There is a quote credited to an Indigenous Australian Artist that reads, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” These words perfectly illustrate the journey I have been on throughout the past few years; a journey of learning about lived experiences of humans all across the globe and how my life and theirs are, and have always been, intertwined.
A few years ago, while I was studying sociology at Michigan State University, I visited a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece during a summer semester abroad. While there, I assisted with a children’s program and met young parents who had fled disaster and were uncertain about what their futures held. I met one couple in particular whose faces I will never forget. They were members of a religious minority known as the Yazidi who had fled Iraq. The young man described to me how his neighbors had been tortured by ISIS, and how his wife had attempted suicide. They decided to leave home and hiked for days through desert mountains, with fear of starvation, in order to come to Greece and eventually make their way to Germany where they heard there might be opportunity for jobs and safety. He asked me to tell people in the United States about his story.
It was when I met this couple that I realized how small my worldview had been. As an American, it was easy to isolate myself from the rest of the world and not be concerned with global issues. Most of the news I consumed was about American politics and inequality within my own country. Suddenly my small view of the world was shattered open. The refugee crises I had heard about now had human faces attached. I thought of those little children having to flee their homes due to conflict that my own country was largely involved in. I resolved to be a better, more informed global citizen.
After graduating, I took a position at a Michigan Refugee Resettlement agency as an AmeriCorps volunteer. I have since worked in a few different positions at this agency, as a cultural education coordinator and as a refugee resettlement case manager. Broadly put, my work was dedicated to walking alongside refugees who come to the United States as they navigate a new culture. I taught people how to open a bank account, how to budget and pay rent, and about important US laws they needed to be aware of. I helped people with intense physical and mental health needs navigate our very complex health care system. I helped reunite wives with husbands and children with parents. I advocated to my community at large to come together to meet the needs of these people who I believed we were honored to welcome. Everyone I worked with had been through trauma I couldn’t imagine.
One particular project I was grateful to be a part of was a social program for senior refugees. Older refugees in West Michigan often faced significant barriers due to their limited mobility and education. Many of the seniors I worked with, specifically those from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were not able to learn English quickly because many had never gone to school and were not literate even in their own language. They often were not comfortable riding the bus, and their younger family members were away at work during the day so they were lonely. In response to this, I partnered with another local agency to put on quarterly fun and educational events for these seniors. We played games, ate Congolese food, and provided educational trainings on topics like preventative health care and how to apply for citizenship.
This program addressed just a few of many hurdles that the refugee community was facing. I often had to work closely with DHHS to help my clients receive Medicaid and Food benefits so that they could develop self-sufficiency. I quickly realized that the systems designed to help people out of poverty are often not easy to navigate for the people they are supposed to work for. If you don’t speak or read English, have access to internet and a computer, have a traditional family structure, or have a certain type of cultural knowledge, these systems do not serve you.
After witnessing roadblocks such as this and being inspired by my coworkers who tirelessly advocate for their clients, I have decided to pursue a Master’s degree in social work. My social work coworkers taught me to push back against systems that do not work for everyone. Social workers fight against the status quo of inequality to fight for equity for all. They amplify voices of those who are too often not heard. As a social worker, I will use my position to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table and that those who need care will receive it.
I am attending the MSW program at the University of Michigan this Fall with a concentration in Community Change. I believe that the United States is a place where all should be welcome. By studying social work, I will learn how to analyze policy and advocate for the rights of refugee and immigrant communities. I will gain community organizing and leadership skills in order to bring people together to better welcome newcomers into our communities and make sure their needs are met. I believe that every human deserves a life that gives them fulfillment, and I think often about how we are all intertwined with each other. I plan to dedicate my work to ensuring everyone has access to the resources they need to create a life that will give them meaning.