Life Lessons from the Refugee World

This summer, I was given two fantastic opportunities to work with nonprofits in the Columbus area. I interned at Relā, a leadership development organization that works with the Columbus business community, as well as US Together, a refugee resettlement agency. At the refugee agency, I served as the Women’s Empowerment Program intern.

I can say with complete certainty that this summer completely changed the way in which I view the world. This change is primarily due to the fact that I learned more than I ever thought I would. Though my experience with both organizations was significant, I will focus my reflection specifically on my role at US Together.

At the beginning of the summer, I did not have a clear picture of what my role at the agency would look like. I knew that I would be working with women, but I didn’t know to what degree my role would be relational or to what degree it would be office work. I was especially looking forward to interacting with the refugee population and really gaining insight into their world. My first day on the job, I was tasked with taking an 11 year old Syrian refugee to the dentist. I left the office to pick the boy up, and I remember my excitement for serving quickly turning into anxiety as I drove around the parking lot of their apartment complex for 15 minutes trying to find their apartment. When I finally arrived, I had to convey to the wary mother that I was trustworthy and was there to take her son to the dentist. Mind you, this family does not speak English and had only arrived in the United States weeks prior. I pulled out my official papers to prove I was someone they could trust, and they both willingly got in my car and rode with me to the dentist (or rather, they rode with me to the wrong address I was given, which happened to be Skully’s Music Diner–we eventually made it to the dentist, though). Fast-forward to two months later, and this family and I have become dear friends. Communicating mostly through Google translate and teaching them English in my free time, we came to understand each other even though we don’t speak the same language.

Getting to know this Syrian family completely changed the way I view everything. It is incredibly mind-bending (and there is truly no other word to describe it) to hear the stories of these people on the news, meanwhile I am in their homes, eating their food, and taking their children to the zoo. When I started this summer, I thought I knew a lot about interacting with people who are different from me, but by the end of the summer, I realized that I knew less than I thought and still have much learning to do. This is a beautiful realization as I approach the end of  my undergraduate career. When I look back on my years at Ohio State, I sometimes wish that I had taken more classes, had more experiences, etc, but then I am reminded that just because I’m graduating doesn’t in any way mean that I have to stop learning.

Speaking of education brings me back to my internship at the refugee agency. One of the main responsibilities of my role was to help facilitate two weekly financial literacy courses for women. The first course was for Arabic speaking women, and the second was for Masalit speaking women (Masalit is a rural tribal language in Sudan). These classes were mainly focused on financial literacy, such as banking, debit cards, and budgeting for their families. In addition to this, however, we were able to use this time with the women to discuss any other issues they were having with their transition to America. I was given the opportunity to not only serve as a makeshift case manager for these women, but I was also given the incredible privilege of assisting them as they did one of the most important things they will ever do for themselves: get their education. Enrolling in these classes is totally optional and completely free, and the tenacity these women have and the courage they possess to move forward with their lives is truly astounding.

As an International Development major, we talk frequently about how to solve the problem of global poverty, and everyone would agree that education is important. How to improve education globally, however, is a much larger problem, and there is not simply one framework that would be successful in every country. Thus, to even have a small hand in the sowing of the seeds of education in these women’s lives was a tremendous blessing.

Though I wasn’t searching for confirmation, this internship put international issues at the very forefront of my mind. At the same time, however, it showed me the way in which I can have an impact on international issues by assisting and serving those that are right here in Columbus. Refugees are an incredible population, and they aren’t often given the credit for the character trait that most everyone of them possesses: pure and unrestrained tenacity. These people have fought their entire lives against violence, persecution, poverty, war, and many other issues that you and I will never face, and because of that, may never truly come to understand. This internship changed the way I see the world because it simply gave me the opportunity to interact with others who are so very different from me, and the understanding and insight I gained are invaluable to me, both in my personal life and my career.

As an International Development major, I want to work for an international agency or nonprofit, and I want to create change that is sustainable. Working with refugees this summer confirmed in me the desire to work on the ground, to interact with the people instead of the policies. Now, I don’t mean to say that I wouldn’t want to be involved with these global issues at the academic and policy levels, but at the same time, it is infinitely important to me to put faces to the news stories we hear on the television.

I look forward to graduation, not because it is the end, but because it is the beginning of a lifetime of learning. My experience this summer was truly inspiring, and it made me even more excited for the rest of my career.

Making Kibi, a traditional Syrian dish

Making Kibi, a traditional Syrian dish

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