to volunteers, social workers, legal professionals, case workers, and any & all folks whose career it is to advocate for asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors, refugees, and migrants coming to the US:
You deserve more than the resources given to you to do the impossible.
I worked for what seemed like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, was not a long time, in refugee services. In my young adult life, refugee resettlement and non-profit work is the only “real” professional expertise I hold. I speak from my own experience and this perspective may not be shared by all in the refugee/migrant/asylum seeker services space.
In my time working for a Southern California-based non-profit (founded and run by refugee womxn), I thought being a martyr was being a good employee and a good person. I thought that because I myself was never a refugee and my family were never refugees (although fleeing political persecution, separating from family members, and seeking economic security is still traumatic af), I had to sacrifice more and somehow prove that my being present in the workplace was worthwhile. I spent nearly every moment thinking about if I was doing work that would be perceived as (or was in actuality) taking advantage of refugees and asylum seekers. I was ashamed of my Western upbringing and comparative lack of hardship because of being born and raised in the United States. I felt guilty for being a beneficiary of wars and political conflict that destroyed the lives of the very people I was now charged with assisting. I found it, and still find it, incredibly unfair that the very randomness of the country and family you are born into will dictate so much of your life.
The guilt was overwhelming. That guilt translated to self-deprecation and a lack of self-worth. I worked hours on end to prove that my being so young and in charge of so much was not a mistake. If you have never felt out of place or unworthy of your accomplishments, I suggest you teach English and Job Training Workshops as a 21 year-old to people your parents’ age who were doctors, teachers, nurses, and legit professionals in their home countries. I will never forget the look on one of my ESL student’s face when he asked me how old I was and he told me he used to be a nurse in Afghanistan, but struggled in California to find any kind of job in the medical field. It absolutely crushed me.
And so, I did everything I could to try and be of service to the detriment of my own mental and physical health. It just seemed like that’s what needed to be done.
It is hard to explain the kinds of emotional and physical labor to people who have never worked with a refugee. My parents thought I was sacrificing too much. My friends didn’t understand why I would work such long hours and also volunteer on my days off. They told me to take breaks, to stop caring so much.
The thing is, when you’re immersed in the world of refugee issues, it seems like everything you do is too little, too late. And so, you work double-time. You sacrifice more and more of yourself: of your time, of your energy, and what little emotional capacity you might have left.
And still, it feels like what you’re doing is not enough–is never enough. The hours I put in wasn’t just to help someone learn English or teach soccer or whatever activity I was tasked with that day. I thought that it was my duty to take the pain and suffering of families and feel it all for them so that they never have to. I thought that taking on the burden was doing the work, but that is only part and parcel.
In my experience, the refugees and migrants I know never wanted me to take on their burden. They wanted to be heard and listened to, to feel like their anguish was not being consumed for some sort of satanic pleasure, to know that their lives meant more than the little social services they were being provided with.
For those on the frontlines, for the ones who do everything in their power to reunite migrant families and give them some sort of happy ending, there are no words that can explain the kind of work you do. The work you are doing now is nothing like what I had to do. But, I know what it’s like to drown out despair with cheap wine and carbs, to spend seemingly useless hours on government case files while wishing you had more time to spend more moments with program participants, to have a barely livable salary and still donate your extra $$ and time to the refugees and immigrants you meet.
I know it that it must feel like that is necessary. And still, I need you to know that it is also necessary for you to be at your best. There is no one else in this country that can do what you do. We each have our own unique set of strengths that are necessary for us to give these families some kind of justice. It sounds silly, but I know you skip meals, forego bathroom breaks, and spend all of your free time worrying & figuring out contingency plans.
When I worked the longest days and ate the least, I was at my very worst. I did the least amount for the folks I cared about. I thought I was being helpful. Instead, I became resentful and angry with the system, with the people around me, and with myself. I couldn’t stand up for my needs or for the refugees who depended on me to advocate for their rights.
For those protesting, trying to visit families in detention, spending time calling their representatives, and more, I know that you might not be thanked in the way you deserve. I am here to say that I am grateful to you. As a product of immigrant families, as a former refugee services worker, as someone whose friends are victims of war and persecution, I am grateful to you.
At the other end of the spectrum, I know that sometimes, you are thanked too much and feel guilty for even getting praise.
Take the praise, and let it keep motivating you. We need you now more than ever. When I was given thanks by refugee families and individuals, by my boss, by government officials, I felt happy, then was immediately hit in the gut with a gnawing feeling of unworthiness. I felt completely inadequate because I thought there was always more to be done. Of course, there always is more to be done. But, we cannot do things alone, nor can we pretend that our work isn’t worthy of accolades. You chose a path that is difficult, to say the least. It’s imperative that you recognize people are grateful to you and that you do deserve their gratitude. When my mind was clear, that feeling of gratitude motivated me beyond any paycheck.
Looking forward, there are a lot of reasons to feel hopeless. There are a lot of reasons to become depressed and disillusioned with what our country was and continues to become. Our nation’s history shows us that we do not have a great track record of treating racial, ethnic, and religious minorities with any kind of compassion or “equality”. And yet, I still firmly believe we have the capacity to change that. Maybe it’s naïveté, or maybe it’s just that I have witnessed a lot of win’s in the time I worked in California. The losses, of course, still eat away at me. There are people whose cases I worked, and I have no idea what has become of them. I think about them and their families with relative frequency. In my experience, I’ve had more losses than wins. But, maybe that’s why the wins are always so magical.
In this political moment, it doesn’t feel like there will be a win anytime soon. But, I have hope that there will be. Organizations like the ones you work for, people like the ones you work with, migrants like the ones you advocate for–they are stronger than we all think. Maybe it’s that I still believe in revolution, in social movements, in the power of the people. But, I know that what you do is not useless, is not impossible.
I am so proud to live in a time where you exist. What you do today and tomorrow matters. It matters for yourself and for every migrant family being impacted by this administration’s inhumane immigration policies.
Take care of yourselves and of each other. Know what your rights are. In this moment, we are all targets. It was a different political time when I was in refugee services, but so many things scared me in my work. In the darkest hours, I leaned on my boss. She became my rock in this work. Find someone to lean on. We are living in complicated and increasingly scary times.
Throughout the past several years and reflecting on these past weeks, I have found that one thing is for certain:
we are all we have.
in solidarity and love,