Imagine arriving in an unfamiliar country with nothing besides a few suitcases and the uncertainty of what was to come. How would you feel if everyone around you spoke a different language? What would you do if you had to leave your friends and community behind?
Earlier this month, I witnessed a family experience the complicated process of arriving in the U.S. as refugees. Originally from Eritrea, the family arrived at the airport in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with less than a dozen suitcases for their entire six-person family, and I couldn’t help but wonder what belongings they were forced to leave behind during their journey.
The airport was empty outside of several members of the CWS Lancaster team, including the family’s case manager, a translator and a Welcome Team made up of community volunteers. Everyone at the airport that day was there to welcome the newly arriving family to their home in Lancaster.
We drove together to the Airbnb, which would serve as the family’s temporary housing while they settled into their new community, and I watched as the translator showed the family their recently stocked pantry filled with food donated by their Welcome Team. Throughout the trip, the translator kept looking at his watch, mentioning other appointments he had later in the day, but he did not leave. He stood and answered their questions, spoke with the CWS team and never rushed them. Because, having been resettled by CWS nearly a decade earlier, he understood the confusing and emotional process of beginning a new life in a new country.
I took in the large room, filled with several beds, a kitchen, television set and even a pool and foosball table, and felt relief that they would all be together, each night, in the same shared space. As the parents familiarized themselves with the new apartment, two of their youngest children slipped away and ran to the pool table. The youngest son giggled, making faces behind his big brother’s back, who was solely focused on pulling the pool stick away from his younger sibling’s hands. They played together for nearly the full hour we stood in their new home, more interested in poking fun at one another—and at showing off in front of their new friends—than surveying the unfamiliar surroundings.
This moment stuck with me more than any other from the day. As a younger sibling myself, I couldn’t help but remember all the times I tried to compete against my older sister, who (as she still likes to remind me) is older and therefore in charge. Though we spoke different languages and lived different experiences, the laughter between two siblings is universal and one I know well.
The word ‘refugee’ is mentioned at length by politicians and on the news, but when you break past the word or the politics, you’re left with a simple image of two brothers who would rather celebrate being together in the U.S. than being separated across countries.
Refugees are ordinary people; they are our brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors. They run our favorite burger restaurant (which, in the case of Route 66, is true!) and look forward to voting in their first U.S. election. They make incredible sacrifices for the sake of their family and bring culture, customs and perspective to our communities.
What does it mean to be an American? I can’t help but think of the Welcome Team, ready to lend a hand to support their neighbors as they get used to new lives in America. I also think of the parents, who left behind their homes to keep their family safe. Being American means something different to everyone, but there would be no America without families and communities coming together to welcome the newcomer. Our nation was built by the stories of refugees and immigrants, and we must continue to support this legacy in order to watch our country thrive.
Giana Pella is the Social Media Manager at CWS