Guest Columnist

Why I'm thankful for refugees

A man who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Congolese civil wars and was at a refugee camp in Zambia for several years before coming to the United States works with a language teacher at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids to find Morocco on a world map. (Liz Martin/The Gazette Archives)
A man who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Congolese civil wars and was at a refugee camp in Zambia for several years before coming to the United States works with a language teacher at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids to find Morocco on a world map. (Liz Martin/The Gazette Archives)

Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see the world anew. Sometimes it takes a new person to expose the wonders of the mundane. The excitement of a child combined with the perception of an adult.

I work with refugees who arrive to our city, our state, our country, after a journey of years. Many endured unspeakable evil. Some saw their children sexually abused. Some saw soldiers beat or abduct loved ones. Others carry scars — physical and mental; scars that may never go away.

They arrive here full of memories, many more painful than any inside my head, to begin a new life. The intersection of their life with mine changes me, forbids me to overlook or take for granted the joys and blessings of my life. I meet them at the airport — their smiles and excitement inspire me. I take them to appointments — their hopes for the future challenge me. I guide them toward self-sufficiency — their struggles sober me.

Ordinary chores take on a higher meaning. Actions I might zone out or power through come into focus as my new friends from Africa or Asia do them for the first time. First time to ride an airplane. First time seeing snow. First time wearing a seat belt. First time feeling the bitter chill of an Iowa wind. First trip to Wal-Mart. First cellphone. First time cooking on an electric stove. First good pair of shoes. First time touching a thermostat. First time drinking water from the tap. First time on an elevator. First time.

Other firsts soon join the initial crop. First English class. First job. First pay check. First time paying rent. First accurate diagnosis of a medical condition. First time driving a car. First dreams that my children have a future. First sense of stability and security in two decades.

If I were not beside these refugees through these firsts, I would endure these experiences, not cherish them. Many repetitions leave these experiences stale and bland. Yet when I look at a Wal-Mart run, a doctor’s appointment, a bank visit, a drive down the streets of Cedar Rapids through the eyes of my clients, I see them for the first time.

I’m thankful for refugees. My gratitude comes not from the name. The epitaph “refugee” designates a tragedy because no one should be forced to flee their country because of who they are or what they believe. The refugee experience encapsulates the whole range of human emotions. Some display superhuman resolve and audacious hope in the face of sheer evil. Others break under the strain. Yet the people who bear the title “refugee” have changed my life for the good. That change is not unique to me. Many who have spent time with refugees — talking with them, hearing their stories — share a similar testimony. As I reflect on the lives of these refugees — their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears, their dreams and dreads — my thoughts erupt with gratitude. If you have never spoken to a refugee, consider it. If you find yourself numb from the daily grind, perhaps befriending a refugee will jolt you from your apathy. Thoughts of gratitude may so well up inside you that grateful words will flow from your lips, grateful deeds from your hands.

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• Caleb Gates is a refugee case manager and advocacy specialist for the Catherine McAuley Center. Comments: caleb@cmc-cr.org.

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