By Amanda Lynn Crawford-Steger, AmeriCorps VISTA
By definition, a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. At any given moment, there are about 42 million internally displaced people in the world due to some form of war. Some 12 million―80 percent of them women and children―will cross a border and become refugees. Of those 12 million, just 1% are granted the right to resettle in a third country, such as the United States.
Once they make it to the U.S., refugees are granted assistance in the form of housing, food, medical and English-language assistance, employment, and counseling for the first 90 days. In three months, persons who did not enjoy the luxury of packing up their personal belongings or preparing themselves mentally for the drastic changes that come from being forced to leave their homes, and who left family members scattered throughout the world, are asked to become completely self-sufficient in their English abilities, cultural understanding, and civic processes.
In 2010 the U.S. resettled 74,500 refugees, and it is expected that this number will jump to 80,000 in 2011. While the United States government and NGOs work diligently to fully support refugees in this country, to say that this is an impossible task is an understatement at best. Working in the nonprofit world and seeing the actual services that are being given to these uprooted people has changed me in ways that are hard to describe.
The nonprofit I work with is called PAIR, which stands for the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees. PAIR has taken on the ambitious task of educating refugee youth between the ages of 11 and 18 from all over the world. The word education carries its own connotations for persons working outside and within its field, but for me it means giving a person who has no other way of reaching their full potential a chance at life. My students learn many different things. They learn the importance of community, the strength of perseverance, the skill of survival, the reality of a difficult transition, and the necessity of seeing a future for themselves. Every day I spend with the students of PAIR I stand in awe of them and intrinsically know that they keep me going, not the other way around.
PAIR and other organizations working to better the lives of refugees have known something far longer than I, and that is that no one should forget that everything can change in a second. Coming to PAIR, I carried my own preconceptions and stereotypes about the countries, lifestyles, looks, and situations surrounding refugees. What I have learned is that a refugee does not have one face, one background, or one story, and that I will never understand a country or a culture without immersing myself in it first. This is what education is.
Education allows for all of us to break out of our assumptions. It rips us away from our comforts. Education, above all things, opens escape routes from our self-imposed confines. For my students, education even allows them to translate for their parents, feed their families, gain confidence, loosen the chains of depression and trauma, and tear down the walls of persecution, racism, and sexism.
While I could tell you millions of stories that give me chills, I will try to limit myself. One of my recent sessions featured an FBI Special Agent as its speaker. The purpose of this lesson was to let students know that the FBI is meant to provide safety and that a career in the FBI could provide at least one reason not to do drugs, to do well in school, and to graduate high school. The agent was to tell our students about Internet safety and gang awareness and allow them to try on the ‘awesome’ bulletproof vests. However, none of this was going to end up being as educational as what one group of girls taught me.
As I began to round up students from their apartments, I saw a cluster of girls. This group is constantly keeping me on my toes. When they seemed reluctant to come, I knew I had a challenge on my hands. The first girl who spoke told me that she was not interested in the FBI. Of course, after all of my planning and the pride I had accumulated from designing this lesson, I was completely caught off guard and immediately asked, “Why not?” She, with all the honesty of a 12-year-old girl, said, “Because girls can’t be FBI agents.” I instinctively retorted, “Of course you can! In fact, the FBI Special Agent who is coming today is a woman.” About face! The group briskly led me back to our classroom so they could meet this amazing woman.
The lesson those girls taught me will stay with me forever. They showed me that being a role model is the most important thing an educator, public figure, or political activist can ever do. That day, the girls may have learned what the FBI does and how to recognize gang activity but, more importantly, they left with the knowledge that being a woman does not limit their future, define the road they have to take, or provide a hindrance to their dreams―all because a female special agent came to see us that day.