Migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.” – Pope Francis, World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2014
It was raining the day Abdullah shared his story with me. That day, I was at the local library attending a mentoring activity I helped organize for a local refugee resettlement agency. I remember wondering how he was going to get home in such inclement weather.
As we packed up to leave, it began pouring and suddenly turned very cold. I asked him if he had a ride home, and he assured me he would walk. After some arguing, he finally relented and allowed me to drive the five blocks to his house.
What should have lasted a minute ended up taking four hours as he told his harrowing story about fleeing his former life in northern Iraq.
Abdullah was a Christian living in a Muslim-majority country, and he and his family had been targeted by numerous Muslim extremist groups for months. He and his family had received death threats at home, work and school, he said, so he made the hard decision to leave.
He took a taxi to the airport and flew to Turkey, where he lived alone for about a year. There, he applied for refugee status as he struggled to find work. He arrived in Louisville without knowing anyone. His family was still back in Iraq, and he was very worried that something bad would happen to them.
As he told his story, he went back and forth through different time periods and emotions, and took long pauses while he thought about how to continue. I could tell he was reliving his journey for the first time since arriving in Louisville.
After he finished, he seemed drained but also lighter, like a weight had been lifted. He apologized for keeping me so long and said, “I haven’t told anyone my story yet, so I just needed to get it out”.
That day changed my life forever.
I had been working with refugees for several months, but I had never heard anyone’s story in such detail. I realized that everyone I met in those months prior had similar stories, and yet here they were, acting completely “normal.”
I couldn’t believe that humans could suffer through such trauma and still find jobs, laugh at jokes and take showers every day. As I’ve gone through my career working with refugees and immigrants, I am still in awe of what they manage to accomplish after living through hell.
I currently work as the parish engagement and community outreach coordinator for Catholic Charities of Louisville. My job is to connect the faith and secular communities to the work we are doing at Catholic Charities, especially within out largest department, Migration and Refugee Services.
Shelley Dewig can be reached at Catholic Charities at 637-9786 ext. 116.