Notes From My Knapsack 12-31-15
Syrian refugees may need some assistance
Even if I've not quite followed all the details in the news, it seems that we may have some refugees from Syria heading our way in the foreseeable future.
I've had the privilege of working with a number of refugee families through the years, coming as they have under the sponsorship of congregations, sent through the auspices of the federal government and various national church bodies. They've been from either hemisphere, from Cambodia to Azerbaijan, and they've all been an honor to assist.
Motivation and discipline and hard work have been foremost among the gifts they bring to this country, even if their command of the language may start out on the rough side. And in fact, their written and basic understanding of English has been fairly smooth, but the edges and abrasions and points of friction come from our culture, which is a hard thing to teach about in a book. How we live is something we just do, more than talk about. It's not something we can even explain to ourselves most days.
To stand next to someone with more years of education than you have, and see their bewilderment standing in the breakfast cereal aisle . . . do you explain this strangeness, or just turn them gently towards the oatmeal shelf where the choice is between "old fashioned" or "one minute," and only deal with explaining that small distinction?
When military parades were commonplace in their former home, how do you interpret the celebratory fondness we have for marching bands, accompanied by young women tossing fake wooden rifles in the air? Is it a logical evolution and march of peaceful progress from what they've known, or is it best understood as something else entirely?
Most refugees come from places where random violence and the open display of weaponry is common; how do you help them understand what safety means in this country, where crime tends to be more personal or geographic, rather than factional or political? When the ownership of firearms exceeds anything they knew in a strife-torn homeland, but it's presented as a sporting or recreational proposition, the puzzled looks they'll give you are understandable from their own calamitous experience.
Generally, transportation is something they have a more formal and structured relationship with than the house by house or person by person approach we take to travel decisions. "Let's take two cars" being the usual farewell between two people even in the same family, going to the same destination. Seeing people walking or running isn't strange in their experience, but finding out that most of those on foot are just on a loop starting from and returning back to their homes: why? Explaining "exercise" can be challenging.
And then there's Christmas. It's the odd refugee indeed who's never heard of the observance, but an American Christmas – from Washington Irving to Charles Dickens (whose "A Christmas Carol" will be at Licking County Players the next two weekends), through Clement Clarke Moore and Robert L. May – it's a very particular thing yet it includes a wide variety of inputs, from the British and the Dutch to Montgomery Ward's and Macy's. How do you account for our Christmas in 500 words or less?
Perhaps the best way we can prepare to welcome refugees from another culture is to make sure to stop and try to understand our own first.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about your experience with refugees and immigrants of all sorts at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.