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  • Writer's pictureEmily Rojas

My Summer with Refugees

Hi, welcome.

If you didn't read my last post, I highly suggest you start there. Because I'm taking the month of February to highlight causes that are important to me, and this is where we truly begin.

I started off this post by searching something in my Google Photos account:

And that's all it takes to bring back millions of tender memories: Swimming in the Danube, dancing in India, Mexican food in Vienna, stargazing in Haiti.

But most of all, the most powerful and potent and lasting memories remain from the few days I spent at a refugee camp in Austria.

Prior to the trip, I have to admit, I hadn't ever given much thought to refugees. If asked, I probably would've been compassionate and supportive, but it wasn't something I thought about often, or at all.

But, sitting with a family in their living room listening to their stories, eating food they cooked for us, praying and laughing and eating and crying together, it changed me.

I've never felt so out of place and I've never felt so at home.

I don't have a way to put it into words, still now, almost 4 years later. Only that I think about it all the time now.

Only that President Trump's travel bans and refugee bans feel like personal attacks.

Only that I think, often, of my final words on the last night we visited the refugee camp: "You are my sister." And I meant it.

It's taken me so long to write this post.

I genuinely feel like the best way to change people's minds is through storytelling. I feel confident that if you, whoever you are, were to sit with people whose circumstances have led them to refugee camps, your heart would be moved. You too wouldn't be able to sit around and wait for change to come. You too would feel stirred and attacked by travel bans and evil, hateful rhetoric.

I know you would, if you looked in the eyes of a little girl or grown man or beautiful, tenderhearted woman telling you their life story.

I know your heart would change.

But, these stories aren't mine to tell. I can only speak for myself, and so here it is.

I found myself in a refugee camp during the summer of 2016. I was excited to learn more, nervous to meet new people.

We spent a whole morning in the children's classroom. Refugees often live in a state of limbo, without the ability to work or go to school or follow a regular routine. The people we were accompanying tried to provide some stability in chaos.

In the beginning of the class, they children sang a song in German, thanking God for blessings in life. At one point in the song, each child could sing something specific they were thankful for.

"Thank you for today."

"Thank you for my sister."

"Thank you for chocolate."

But most of them just said, "Thank you for everything."

For everything.

That night, I found myself on the floor of someone's home, eating dinner with several families. One family was Muslim, another Hindu, another Christian and then us. We all laughed, cried, shared stories, shared plates of food and samosas, shared despite language barriers and cultural differences.

It was the most beautiful and poignant moment of my life.

All I can say now is this: We are privileged by virtue of our birth in this country.

Most of us feel safe. Most of us have food for ourselves and our families. Most of us can't understand what it would be like to have to leave everything and everyone behind. Most of us don't know the realities of war.


Who among us wouldn't?

Who among us wouldn't cross borders in search of safety, stability, security? Who among us wouldn't seek refuge if our country was torn by wars started by people far, far away?

I can't, for the life of me, comprehend the vilification of immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers. I could never find myself saying, "Come here the right way, and we'll accept you."

The right way?

The right way?

I believe the right way for many refugees and many immigrants would have been to not have had to come at all. I believe many would like to stay in their home with their family and friends and jobs and neighbors.

The right way.

My friend, Rachel, posted an excerpt from the book The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri, and I can't stop thinking about it.

"Once, in an Oklahoma church a woman said, 'Well, I sure do get it, you came here for a better life.' I thought I'd pass out. A better life? In Isfahan we had yellow spray roses, a pool. A glass enclosure shot up through our living room, and inside that was a tree. I had a tree in my house. I had the papery hands of Morvarid, my friend and nanny, a ninety-year-old village woman; I had my grandmothers fruit leather and Hotel Koorosh schnitzels and sour cherries and orchards and a farm - life in Iran was a fairytale. In Oklahoma we lived in an apartment complex for the destitute and disenfranchised. Life was a big gray parking lot with cigarette butts baking in oil puddles, slick with children idling in the beating sun, teachers who couldn't do math. I dedicated my youth and every ounce of my magic to get out of there. A better life? The words lodged in my ear like grit."

I spent a summer with refugees and my life has never been the same.

I don't know how to tell you about it in a way that you'll understand, but I at least hope you'll read all of these ramblings and think twice about your own words, your own thoughts, your own privilege, your own life circumstances. And the life circumstances of others that you will never understand by simply reading news articles and angry Facebook posts.

And if you want to do more, here are some organizations I support that are doing a beautiful job taking care of immigrants, refugees and more:

And also, please vote, because your voice matters.

And also. Speak up and use your voice and tell your story, because it matters too.

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