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The asylees and refugees arrived at Fordham University at 1 p.m. last Thursday for a CV clinic. I had volunteered because I wanted to do something immediate and useful after the horrific events in Paris and the backlash against refugees in the EU and the US. My parents were refugees. I could see them in that room, feel them there, nothing but the clothes on their back, 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 despite their courage and pride.

I was matched with a young man from Sierra Leone whose father and uncle had been killed in the civil war. His schooling had been interrupted, his family dismembered—literally and metaphorically—yet he’d recovered enough to volunteer in various UN-sponsored youth empowerment and HIV prevention programs. Then Ebola hit—more trouble—and he escaped that scourge and the persecution of secret societies, though what these are is unclear. 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. This meant using my interviewing and rewriting skills. The CV he presented was mostly in Krio, not standard dialect, and needed a lot of work. It was challenging to figure out what experience would be applicable and how to present it.

The young man has to be nameless here—political asylum is not guaranteed—but suffice to say he was sophisticated, comparatively well-dressed, a former competitive swimmer and marathon runner, easy to work with—eager like all 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. Now, two days later, we are communicating by text, honing the CV, and I have put him in touch with another wonderful young man I know who has agreed to mentor him and steer him towards volunteer opportunities. It takes a village and this asylee has lost his through no fault of his own. That sounds cliché but it is more than true and so I will repeat it: through no fault of his own.

No atrocity and subsequent migration happens in isolation from the flow of history. Sierra Leone was founded by the “Back to Africa” movement in the early 19th century – a combination of freed slaves, Quakers, British and American abolitionists, and reactionary slave-holding whites who feared that freed slaves would incite slave rebellion. In other words, the legacy of slavery and colonialism is still present everywhere, undermining progress and civil society. What is our responsibility and what isn’t? That is for every person to answer individually according to his or her own conscience. Some people feel the world’s woes keenly, some are insular and apathetic. But we now have a situation—global terrorism—that the president will address tonight, as I write. At the very least, it demands a fuller attention and empathy for displaced populations and a reckoning of our role—as Americans—in the world’s upheavals.

The CV clinic I attended was run by RIF, the Refugee and Immigrant Fund, founded by Maria Blacque-Belair. I first met Maria when I was compiling “Another Day in Paradise.” She wrote a story about her four years in Bosnia as a relief worker. When she returned from that war zone, she got her MSW with a specialty in trauma and recovery from NYU, married, adopted two children, and eventually began RIF. She is a model of hard work, devotion and common sense. I am happy to use my skills as a writer and educator to help her clients whenever and however I can.  Read More 
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