By Wayde Marsh, Duke Divinity School Intern
Storytelling is a central piece of community organizing because through it you offer your listener a way into your life in an organized format: a challenge you faced, a choice you made, and an outcome. And so, one by one, the diverse collection of people surrounding me offered up their stories:
“When I was 12, I was [abused] by nine soldiers in the street and left to die…”
“After my father was killed, we had to flee…”
“After we fled the civil war, we lived in a refugee camp for 25 years…”
“After my father was refused work here in America, I had to work to support my parents and my two siblings, and go to school…”
“My own people here in America rejected me, my own African family rejected me, and I had no where to go…”
“I am here, but my four children and wife, they are still waiting to come to America…”
“I was once beautiful, then they tied my hands together, and then tied them to my head and that is when they put the fire to me. I once was a beautiful lady, but now I am ugly…”
This event was a training, hosted by Church World Service’s Durham and DC offices at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham. It brought together leaders from various refugee communities in the Triangle. Present were refugees from Iraq, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Burma, Niger, Chad, and Eritrea. They had all been through the refugee experience themselves, albeit in very different ways: some as children, some as seniors, some as women, some were religious refugees, some were social or political refugees.
After they arrived, they enrolled in ESL classes, dedicated countless hours to learning our language, our culture, our road signs and laws. They survived in a political and social structure that offers few resources for newly arrived refugees, and endured and flourished even in hostile communities. They survived all this, and then they came together last Saturday morning to learn even more. They wanted to know how to better serve their communities, because this was what they sensed as their calling. In response to the refugee who explained her scars, explained that she was once a beautiful lady, but is now ugly, another participant responded: “You are still beautiful, but it is not your appearance that makes you beautiful, what makes you beautiful is how you use your voice to help people, in that measure, you are so very beautiful.”
I heard account after account of journeys to America out of slavery, war, ethnic conflict, environmental catastrophe, unimaginable violence and genocide, and starvation. I did not want to speak. I wanted to sit at the edge of the room and listen. I was only there to observe, not participate. It was not my place to speak. What could I say? What would I say was my story? What challenges have I faced in my 24 years as a white male in this country that could measure up to their incredible stories of resilience? Sure I was displaced as a child. My family lost our farm and had to move from place to place to place, trying to find stability and trying to find home, enduring severe economic instability. But, I spoke English, I grew up fully immersed in and a part of American culture, I did not have people looking for me, trying to silence me, I had not seen torture and death as close as many of this group had.
Despite all this, when it came time for me to share my story, they offered me the same grace, rapt attention, respect, and kind consideration as every other attendee. My story was of particular interest for many of them because I was an American citizen. This was something, for which many of these refugees had been working and hoping for decades, but it was something I just had.
Despite the trauma of their lives, despite the trouble they face trying to get and keep jobs, find transportation, provide for themselves and any family they have, these leaders’ primary goal was learning how to organize their communities to provide better services and opportunities for success for recent arrivals. “Refugees are always defined by our struggles,” said one of the leaders, “I became a citizen last year and I felt something at that ceremony. I felt like, like I could do anything…I get to vote for the first time in my life.” Others in the room who had become American citizens shared similar feelings of unconstrained joy upon becoming citizens. It was such a powerful and inspiring experience for them, that they felt a sense of urgency and necessity in helping others feel this, too. More simply, these leaders wanted to share hope.
Voting was the central topic of this leadership and organizing training. The session leaders pointed out that since 1975, 3 million refugees have been resettled in America, and that number does not include the children of refugees. While the ceiling of refugees admitted into the U.S. has been lowered in the past five years, it remains at 70,000. Many of these refugees will eventually gain citizenship after months or years of arduous study in order to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. That means that many of these new American citizens can vote, but many never will for a host of reasons. A fear of getting involved in politics because of their experience with political regimes in their native countries, confusion about candidates and lack of time or financial freedom to access information about candidates, or confusion over registration processes are just a few. This training enabled these leaders to educate their communities about registering to vote, provide information about candidates, and plan for early voting or organize transportation to polling stations.
While the day was full of challenging stories, the focus on voter registration and other initiatives that change the day-to-day lives of refugees in this country for the better was truly inspiring. All of these leaders truly were “beautiful,” as they committed their voices to empowering others in their communities through the electoral process. They planned to band together to form the Triangle Refugee Leadership Council, to share ideas and collaborate on events and organizing initiatives, and to live out “unity in diversity.”
In reflecting upon all the topics we discussed, a phrase spoken by one community leader stuck with me: “We are here in this country to hope, to hope for our people, for our communities, and for Americans already here, too.” From this phrase and the beautiful advocacy and action I witnessed, I realized that I should not feel guilty that I was born an American with privilege, rather I should feel guilty that I was born in America and have allowed my privilege to get in the way of my hope. We are all here to hope, for ourselves, for our communities, for this country and world, and for our God, despite our race, national origin, religion, or status.