As the US participants from the Journey of Understanding Feb’15, we wanted to use our Encompass experience to engage the people of Syracuse. In doing our research we realized that Syracuse resettles around 1200 refugees each year. We had no idea that refugees make up such a large part of our community, so we decided to plan an event to raise awareness and break down societal preconceptions around refugees.
On 26th March we held a screening of the documentary film God Grew Tired of Us. The film follows a few of the Lost Boys of Sudan in their journey as they become US Citizens, but we focused on one man, John Bul Dau, as he arrives in Syracuse from Sudan. He went on to attend Syracuse University and start his own charity, The John Dau Foundation, which supports refugees from Sudan.
We then held a panel discussion featuring John Bul Dau himself, alongside Nicole Watts, founder of Hopeprint, a refugee help center in the Syracuse area, on topics such as the struggles refugees face when they enter the United States, what life is like for refugees in Syracuse specifically, what sort of things refugees struggle with that US citizens wouldn’t have realized, and more.
Two things that really struck a chord with me and, I think, the audience during the panel discussion were Mr. Dau's discussion on choices and Ms. Watts' story about a conversation with a refugee from Iraq that she works with at her refugee center.
Mr. Dau said that the number one struggle that he faced when he came to the United States was how many choices he had to make and how many options for food, drink, clothes, etc. there were. He said previously, when he was living in refugee camps, he just ate what was given to him, wore what was given to him, and was happy with that. He said that there was a time when he wore a girl’s shirt and pants that didn't cover his ankles but he was happy to have those things because otherwise he would have to go naked. When he got to the US he suddenly had to decide if he wanted water, juice, soda, etc. and if he chose soda, what kind of soda did he want? He said he still struggles at restaurants choosing from the huge menus because even though he's been here for a number of years he's still not used to it!
Ms. Watts said that she was meeting with an Iraqi refugee who had come here about three weeks before. The woman said to her that she was initially scared of coming to the United States. She had been told her whole life that the American people were insurgents, that they were bad people whose only goal in life was to be destructive to Iraqis. However, after having been in the country for three weeks, she did not see anyone expressing this kind of behavior. She said, though, that she could feel the American people that she encountered being very guarded around her and her hijab. She could feel that that they were thinking the same thing that she used to think about them: that she was an insurgent out to harm them. Ms. Watts said that events like the one that we hosted was the first step to creating an open conversation and stopping this kind of misconception and stereotyping between people and cultures.
We believe that this event achieved its goals and opened eyes and hearts to the diverse struggles of refugees in our country.
Sarah Russo, US participant, JoU February 15