A couple months ago, I was invited to lead a team of military translators in a June site visit to a partner Arab country. We would help with military-military relationship building, and pave the way for sales of some military equipment. It sounded like a fantastic opportunity, so I was more than a little disappointed when the trip was unexpectedly cancelled. I keep looking for opportunities to use my Arabic/Middle East experience, and they keep falling through.
Fortunately, things have a way of working out. The cancellation allowed me to participate in an alternative event: a weekend summer camp for Iraqi refugee families living in my local area. When the last-minute invitation came on Thursday, my wife and I accepted immediately. The next morning we dropped the kids with their grandparents, then drove to Sacramento to pick up carloads of Iraqi families. We spent the next three days deep in California’s redwood forest, playing volleyball and basketball, roasting marshmallows over a bonfire, and listening to the stories of families who have spent significant amounts of their lives trying to escape the devastation of war.
During the opening session, the leader told us that we were about to enjoy a wonderful weekend together, and explained that there were three things that had no place in our forest retreat: cell phones, cars, and sectarianism. You don’t hear that at every summer camp! The remark met with laughter and murmured approval, in an audience that was half Muslim and half Christian.
By all appearances, these were ordinary families with ordinary lives. Mothers and fathers sat around in groups chatting, while their kids played sports and laughed and made new friends. But for many of these families, their circumstances were hardly ordinary. I met one weary man who had brought his family to the U.S. only five days prior. Several years ago, he’d made the tragic decision to flee from Iraq… to Syria. Now his family had been uprooted by war a second time. It was a little surreal, realizing that his children had probably only ever known life as refugees. What is recent history to me comprised their entire lives.
Although most of the kids were too busy having fun to reminisce about their lives in Iraq, my wife and I wondered what some of them had seen or suffered. One young man was eager to talk to anybody who would listen; if I asked him one question, he would respond by talking for ten minutes straight. Unfortunately, his thick Iraqi accent was almost unintelligible to me. I only caught moments of meaning, lightning flashes that illuminated the landscape of his life: friends left behind, his schools in Iraq and here in the U.S., the challenges of finding a community where he belonged, an explanation of how he obtained the three-inch scars on his forearms.
I was a little surprised to learn how much depression there is among Iraqi refugees in the U.S. Many of them struggle to build new lives in an individualistic culture where they do not have deep family and community roots. Most of us probably assume that these families are delighted to have a new beginning in the U.S., and in truth, I suppose most of them are grateful. They are the lucky ones. But the move is a radical disruption from everything they’ve ever known, and many are lonely and homesick. A few weeks ago, the conference organizer visited a refugee at his home and discovered that he was in the act of preparing to hang himself. More recently, a refugee family he knows flew back to Iraq… jeopardizing the likelihood of ever gaining American citizenship.
The retreat was a wonderful time, and hopefully a nice change of atmosphere for these families who are doing the hard work of building new lives in the U.S. I enjoyed using my Arabic to make new friends and hear their stories. Once again, I was reminded of how important it is for for students and practitioners of foreign affairs to keep on eye on the basic human aspect of these issues. It’s easy to lose sight of individual lives when we study the affairs of peoples and nations, but these one-on-one encounters provide essential context for understanding our work.
The weekend was also a wake-up call for me about the seriousness of refugee challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the great need for support networks wherever refugees settle. I tend to think in terms of large-scale government solutions to problems like refugee resettlement, but this weekend I met many quiet, unsung heroes who are doing great things for refugees their local community.