Must living in peace - so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world - inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?
-Jenny Erpenbeck, "Go, Went, Gone"
The asylees and refugees arrived for a CV clinic. I could imagine my refugee parents in that room pulling an old suitcase with all their belongings, speaking in a foreign tongue, all their valuable dog-eared, well-fingered documents neatly held in a small satchel, the sorrow of family and friends left behind visible in their gestures and facial expressions. I was there, and I am here, because the United States took them in, a lifeline.
I had volunteered that day because I wanted to do something useful after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, strengthened restrictions at our southern border, and the backlash against refugees and asylees in the EU, the US, and now Canada where migrants are pressing for entry. New York State shares a 5,525 mile border with Canada, the longest international border in the world; our problem becomes their problem. With this week's treaty signing, Biden and Trudeau are in concert: we will share firefighters during a wildfire season, as we did on the Minnewaska Ridge last summer, and we'll send illegal migrants back to their first port of entry into the United States.
I have two cousins who began their lives in Canada because the refugee agency placed them there, separating the family. This happens a lot, even today, or even more so today. My husband and I mentored Nathan, a young Tamil man from Sri Lanka. His family was displaced during the Civil War after his father was killed. Nathan and his mother and sister fled, eventually reaching a refugee camp in Tamil-speaking South India. Because he was young and fit, Nathan was sent to America to work and study by the UNHCR; his mother and sister were sponsored by relatives in Canada. But Nathan had been granted asylum in the United States, which meant that he could not request asylum in any other country. "At least we are close enough to visit," he told us during one of our last visits before we moved upstate. His mother's promise to find him a bride could be easily fulfilled from within the Tamil community in North America.
At the CV clinic, I was matched with a young man from the Arab-speaking world whose father and uncle had been killed in a civil war. His schooling had been interrupted, his family scattered, many killed; his mother was missing and assumed kidnapped. I didn't get the full story; that wasn't my job. I had to find a way to create a one-page CV quickly so that he could find an internship or volunteer position while awaiting asylum, which can take years. This meant using my interviewing and rewriting skills. The CV he presented needed a lot of work. It was challenging to figure out what experience might be applicable and how to present it.
The young man has to be nameless here—asylum is not guaranteed, and deportation is always a possibility—but suffice to say he was sophisticated, educated, a former competitive swimmer and marathon runner, easy to work with—eager like most young people are—to complete his education and remake his life. I enjoyed myself, enjoyed getting to know him, enjoyed helping him. I am a swimmer, too, so that was our first touching point. Many others followed. It takes a village and this young man has lost his through no fault of his own. Now, he was rebuilding connection, however fragile.
He is one of many. In 2022, 103 million people were displaced. Each and every one are protected by international law, protocols and conventions, a set of guidelines on the treatment of people fleeing natural disaster, war, or persecution. Migrants, refugees, asylees, all have varying definitions in law, but, in essence, all the labels describe people on the move, people who have had to flee their homes against their will. Alas, laws, even international laws, do not guarantee humane treatment.
Small, mostly privately funded community resettlement programs are working in the United States, and the Afghan Circle in the Mid-Hudson Valley is hosting seven families, for example, but without government funding, they are struggling to raise funds through donations, fund raisers, and micro-grants.
No atrocity, war, or civil war and subsequent migration happens in isolation from the flow of world events, particularly colonialism in all its past and present iterations. No flood or famine occurs in isolation from global climate change. What is our responsibility and what isn't? Some people feel the world's woes keenly, some are insular and apathetic. The call to duty, donation, or volunteerism is for every person to answer individually according to their own conscience.
Note: In the United States, the major difference between refugees and asylees is the location of the person at the time of application. Refugees are usually outside of the United States when they are screened for resettlement, whereas asylum seekers submit their applications while they are physically present in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry. Refugees and asylees also differ in admissions process used and agencies responsible for reviewing their application.
Volunteer opportunities in my community are listed below. Please add yours in the comments: