Story by Jack Wilson, North Texas Region, Assistant Director, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services
Armed conflicts have lasting impacts. This is an obvious statement. We know that the scars of war on a community’s infrastructure, on a nation’s institutions, and on the bodies and minds of those caught in crossfire last long after the final shot is fired. We know that that final shot far too often marks only a brief reprieve before conflict returns.
We know that war displaces people from their homes and separates them from their loved ones. We also know that the human spirit carries on, that the ties that bind families and entire communities together are stronger than war, fear, and distance.
Texas receives an average of 4500 refugees every year, and organizations across the state work together to provide these new arrivals with the assistance they need to adjust and thrive here in America. This number of arrivals, though, tells us nothing of the refugee experience.
What is the refugee experience? The simple and honest answer is that there is no the refugee experience. Every client we serve through the Restoring Family Links program, our primary service extended to members of this unimaginably diverse group referred to as “the refugee community,” is a unique person with a unique story and unique needs. There is no THE refugee community. There are thousands.
On April 20th, as we celebrate World Refugee Day, we will inevitably think about “outreach.” We will shake hands with our fellow humanitarians and discuss strategies that will allow us to work better together. We will present slide-shows about the way Restoring Family Links can reconnect families, helping our clients find what many of them may have thought was lost – the bonds of family that prior to the delivery of that first Red Cross Message were relegated only to memory. We will do all of these things that are vital to our outreach efforts, which are in turn vital to our ability to reach clients and provide the help we are all dedicated to providing.
There is another prong to outreach, though, that we must never forget. Communities develop organically for a number of reasons. In many ways, communities develop out of need. They emerge naturally as a way to provide those things that bolster both the body and that indomitable human spirit. They grow from personal relationships between individuals. We can reach out to these established communities, literally get in front of them and let them know we are here. We should do this at every opportunity, and we should be always searching for new opportunities to do so. We should also reach out to every client and forge new personal relationships with every person who comes to us to send or receive a Red Cross Message or inquire about a certificate of detention.
Delivering our services – demonstrating our compassion as well as our capabilities – is our primary means of outreach. Getting to know our clients as people inherently means getting to know the communities of which they are a part. Today, a volunteer caseworker here in Dallas, ten steps from my desk, sat with a client and simply chatted. Tanya Hernandez learned from this client more about the structure of Somali society than she expected to learn when she came in the office this morning to help a client fill in the remaining blanks on a tracing inquiry. She shared with Mohammed a little about what she had been working on, how hard we had tried to find another Somali client from a different clan.
“I know him! I’m going to see him this week! I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.” Over a month and a half of searching, of apartment visits, and pavement pounding and “reaching out” to organizations and “The community,” and strategizing had not led us to the client we sought. Reaching out to Mohammad when he came into the office got us to the other Mohammad with one simple, human conversation.
On this World Refugee Day, remember and celebrate the diversity of refugee communities. After World Refugee Day, remember that diversity when reaching out and building relationships with the local community.