In 2002 Dr. Mary Pipher wrote this amazing book about the plethora of refugees who came to Lincoln, Nebraska, beginning in the late 80’s. At the time, Lincoln’s unemployment was low and so was the cost of living. The Federal Government’s US Office of Refugee Resettlement took this information and determined that it would be the perfect place to settle a plethora of refugees from around the world. The people of Nebraska had next to no idea they were coming, had no say as to whether or not they could adequately transition the people and help them assimilate in the Midwest culture and in many cases had no budget for the exponential expenses that the would tax the health, education and welfare systems in the state. In other words, the place was not at all prepared for any of them but they arrived nonetheless. By the time of the book’s publication in 2002, the nonwhite population in the city had grown 128%. In the Lincoln public schools there were children from fifty different nationalities who spoke thirty-two different languages. The J-curve was high for refugees and host state. It was a very difficult and frightening time for everyone involved.
Reading this book humanized the refugee experiences for me but it equally broke my heart. Here are some nuggets that I learned about how “great” it is to resettle in America.
- It is harder for educated refugees who come here.
- A pediatrician works stuffing envelopes
- A director of a hospital drives a taxi
- A judge works as a janitor.
- Lawyers become doormen.
- teachers work in factories
- When a refugee arrives in the US he/she is immediately in debt to the American government for the cost of the plane ticket over here.
- They are given a few months in a small apartment and they are on their own
- They are given a television and told to watch it as much as possible to learn English but instead they learn to believe that Americans are rich and life here is about buying things.
- Due to the low income status of most refugees, they often move into the poorest and most broken down neighborhoods. Many of those in Lincoln ended up in neighborhoods with meth labs, crack houses, sex offenders, and gangs. Unethical landlords often took advantage of them by overcharging them or not renting to them at all.
Honestly, I could go on and on. Being a refugee in America can be a second kind of hellish existence for those who come here without a support system in place for the long haul. I do not agree one bit with the way that Trump and his minions are handling the immigration system at present but I can say without doubt that the system does need an overhaul. I do not know how we can continue to bring anyone here from war-torn countries without really doing what it takes to resettle them here with integrity. They deserve to have a real chance at a decent life here. I personally believe that forcing any culture to assimilate into another one is a brutal exercise in futility for both cultures.
In my hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska, the two packing plants in the area offered work to refugees coming from many of the same places that they were coming from in Lincoln. All of the sudden there they were and the community was definitely not ready for them. I saw plenty of good people reach out to them but I also saw more abuse toward them I ever imagined possible. I witnessed people from one African country thrown together in an apartment complex. What few in the community understood was that individuals from different warring tribes from within their home country were suddenly expected to live there in harmony. One does not simply mandate peace simply because the people are on American soil. Local Police officers were often at this complex breaking up fights between them.
Bringing refugees into another country is SERIOUS business and though noble and right to do, it should NEVER be done as haphazardly and without buy in from the people among whom the refugees will be living. Like you, I hate the racism I’m seeing expressed by our president and others in America as much as anyone. It is disgusting. I too want America to be a place of refuge. That said, it is very easy to sit here in my warm house with a nice computer to write my posts on Facebook crying out in protest against this president (which I will continue to do), to feel the world’s pain and strongly assert that America needs to be devoted to bringing in the broken huddled masses etc. It is, however, a much more difficult thing for me to participate in the actual process of making sure that these broken, traumatized people have the healthy spaces they need to recover and live better lives in my community.
If this is something we as a nation want to continue to do, changes in how we do it are essential. I am sure that since the writing of Dr. Pipher’s book 16 years ago, things have had to have changed but considering the rhetoric flying around cyberspace, I’m doubtful the changes have resulted in a better situation for anyone seeking refuge here in this country. There is a lot of resentment out there that could have been avoided had communities been asked to take in refugees in the first place and had they been given adequate time to prepare the places for them to rebuild their lives. It seems to me that too often they were allowed to enter the US with the appearance of benevolence when in reality they were merely given green cards to provide America with workers willing to do jobs that most of us think are beneath us.
One thought on “Thoughts on Refugees”
Such a helpful, wise post Jane! And I agree. The immigration issue is complex and so multidimensional. Not an either or issue. Thanks for posting and furthering my education. I had no idea this happened in the late 80s. And in Lincoln!
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