In Chance Encounters, Seeing How Refugees’ Lives Have Changed
As a refugee officer, I have the humbling privilege of traveling to the cities and refugee camps where applicants reside, often in limbo, hoping they will be allowed to rebuild their lives in America. I meet with them face to face, listen to their stories and make a decision on their cases – keeping in mind that I could very well be on the other side of the table. After each interview, I move on to the next case. Of course, many of the individual stories stay with me. But in the interest of professionalism, and in order to focus on each interview, I tend to make a decision, stamp up the cases and move on, not knowing what became of the applicant who sat in front of me.
Although my visible role in the resettlement process is limited to that interview overseas, I am fortunate to have worked in two resettlement offices from 2006 to 2009. This has truly brought the refugee process full circle for me. A lot of our refugee clients got their first jobs in America at local airports working in food service, as wheelchair assistants and aircraft cleaners or in other jobs.
Above: Refugee girls at a school (Courtesy of UNHCR)
This past month, I went on a short trip. My friend came to pick me up at the airport. In an experience anyone can probably relate to, his car was shooed away for standing in place too long. I turned to the gentleman who was telling my friend to leave. When he saw me he said, “Is that you?” I realized it was a former refugee client from Africa with whom I had worked back in 2006. We both burst into laughter. In the brief period we had standing there to catch up amid the traffic, he told me that he is a leader of his ethnic community group and has started his own family.
After a five-day visit, it was time for me to head back to the airport. I was waiting in the security line, gazing around. Sure enough, the Transportation Security Administration worker at the station next to me was another former client – a young man who had always stood out to me for his motivation and kindness. The last time I saw him, he only knew a few words of English. I was so proud to see him working there: a naturalized citizen, fluent English speaker and now a fellow employee of Department of Homeland Security.