Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Phone Home

About two and a half years ago, a new student walked into my mother's music classroom. In a region with high mobility, new students are hardly unusual--but the girl's behavior was. When my mom started playing the piano, the girl was riveted by the sound. She had clearly never heard one before. How does a child get to be five years old without ever hearing a piano? Mom went to find out, and discovered that the girl's entire family had recently been moved from a refugee camp in Tanzania. The family (two parents, four children under the age of ten) had no English, no jobs, no work experience and little education. They had access to all the government services available to refugees--but no idea how to access them.

Fortunately, they had help. They had the organization that had resettled them in the United States. And they have also received support from their church, their neighbors, the school system, the county, the state, about half a dozen volunteers from the D.C. metro area and my mother, who has managed, over the past two years, to get most of her friends and family to help out as well. This network has worked ceaselessly to keep the family afloat, and today the kids are happy and healthy and learning to read. They wear Dora and Diego sneakers. They ask for help on the monkey bars. They know all the words to "Happy Birthday." They make paper chains at Christmas and roast turkey at Thanksgiving. They are a typical American family.

I mention their story because yesterday marked the thirtieth anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act, under which tens of thousands of refugees enter the United States every year. Many of these refugees struggle, as this family has struggled, to find work, pay their bills and adjust to U.S. culture. Some of them thrive in their new environment. Some fail to adjust. Some have supportive networks. Others fall through the cracks. The fates of these families and individuals, and all immigrants to the United States, is important to all Americans. As U.S. residents, refugees, asylees and immigrants are citizen diplomats who provide unique and direct links between the United States and their native countries. For many people living in other countries, immigrants may be their only link to the United States. And people are certainly more likely to accept the opinions of their former colleagues, friends, neighbors and families than those of a foreign government. The America they see is the America they will represent to the people they've left behind. Therefore, there is a justification for supporting new Americans that extends beyond the basic humanitarian impulse to protect and support those citizens and residents who cannot protect and support themselves.

As Eric P. Schwartz noted in an address yesterday, "the protection of the most vulnerable must be at the center of policy-making – due to the moral imperative, and the simple goal of saving lives; due to our government’s interest in sustaining U.S. leadership and building sustainable partnerships, which enable us to drive the development of international humanitarian principles, programs, and policies like no other government in the world; and due to the importance of promoting reconciliation, security, and well-being in circumstances where despair and misery not only threaten stability, but also critical national security interests of the United States."

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