Guest blogger Chelsea Travis, one of seven students in this summer’s Community Health Immersion, writes…
Living here in the Highlands Apartments, surrounded by a community of refugees and low-income neighbors, and being a part of an immersion-promoting program – I wonder are we truly immersed? Most would say yes, and I believe that would probably only be 60% right. In some ways, we are immersed. We are living in the same environment as the residents here which include: loud honking car noises at night, a “coins only” laundry mat, new and sometimes reckless drivers riding through the neighborhood, an always occupied soccer field, beautiful rose bushes, roaches, and very active ethnically diverse neighbors and children.
Neighbor children know that fun and attention await them just on the other side of the CHI students’ back door.
Although we live here, many of us have things that most of these refugees do not. These aren’t simply tangible material items like cars, laptops, smartphones, an installed washer and dryer, or nice business clothes – of which we so often take for granted – but it’s even more than that. It is intangibles like nearby family, education, the ability to speak English with an American accent, our western clothes, and an established, if not assumed, reputation.
Having family nearby, even if they are 600 miles away, is such a great asset especially when compared to family members of refugees who could be thousands of miles away. Since starting this program I have received 2 packages from close family and friends back home that have been so beneficial to me. I cannot imagine not being able to draw from that life line of support because my family is either still in my war-torn country or they are scattered in various places around the world.
We often take for granted our educational experience as well. In this country the expectation is that people, especially young adults, attend college and even some schooling beyond that. The refugees whom we come in contact with actually have an array of educational backgrounds. Some have learned in educational institutions, some were apprentices of their parents or grandparents, and some have simply learned from the school of life.
Overall, it is interesting how education affects a person’s ability to adapt to new situations. It seems that individuals who have been challenged academically or have been conditioned to exercise their intellectual skills (even if only up to the high school level) are more able to adapt and learn new languages and systems. We don’t realize how valuable our education is. If we understood that not everyone in the world is afforded the opportunity to obtain even a high school education, we would not complain and be lazy about classwork, reading assignments, papers, or skill-granting liberal arts classes because we think we “don’t need” that coursework. Foolishness.
Chelsea Travis, a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina’s pre-medical program, poses with refugee children in the neighborhood.
Also the fact that we speak English fluently and with clear American accents and wear Western (American) clothing makes us less immersed when compared to the realities of our neighbors. Just the very fact that we possess these attributes causes us to obtain more respect, trust, or even assumed positive reputations. Without anyone really knowing us we probably could receive a loan, purchase a car, or get better job opportunities than our immigrant and refugee neighbors of comparable abilities. This is in part because when people do not adequately speak the dominant language of a society that person’s intellectual abilities are often assumed to be low. These judgments are too often made without even knowing the past professions and careers many of these refugees held in their former home countries – I’ve met former doctors, professors, and innovators.
One thing many of these refugees do have that I wish I could be further immersed in is their drive to survive and to thrive. They are so strong, enduring, humble, and passionate people. They want a better life for themselves, for their families, and for their home countries. I attended an English class being taught by and for Burmese people who wanted to take their U.S. citizenship exam. There were several young women present at this class – one had a baby tied on her back, another nursing a baby in her lap, and two with babies on the couch, and one child playing outside – and they were still so engaged in the class, flipping through their notes and answering questions. I was so inspired! They wanted this English lesson so badly they were not going to let anything distract them. Glory to God what a poignant lesson for my own life!
With everything that a refugee has endured throughout their lives including: wars, persecution, discrimination, and genocide, we will never be truly immersed enough to understand life in their shoes.