American Barriers

-Lissy Velez

Last Monday, I started my internship with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). I woke up that morning with no expectations, my mind caught up with city driving and “business casual” outfits. In reality, I had very little knowledge of what I was actually going to be doing at the IRC office. Already overwhelmed with the realities of Southwest Baltimore, I prayed to God that this experience would give a more positive and hopeful outlook on the city. More than anything, I prayed for knowledge and learning experiences. I wanted to see the difficult parts of serving and loving people when they did not make it easy for you to love them, and I wanted to learn of the realities that being a refugee entitled, and the obstacles presented by this title.

My first day consisted on taking in a lot of information about what refugees are, how they can be classified as such, the lengthy and thorough process of resettlement into the U.S, and the different programs they are enrolled in upon arrival (employment, case management, brief grants and social assistance to get them started, among others), not to mention office related details.

Refugees are people who were forced to flee their country due to war or persecution, but through daily interactions, some of which are not always pleasant, who they are can actually be easily forgotten. My first day, I also got to watch about ten Syrian children that had just arrived. They were happy, loud, giggly and wild, but as I was having a conversation with my supervisor, she explained how when they heard city helicopters as well as ambulances and fire trucks, they would freak out with fear.

This week, as I navigated interactions with refugees as well as residents of Southwest Baltimore, one of the most important things that God has shown me is to see people and realize that they are more than they might appear. Happy children can be severely traumatized and screaming, seemingly ungrateful clients are confused and frustrated.

Some of the most interesting, unexpected and impactful experiences at the IRC this week have been seeing the barriers that refugees can encounter from everything that came before to their experiences arriving in the U.S. This week we made several visits to families who lacked the resources for basic needs such as furniture, household appliances and clothes. We talked with several refugees who lacked job experience, education and English, yet needed to get a job as soon as possible in order to be able to pay their bills. Others had extensive experience and education, yet they had to settle for hotel jobs and less, because their credentials do not count in the U.S. We needed to buy shoes for a client who needed them in order to work, but did not have the money himself, and a woman who wanted to learn English and later work, but she had small children and nobody to watch them. She was lonely, as she did not know anyone in her community.

We heard complaints about jobs that paid little for hard work, but they are the only ones who accepted zero English proficiency. We also brought a woman to tears when we told her that without working the state would take away her cash assistance, but she could not work because she needed to take care of her sick mother. A young man wanted to pursue an education, but their situation demands that they put work first, putting off their studies.

Not all are sad stories. I got to witness successes as well as difficulties that were not due to systemic barriers but personal biases, entitlement and simple confusion. Overall, I have tried to keep an open heart and mind for every situation and every person, as we were all made in God’s image and are loved by him equally.  

-Lissy Velez

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