When you work with people who are resettling in a new country, like I do, it’s easy to fall into an unwanted power dynamic where you think you’re providing while the other person is only receiving. The dynamic you want to have — that is accurate — is that you and the other person are pulling alongside one another to get to the same goal.
At Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Migration and Refugee Services, we come alongside those resettling in Louisville every day, working with them to secure housing, enroll children in school, learn the language, adapt to the culture and find employment. Families who migrate to Louisville typically are self-sufficient within 90 days of arriving. Believe me, they are working every bit as diligently as we are, alongside us, to meet that goal.
Last year that idea came alive for me anew when we partnered with Habitat for Humanity on a Love Your Neighborhood project in Portland. We invited members of the refugee community to team up with other volunteers to improve properties there.
I was supposed to meet a group from the Sudanese community at a park on a Saturday morning and then go together to the worksite. But they never showed up. I was frustrated as I left and headed to the property. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and found the Sudanese volunteers already there. They had worked the third-shift overnight and, realizing they would be late, went directly to the worksite.
One member of the group, Zarah, had had an especially difficult time when she migrated to America. The Sudanese community was relatively new when she arrived so she experienced more isolation than she would if she were arriving now. She was coming from a war zone and carried some trauma and health issues with her. She had always been told that America was a land of milk and honey, so it was difficult for her to accept that she had to learn the language and start working to provide for herself so quickly, and it took her longer than most to do so. She was stubborn.
At the worksite I saw Zarah cleaning out a fence row and I joined her. We were pulling down vines and trimming back branches when we came to a firmly rooted Mulberry tree. I was on one side and she was on the other and after wrestling with that tree I said, “We trimmed it back, I’m sure it’s fine.” But Zarah said, “No, no, no,” and she went after it with fierceness. So, we sawed, chopped, pulled and pushed until we got that tree out.
And it dawned on me that I mistakenly assessed Zarah’s troubles when she arrived: I mistook her tenacity and fierceness as stubbornness. When she thought we should help her more and ask of her less, she was committed to that. And the reason she overcame her troubles was the same: she was strong, tenacious and fierce. And, on that Saturday, she and I worked alongside each other, speaking the same language, laughing, sweating and ultimately triumphing.
Colin Triplett is the director of Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Migration and Refugee Services.