Since 1985, over 50,000 have been welcomed in Utah.
Last year alone, the Salt Lake Valley helped settled over 1,000 from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, and Columbia.
Who is this people group? Refugees.
This Saturday, June 7th, Salt Lake City is celebrating World Refugee Day. If you’re like me, aside from the occasional news story, I knew little of refugees and their experiences before moving to Utah. Refugees are displaced people who have fled their country because of war, genocide, violence, or persecution.
Over the last three years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a family of refugees from Congo. Jemima, the oldest daughter, gave me permission to share part of her story on my blog.
I want to tell my story.
Those six words uttered with a cautious excitement caused me to pause. I asked, “What story do you want to tell?”
Jemima replied, “I want to tell people how I came to America.”
For the last three years, I’ve volunteered at a Salt Lake City non-profit that serves the large population of refugees who have settled in Utah. In 2010, 73,293 assylum-seekers fleeing war-torn countries arrived in the United States.* Jemima and her family were some of those seeking escape and safety in the United States.
Originally from Congo, Jemima and her family fled and settled in a Tanzanian refugee camp for several years. At the camp, Jemima faced challenges such as poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and unreliable access to food. Education was, at best, sporadic, at worst, non-existent.
In 2010, Jemima and her family were given permission to move to Utah. Three years ago, less than a year after they moved to the US, I was assigned to be a mentor to her and her family. But really, I don’t feel like a mentor in the traditional sense; I feel like I’ve become part of a family.
Jemima is sixteen and lives with her grandmother, aunt, three siblings and four cousins, all of whom fled from Congo. Each week, I visit with her and her family. We cook together, visit the library, and watch movies. On one special occasion we even dressed up as cows to get free dinner at Chick-fil-a! At first glance, Jemima is like many 16-year-old girls; interested in make-up, fashion, making friends, and getting her driver’s license. She recently joined the high school debate club. Jemima is incredibly smart, funny, beautiful, and outspoken.
For the first time in the 3 years I have known her, Jemima honored me by telling me her story. Our agency recommends that we do not ask too many questions about our families’ pasts but rather wait for them to share as they feel comfortable. Many have experienced torture, rape, death, and other horrors of war. I knew some parts of her journey but I had never heard her share so honestly and deeply.
Over pancakes at my dining room table, Jemima shared about her first steps on US soil. When she exited the airplane in the Salt Lake City airport, she was immediately removed from her grandmother’s custody and placed in foster care with her two brothers. Jemima began to cry as she shared about the chaos of being separated from her grandmother and younger sister, the confusion of not speaking the same language as her foster parents, and the deep sadness when her foster family gave all of her African clothing and jewelry to a thrift store.
It was not an easy beginning for her or her siblings. Fortunately, Jemima’s grandmother found legal advocates who helped her regain custody Jemima and her grandsons. They have lived together as a family ever since and have worked hard to adjust to living in America. Jemima is improving at school and has a good group of friends. She is on track to graduate on-time.
Through the tears, Jemima said again, “I want to tell my story.”
When I think of telling life stories, I often think of the woman in Mark 5 who suffered from 12 years of bleeding. In the midst of a large crowd, the woman presses her way through, believing that just by touching the hem of Jesus’ garments she would be healed. Miraculously, she is healed and Jesus calls her forward. According to the passage, she, “told him the whole truth” (Mk 5:33)- about her years of suffering, her social isolation, all of her money spent on medical care that didn’t work. In response, Jesus looks at her as a father looks at his daughter and tells her that her faith has healed her. She is free from her suffering
Jemima’s story is beautiful, difficult, and sacred. In sharing with me, she gave me a gift. And I think in my listening, I also gave her a gift. Something powerful happens when we share our stories with one another, when we listen actively with patience and understanding. Like the bleeding woman, we experience intimacy, release, acceptance, trust, and ultimately healing.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you. Maya Angelou
I want to tell my story. Jemima’s words have echoed in my mind this week. How can we take a risk and share our stories with one another? How can we take the time this week to listen to the stories of those around us?
If you want to learn more about refugees and how to help, here are some ideas:
Give of your time & resources
There are several wonderful non-profits in Salt Lake City that need volunteers and financial help. If you aren’t in SLC, simply google search “refugees” and the city you live in. Here are a few you can connect with:
Come to the World Refugee Day at Liberty Park on Saturday, June 7, 8:30am-3:00pm!
Admission is totally free! There will be dancing and music as well as food & drinks available for purchase. I am running the 5k with Jemima at 8:30am. There is still time to sign up or just show up and run that morning! All of the proceeds from the 5k benefit youth refugees.
*United States. Department of Homeland Security. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2011. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012.