Growing up in South Dakota, I wasn’t exactly exposed to a large ethnically diverse world. Yet, as an adult I found my place inside a refugee resettlement agency. I don’t think I was supposed to work out. My older white male boss most likely hired me to run the satellite office because he assumed I would be easy to control (he didn’t know me very well).
I had been told to expect difficult ‘clients’, but that I needed to establish authority. I was told that gaining any respect would be difficult if not impossible for me as I was an unwed pregnant white woman. It was 2008 and the economy had just crashed. Refugees were arriving in large numbers, but there were few jobs for them. Businesses were not hiring and if they did hire, they wanted Americans. That year, each refugee received a one-time stipend of $425 of which it was our job to get them an apartment, pay utilities, buy furniture, bus passes, food and essential clothing for them until they could find employment. I was warned not to meet with angry refugees as it would be a waste of my time as the Director to talk with clients. I was told that Iraqi refugees were particularly difficult. I was told that Iraqi men would never show me any kind of respect as it was against their culture and religion.
I didn’t listen. Not long after I started working there, I did agree to meet with an Iraqi man about his request for rent money. I knew we didn’t have any emergency money to give him, but I agreed to his request for a meeting. After I explained the limitations, he thanked me for the meeting. He then said something to me that taught me a valuable lesson. He said that he needed money, but what he wanted more was to be respected as a human. That being shown respect has a fellow human being was more valuable than money. He then thanked me and calmly left. He taught me that day about civility and the importance of showing respect to others.
Over the next five years of my life, I would meet one absolutely amazing person after another. Refugees from Bhutan, Somalia, DR Congo, Iraqi, Burundi, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and more that would enhance my life, broaden my perspective and touch my heart. My story is about acceptance. Unlike the warning I had been told, unlike the fears others had tried to instill to me I was accepted and we figured out ways together to get things done. We became a family, our office of refugees and non-refugees. I became a daughter of a Bosnian, a sister of a Congolese, a god-mother of a Somali, a friend to an Iraqi. I am blessed because I have had these people in my life. So my story is not one of suffering, but one of joy. A story of friendship and love.
By Nicolle Trudeau