What You Discover from Working with Refugees

A few weeks ago, I volunteered at “Refugee Adjustment Day” at Catholic Charities here in Portland Oregon. Newly-arrived refugees to the U.S. need to apply for permanent residence (green cards) and the paperwork would be daunting even for native English speakers. Understandably, hundreds of refugee families showed up at our temporary legal clinic to get some help. Our team immediately realized we had to work extra hard and fast to have a chance of assisting even half of those who had arrived.

Attorneys were seated at round tables spread throughout the building. We were armed with laptops and an internet connection. We actually felt excited to attack the lengthy forms required by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The first family arrived at my table — a mother and father in their late forties along with a son in junior high and a daughter just starting high school. They were all unfailingly polite, friendly and energetic. They were from Iraq and had spent the last ten years at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

As I filled out their biographic data forms I learned intriguing details about their past, where they had worked, and where they had lived. The father had owned a clothing store for children in Baghdad until 2004. I didn’t have the time to ask for further details but I clearly understood that the end date of his store coincided with the start date of U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was an unpleasant feeling to know that my country had invaded their country and everything changed for them. I don’t know if this family is happy overall to be rid of the dictator who ruled them for decades. However, I do know that they lost their home and their business and fled to a nearby country for a decade.

International power politics in the Middle East is complex and the way forward is far from clear. But I’m glad that the U.S. took in this refugee family and thousands of others from Iraq as well. Since the decisions made by the U.S. and other great world powers have led to the displacement of huge numbers of people, it makes sense that we would open our doors to refugees from these countries. But even if we had never sought to influence this part of the world, assisting hurting people and welcoming them to our own home is simply the right, just, and kind thing to do.

As I finished the Iraqi family’s immigration forms, their mother thanked me with a smile and apologized that she had to rush out to go to work. It turns out she is back in the clothing business and works in retail sales at a local clothing chain. Both parents are working hard to save money to send their kids to college. Their family sees a bright path full of opportunity before them.

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