Finding Home Away from Home for Refugees

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On a Saturday afternoon I met my dear friend Ellie Alter at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, where she would be facilitating a support group for displaced refugees. Alter works as the Program Manager at Refugee and Immigrant Fund (RIF), an NGO dedicated to providing critical care and support for asylum seeking newcomers who entreat much needed protection.

Those in attendance hailed from all over the world; Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nairobi, Nigeria, Iran and Burkina Faso, to name a few. Most have experienced extreme trauma, and now find themselves physically and emotionally displaced. In an attempt to provide the resources and guidance that these people desperately need to successfully navigate their new status, RIF steps in with key services.

In a sunlit room–filled with people of all ages, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds–we came together to form a placeless community. Some brought food for attendees to take away with them; others merely brought themselves and their stories. We went around in a circle, each sharing a small insight into who we are. Where did we come from? How long had we been in New York? What were some of the challenges we faced here?

In different languages we expressed ourselves. A few people revealed deeply personal details, others only small tidbits. More than one individual remarked on how wonderful it was to be among family, to be in a room that felt like a home.

The refugee cases that RIF works with vary, though a majority of 60 percent are located in the U.S. due to political and religious persecution in their countries of origin. Twenty percent flee because of their sexual orientation, and another 20 percent due to gender-based violence. The root of their commonality is a longing to settle in, to find a way towards leading a functioning life after their extraordinary hardships.

A few days before attending the support group, I received a text message from Alter. It was a screenshot of a correspondence she had exchanged with one of her clients, a man named Moussa*. An excerpt from Moussa’s message read, “I’m trying to be strong but it’s serious, the only things I want it’s to see my son that I never saw yet since he’s birth, that’s make me depressed.”

Alter told me that she could hardly keep herself upright, that she was tearing up. She fields this kind of intense interaction periodically–but that doesn’t make it any less heart-wrenching. Her daily work brings her face to face with those whose realities are almost incomprehensible to many of us.

Moussa was forced to flee his home in Guinea after his activism against corruption and excessive military power led to a ferocious persecution. Many of his family members were tracked down and arrested, including his wife who was pregnant at time; she gave birth once Moussa had already left the country. He still hasn’t been able to meet his son.

After arriving in the U.S., his mother was denied adequate care in a hospital due to her perceived guilt by association. Without medical intervention, she died.

Somehow, though, Moussa manages to stay overwhelmingly positive. Alter says that he smiles more on his worst days than she does on her best.

Alter remarks, “A lot of people are incredibly persevering. Despite the turbulence and the instability, they really are able to push through…but they need to just be validated that the way they’re dealing with their situation is normal.”

That crucial aid and corroboration is largely the function of RIF’s monthly support group: to provide a positive environment within which people can express themselves and reflect on their struggles without judgement.

RIF was founded in 2006 in response to a void that Executive Director Maria Blacque-Belair sensed growing in NYC. She felt that there was no accessible entry point for the people who had just arrived a week or a month earlier. They were disoriented, vulnerable, culture-shocked and unsure of their next steps. Blacque-Belair set up an organization to bridge the gap between when people arrive and when they are granted asylum, work authorization, and permanent residency–a process which for many can take a year, or more.

“RIF’s purpose is to be that first front, to be that first welcome point where we can really provide a roadmap for what’s to come in the process,” notes Alter.

Similarly, the support group format itself was born from the realization that, as Alter says “When you don’t make space for it [talking about psychiatric effects of trauma], it comes spilling out anyways.”

The groups began as practical workshops for specific technical trainings; job readiness, resume clinics, etc. It soon became clear that creating a less formal space for people to simply share their experiences was just as essential for the process of healing as providing directly applicable skill-sets.

“We believe that concrete and psychological interventions are inextricable. Really, both need to be happening at the same time,” Alter explains. In these instances, one without the other is effectively moot.

RIF still offers these formal trainings, in conjunction with one-on-one individual orientations. They also foster an incredible Urban Farm Recovery Project, where refugees and asylum seekers work side by side with farmers at the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm. The program provides them with a much needed stipend, as well as an atmosphere within which they can process the events that have landed them in such new and uncertain territory.

The mechanical, physical, monotonous, and often repetitive work of farming provides a headspace for processing the life-changing circumstances they’ve recently experienced.

“Every time I talk about this project its difficult to avoid clichés, but the people are really blossoming as the farm is blossoming,” Alter muses, “This kind of magical thing happens where at some point, people just open up.”

At the end of Saturday’s support group, Shahid Khan rose to make an announcement. A refugee from Pakistan, Khan endured a long journey and years of hard work to become a prominent community leader in Brooklyn. He held in his hand a Citation from the office of the President of the Borough of Brooklyn. The accolade had been issued to RIF, recognizing them for their prodigious and continued work.

Khan handed it to Blacque-Belair, announcing to the group the honor that it signified. The two of them embraced, then insisted that the others join them for a group photo. The participants, many of whom were strangers when they entered the room just a couple of hours before, squeezed together–framing a portrait of positive progress in the making.

*Name has been changed for security reasons.

All photos courtesy of Anne Saint-Pierre.