Peter Parker. Diana Prince. Clark Kent. They’re the unassuming individuals who you encounter in the produce section of your grocery store while shopping for your romaine lettuce. The same person who you wouldn’t give a second look too. They’re the people who you stroll nonchalantly by during your leisurely walks who you wouldn’t think twice about. The alter ego of superheroes exist in our daily lives.
Refugees are also the inconspicuous folks who seamlessly interact and integrate with the community-at-large. Behind the outward facades that we live in however, refugees experienced and continue to experience unforeseen and ongoing hardships that go unnoticed. More important, the manner that refugees confront these difficulties appear to starkly contrast the manner that their non-refugee neighbors confront difficulties.
It’s not for the fact that I myself am a refugee. It’s not just for the fact that refugees are survivors who’ve escaped horrendous and life-threatening hardships. It’s not because refugees bring a wide breath of experiences and knowledge that enriches the landscape of our communities. It’s due to what I’ve witnessed from other refugees who’ve endured tremendous loss and yet always seem to gracefully overcome and forge ahead.
During one of my recent conversations with a fellow refugee, I noticed a quietness and heaviness in his demeanor. This fierce advocate and community leader’s usual jovial expressions was shrouded with weightiness. His concentration and thoughts had obviously roamed elsewhere. Beneath his usual welcoming veneer I detected uneasiness and worry.
He meticulously selected each word before sharing that he and his family had recently been confronted with unforeseen challenges. They had unexpectedly discovered that a water leak had aggressively caused flooding throughout his entire home. The ravage caused by the flooding forced him, his wife, and small children to immediately evacuate from their home and relocate to a hotel where they have been residing for over eight weeks. The severe water damage required extensive demolition to his home. During the demolition process of the kitchen cabinets, the contractors discovered asbestos buried behind the walls. To further compound the challenges, his wife just contracted COVID-19.
Characteristic to who he is, throughout this entire ordeal, he continued to advocate for our refugee community through local and national non-profits while continuing working to provide for his family. It was apparent that he wanted to create normalcy for his wife and children. Just as the structural foundation kept his home intact, he is the stable foundation for his family.
From all of our conversations, not once did he complain, blame others, ask for financial assistance, or expressed any resentment or hatred towards others. NOT ONCE. In fact, he continues to greet me and others with his infectious smile. The smile that serves as a reminder that our situation could always be worse.
Before and during the pandemic and economic recession, I witness refugees who aren’t the head of their households and are usually the children in the family who are compelled to serve in the non-traditional role as the breadwinners of their family due to their parents' language barriers and disabilities. They dutifully toil in their jobs with lack of health benefits, job insecurity, underemployment, and meager wages in order to provide for their parents.
Other refugees have shared that since their arrival to the U.S., they have yet to see their families, their spouse, their children, grandparents, and relatives. The lucky ones continue to communicate with their loved ones from afar. The unfortunate ones desperately continue to seek for them.
As anxiety and worry heavily loom over fellow refugees, I witness adult children who desperately grasp onto insecure employment to provide for their family while others have no guarantee or hopeful glimmer of ever being reunited with their family.
Meanwhile, I observe other individuals grumbling about bearing a small piece of fabric on their faces to safeguard themselves and others from the virus. I see individuals scapegoating refugees and immigrants for their own woes and personal shortcomings. I witness individuals who continue to spew racist language and committing vile acts toward those who are “others.” I hear the deafening sound of the door being slammed on those who seek safety from unspeakable loss, violence, persecution, and trauma.
Reality is, refugees aren’t strangers to adversity and hardship. In fact, even after surviving extreme trauma and violence, we expect our roads to continue to be difficult and saturated with challenges. Yet, we continue to press forward.
A wise Maya Angelou once expressed “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Just as my Brother-friend, social justice advocate, and the man with the million dollar smile, we as refugees, we will always rise.