family could not afford to send her with schoolmates on trips abroad. Elena attended university, and today is a successful professional. For her, Father’s Day and World Refugee Day are both important moments to reflect on this Sunday.
Sadly, Elena's father passed away of heart related problems. Elena's family continues to give back by assisting other refugees at their local church. She hopes that others do what they can to help refugees, but also points out that we have much to learn from refugees. Looking at what they have had to cope with, we can all learn about resilience, what is important in life, and how to put things into perspective.