A World of Learning: Lessons Abroad Translate Back in Houston

By Amit Suneja, PAIR Volunteer

At PAIR, we work with displaced people. They were forced from their homes, often as a result of political instability. They lived in camps, relegated to the status of “in transit” as their new host countries tried to find them a stable, suitable, and sustainable living situation.

When I traveled to Brazil, Vietnam, and South Africa this past semester to study public health, I encountered new populations of displaced people. Their circumstances reminded me that these populations extend beyond those who are officially recognized as refugees and given the opportunity to resettle in a host country such as the United States. The people I met abroad and their stories, too, are stories of flight that have broadened my perspective and brought a new urgency to how I think about my work with PAIR. They have provided me with critical lessons that I will take with me, not only for my final year in college as volunteer with PAIR, but for the rest of my life as an advocate for displaced people.

In Brazil, there are millions of landless farmers. Many are part of the Landless Workers Movement, the second largest social movement in Latin America. They occupy private or publicly owned land that they claim is not being “used productively,” and legally acquire the right to farm the land without formally owning it. I visited one of these settlement which was founded over 10 years ago. It struck me that, despite relative stability, inadequate infrastructure and education services were still the norm. They are in a situation that is arguably better, but not ideal. Lesson 1: The legacy of being displaced can live with a population long after they appear settled. They may readjust, but it can be a slow process.

In Vietnam, 25 years after free market reforms were instituted under the economic policies collectively called doi moi, foreign manufacturers are taking advantage of the deregulated, favorable business climate and building factories outside urban areas. During my motorbike trip from Hanoi to central Vietnam, I passed by many factories that were spilling into economically depressed rural areas.

Modern Hanoi cityscape, courtesy of Wikimedia

Modern Hanoi cityscape, courtesy of Wikimedia

To support their families, many rural women are forced to work, and they are recruited by agencies promising full-time factory jobs in foreign factories. However, these recruiters sometimes lie about the duration of the work, and after a few months of temporary work, women are left to fend for themselves in cities by engaging in menial labor or sex work. Some women, instead of being taken to a factory, are trafficked into sex work in China or other countries. Lesson 2: Displacement might seem like a choice, but when we examine the circumstances, it is clear that subtle forces (such as economics) are acting to incentivize this movement and coerce people into it.

The story of my South African host family is representative of a population beset by a 40% unemployment rate. I lived in a house of seven women and four children. My first day, I wondered where all the men were. I soon learned the father and four sons were dispersed across South Africa, working in the privatized mining industry, the greatest contributor to the country’s economy. Through readings, films, conversations with my host family, and conversations with locals, I came to understand the plight of many South Africa men – migration to find mine work. During their time working in these mines, men often live in single-sex hostels, working 15 hours days with little pay or benefits. They live under incredible stress, away from their families, and they often drink, amplifying the risk that they will engage in risky sexual activity while they are away from home. South Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. When investigating this epidemic, one must consider the mining industry’s effect on family structure and human life. The South African situation is incredibly complex, and although the government recognizes the need to nationalize the mines to mitigate these issues, one cannot ignore the overarching implications of this regularized, countrywide mass migration. Lesson 3: Displacement does not just affect individuals. Human relationships mean that if one person flees, those who are brought with or left behind are also affected.

These are only some of the lessons I learned about displaced people while abroad. They are relevant to the work I do with PAIR’s Mentoring and Tutoring Program as detailed below:

Amit tutors a student in PAIR's Mentoring & Tutoring program

Amit tutors a student in PAIR's Mentoring & Tutoring program

  1. As much as I work with my students and strongly believe they have progressed, it is critical for me to maintain humility and respect for their situation, and recognize that the legacy of how they were raised and how they have lived is theirs to define, not mine.
  2. As I learn about my students’ circumstances, I can never make the assumption that they want to be here forever, that the United States is the end-all for them. Many of my students express a desire to return home, and I must always remember that though they are children, they know what their choices are better than I do.
  3. I don’t just work with refugee students. I am part of a community. I work to understand that community, love that community, and ultimately, empower all of those who have been affected by their displacement.

If we look at displaced groups around the world and think about the lesson that can be learned by working in these different environments, we see that their struggle, truthfully, is a united one to find stability, a guarantee of their human rights, and freedom.