Sunday, January 17, 2016

Are refugees welcome here?

By: Jora Atienza

In the days leading up to my arrival to Rome for USF School of Management’s Academic Global Immersion 2016 Winter Intercession course, I noticed a striking poster at the window at a local café that had an illustration of a man concealing a small child inside his jacket. It had a simple message above it: Refugees are welcome here. A sandwich board outside the café said it served Ethiopian coffee. Several streets down, I saw the poster again, this time at a casual restaurant that sold gyros and falafels. I walked the rest of the way home thinking about the significance of where these posters were located and the idea of what “welcoming” could mean for refugees, forced migrants, and asylum seekers around the world. I found later that the poster was created by the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which focuses advocacy work in service of peace, social justice, equality, human rights, and respect for international law.

Some days later, I heard a story on the radio about Syrian refugees being relocated to Britain. Several refugees were interviewed and their experiences ranged from happiness, frustration, to disappointment.  A 31-year old man, a doctor in Syria, had been imprisoned and tortured there. He lamented the fact that he could not practice in England without learning English and restarting his medical education and certifications. How could he invest a decade of time and energy so that he can work again? In any scenario, he will have to start far behind what he had already accomplished back in his country. All while being separated from friends, family, and everything he’s ever known. In contrast, a 20-year old man was exuberant about his future and grateful to the UK for an opportunity to begin his life. He had already found a job working at a local falafel stand. He had arrived with this mother and two younger brothers. One brother, who has leukemia, is able to receive the healthcare that he needs, in addition to the family receiving support with housing, education, and some living expenses.

I was struck by the varied experiences of these two men, both forced to leave their country at different stages in their lives. The younger one, so hopeful for his and his family’s future; the older, uncertain in his frustration and feeling isolated in his new home, having to create community with fellow refugees and Britons.  I wondered how much their different status in life back in Syria is making an impact on how they are adjusting to resettlement in England and what it means to truly start a new life. Basic necessities such as food, shelter, healthcare, and safety? Of course. But how can government refugees and forced migrants to rebuild the both tangible and intangible webs of support that exists in any community? Especially when families and friends are scattered around the world, livelihoods are destroyed and people have to start again. Honoring human dignity and rebuilding connection and community needs to have a prominent space in any resettlement program.