On the Fourth of July, Welcoming New Americans

Kristin Wright | Open Doors USA | Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On the Fourth of July, Welcoming New Americans

I’m standing at the Indianapolis International Airport on a warm summer day. Sunshine filters through the skylights and people walk quickly to and from the terminals. In the midst of the busy afternoon, I watch as the family I’m there to greet walks off the plane.

Today I’m welcoming a new refugee family to Indianapolis.

They are all smiles in spite of the long journey, and I check their paperwork while we gather luggage off of the carousel. The single mother and three daughters look beautiful in their colorful traditional Somali dress. The youngest son has been practicing his English for years in anticipation of this day, and he never leaves my side.

“Do I sound OK?” he keeps asking. “Can you understand me?” I smile and tell him he’s doing great.

In the car, he tells me he can’t wait to go to school. “But I have to get a job first,” he says, “to provide for my family.”

That afternoon we sit around a long table at a small Somali restaurant on the city’s west side. I try goat for the first time – not my favorite, incidentally – and we laugh as I test out a few Somali phrases.

When lunch is over, I drive the family to their new apartment, furnished with donated couches, tables, and chairs. At the refugee agency where I work, a housing team sets up apartments for newly arriving families and stocks the cupboards and refrigerator with culturally appropriate food. A lot of times volunteers help with the set-up process.

Once we arrive, I conduct a simple orientation at the home. Coming from a refugee camp in Ethiopia, none of the family members are familiar with using a stove, taking a hot shower, adjusting the thermostat, even flushing the toilet. Everything is new.

I’m instantly struck by their excitement over their new home, their interest in learning every little detail of what they need to do next. I can’t even imagine the information overload they must be experiencing.

When I leave that evening, everyone is collapsed on couches and chairs, exhausted from their long journey. “Goodbye!” the young son calls out after me. Walking down the steps of the apartment, I think of how blessed I am to have such courageous people in my life.

It’s not easy to be a refugee. Starting life over again in a new country can be one of the most difficult experiences a human being can endure. Yet each year refugees around the world make this courageous journey.

The Fourth of July is a great time to remember the unique contributions of new Americans in our midst. Each year the United States welcomes roughly 80,000 refugees from around the world. These refugees come from conflict zones in Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and the DR Congo, among many other countries.

In many cases refugees flee persecution because of their faith. One Pakistani couple I recently met came to the United States after their lives were threatened for converting to Christianity. It is not an easy journey.

Moving past a traumatic past and into an uncertain future can be incredibly difficult.

That’s why refugees in our communities need all the support they can get. This Fourth of July, let’s make sure our newest neighbors feel welcome in our homes, communities and lives.

Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights issues. She serves as director of development at Exodus Refugee Immigration.Kristin has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She recently returned from Turkey and the Syrian border, where she covered the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Photo courtesy Katie Basbagill

Publication date: July 3, 2013