Wood Houses

Themba Lewis

Scholars and policymakers rarely examine the liminal spaces at the fringes of the refugee discourse, or those ill-defined transitional zones between the three ‘stages’ of displacement, linearly defined for institutional convenience as flight, exile, and ‘durable solution’. Those researchers that do find their task challenging and their audience limited. Very little data exists on ‘failed’ asylum seekers after deportation for example, or self-settled refugees that forgo affiliation with humanitarian assistance organizations, or refugees that survive on border crossings, often and ‘irregularly’ passing back and forth as a survival strategy to avoid dangers that do not so clearly adhere to geopolitical boundaries.

What about those refugees that voluntarily eschew the confines of camps, the depravity of their dignity, and the worthlessness that comes with unending structural dependence, and instead go underground or return ‘home’, prepared instead to face the consequences or die? Very little is written of them, or life in a twenty-year-long resettlement queue. That queue is not so long for the politically attractive or nationally indebted, of course. Many are Iraqis, for example, so recently resettled to the United States in large numbers. But even these have begun to return to the Middle East, defeated by the social and financial humiliation of menial labor and Islamophobia that awaits them in the remote towns to which they are sent. These populations do not receive the spotlight. These are the realms of our failure, and they undermine our own humanitarian righteousness. For that reason, these are the areas towards which we need to guide our eyes. What acuity can we expect without the context of ‘peripheral’ vision? Perhaps ignorance is institutional bliss.

I have walked through the blood-soaked streets after states respond with lethal force to refugees that rise up against the abuses they suffer in exile, and I have maneuvered the Kafkaesque spectacle of ‘justice’ in the international asylum adjudication process. I have tended to refugees who have set themselves on fire to escape the horrors of unlimited detention on Europe’s ‘frontier’. More recently, I have watched refugees in the world’s largest refugee camp cling to their chain-link cage, waiting for hours – sometimes days – for the opportunity just to be noticed by a resettlement representative.

Only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees will ever see a resettlement screening interview, let alone be considered for the process. Of those that are, just over half – if that many – will be approved for resettlement. Of those approved for resettlement, many will fail the rigorous and impossibly staggered requirements for final travel approval, caught in a perpetual cycle of fingerprinting, security checks, medical approval, and bureaucracy, the first expiring before the last can be completed. Those that succeed in passing the various stages are offered, by some resettlement countries, the opportunity to attend ‘cultural orientation’ classes aimed at preparing them for the challenges faced by refugees resettled in the West.

The following is a first hand account of a cultural orientation session in March of this year, offered for a group of Oromo refugees due to be resettled to the United States from Kenya.

March 5th, Nairobi.

We sat in a dark room in silence. I was here as an observer, and a novelty. It is rare that Americans attend cultural orientation courses for refugees traveling to the United States. Access is restricted, and despite a policy that allows only for the hire of US Citizens in resettlement interviews, an opposite policy applies to cultural orientation courses. In sub-Saharan Africa, these can only be taught by Kenyans, many of whom have limited – if any – experience living in the United States.

At the front of the room was an assembly of maps, a white board, a television, and a desk, behind which sat the instructor, writing intently without offering any indication that he was aware of his audience. I looked around the room, Posters were curling and peeling from the walls: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington. Everything was labeled in multiple languages, including the photographs of objects to be encountered during the resettlement process or once in the United States. These included pictures of police cars and fire trucks, the inside of an airline toilet, and an IOM bag, laminated and tacked to the wall. The Pledge of Allegiance was posted along the far wall in Comic Sans font, each letter a different primary color. Above it was a clock that read 9am, our start time. ‘PUNCTUALITY’ was written over the entrance. We waited while the instructor tended to his business, yet to address his audience.

45 minutes passed. I pondered a set of three airline seats balanced against a near wall. Each seat was clearly labeled: A, B, C. I though back to a charter flight I had recently taken to Nairobi from Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp – with a number of Somali refugees who had been approved for resettlement. They sat in the back rows of small plane in silence, wearing heavy coats in the heat and carrying everything they owned on their first flight. They spoke out only when they could not understand how to unfasten their seatbelts, panicked they would be trapped as all the others left.

The instructor finally rose. ‘These are your name tags’, he announced, before calling out names. He had spent these 45 minutes just writing names down on tags while everyone waited. The majority of the refugees placed them in their laps, unable to read them and unaware that they could be pinned to clothing. ‘You are supposed to read these workbooks’, the instructor then instructed, casually acknowledging that the handbooks were only in English and Amharic, and his audience was Oromo. I wondered how many were illiterate, let alone how many could read in a second language. There weren’t enough handbooks to go around. I hadn’t noticed an interpreter who had been sitting quietly in the front corner of the room. He rose and began echoing the instructors thick Kenyan English in Oromo.

‘We will now have a short skit about refugees in the United States’, he interpreted. ‘We need two volunteers’. An outgoing young man and woman rose and walked to the front of the room. Each was handed a piece of paper. ‘You will be refugee number one’, the instructor told the man, ‘and you will be refugee number two’. They read the script dryly, with the awkwardly placed pauses natural to readers of a language foreign to their own. It was an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the audience that they had been educated. ‘I have learned English and I have a job now’, refugee number two boasted, ‘I have not learned English and I do not like it here,’ refugee number one replied, ‘I do not have a job and I do not have any money. Life was better for me before. I want to go back to Dadaab’.

‘You need to learn English and take any job that you are offered’, the instructor said, ‘or you will be like refugee number one. You don’t want to go back to Dadaab, do you?’ If the audience was offended by the insensitivity of the question, they did not let it show, continuing to sit in silence. ‘In America both parents work,’ he continued, ‘and the work may not be what you like to do or the hours that you like to work, but you will need to do it to pay back your tickets to America. You are required to pay back the tickets for you and your children. How many children do you have? How will you pay for each of them?’

The instructor shifted focus. ‘What do you know about the USA?’ One by one hands went up and the answers came, some in English, some through the interpreter: Both husband and wife have to have jobs, and nobody stays home with the children; Some places it’s hot, some places it’s cold; it’s a different continent than Africa; There is democracy; In contrast to Africa, it is a peaceful country, for everybody; In America the president is changed every five years, in Africa presidents are for 30 or 40 years; There are job opportunities. ‘Good!’ he replied, ‘these are all true!’

The refugees spoke among themselves in Oromo. Something had dismayed a man in the corner. He raised his hand. ‘If both parents are working,’ he asked, ‘who will take care of the children?’ They work in shifts, the instructor explained, so that when one is at home the other works. The man looked puzzled. ‘How will reproduction take place, if there is no interaction?’ The question was genuine and another refugee raised his hand to answer. ‘For reproduction,’ he explained, ‘I suppose it will not take much time. Even one hour will suffice.’

We continued to sit as the instructor lectured on the origins of the American flag, George Washington, independence from the British, and winter. ‘You will need to wear very heavy clothing at all times’ he said, ‘even when you are in your house you should have coats on – otherwise how will you pay for your heating?’ He showed a photograph diagram of layering clothing, with arrows from t-shirt to button-up, to sweater, to scarf, to coat, to winter jacket. ‘But don’t worry,’ he continued, ‘winter is only about one or two months long.’ I thought about the winters in my hometown that don’t relent for months on end, and that one of the largest resettlement destinations is Minnesota. Questions began to come more quickly from the refugees now; Do the thirteen colonies still exist? Are the borders from the British still there? If I don’t get a job, what will I eat?

And after the questions came the fears: I think when I go there I will meet challenges that will hinder me in making a new life – I have high expectations; I have children, and I am afraid to punish them there; My age is old, and I fear I will reach the maximum age allowed to work and I will not be able to have a job; I fear that in the US you are very busy and I will lose my time to pray. I will lose my praying time.

And the expectations: To get a better education; To improve my knowledge; To have a better life; To rebuild my life; To tell the truth, frankly, in Africa we are living a life of misery, and in America we can get a job and a better life; In Africa I am illiterate, but in America my children have the opportunity for a better life; To contribute to US development; To work hard for life to be better; I expect that in America there is equality between human beings, and respect for human rights. The last point caught the instructor’s attention. ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, ‘you will be pleased to know that in the US there is no discrimination!’ I sighed. ‘And another thing you should know about America’ he continued, ‘when you are there, you cannot wash your floors with water like you do here. The water will just spill into the house below yours. This is because in America all of the houses are made of wood.’


[Postscript note: To put refugee resettlement into perspective, consider that the United States conducts the most rigorous resettlement operation in the world, resettling more refugees than any other country. Then consider that the 2012 target goal for resettled individuals from all of sub-Saharan Africa was less than 9,000 people (if refugees have families on average of three per applicant, that means a total of about 3,000 refugees being considered in total). Now consider that Dadaab, one of two refugee camps in Kenya alone, hosts nearly 500,000 people, all technically eligible for resettlement under United Nations guidelines. Now consider that all the refugee camps combined hold a minority of the world’s refugees. Add to this number the refugees throughout Uganda, DRC, South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Chad, Cameroon, Ghana, Sudan, Tanzania, and elsewhere. 9,000 people is a miniscule number.]

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