Why It Matters to Make Refugees Feel Welcome in Philadelphia

It’s easy to take things for granted. A few months ago, I was stressing out about writing my college thesis, not having “enough” clothes, and having to adjust my budget to spend less on luxuries like my daily latte. It’s not that I consider my lifestyle extravagant to begin with, but -truth be told- there is a lot that I do not have to worry about in terms of financial security, safety and general stability.

That’s why my visit with Al-Bustan to the Nationalities Service Center was so eye-opening for me. I always considered myself fairly cognizant of the injustices around me, but hearing first hand about how refugees who have fled their homelands to the United States really put matters into perspective. Like many refugees before them, the Iraqis and Syrians who arrived to the United States this year had fled war zones and brutal living conditions, and we can only imagine how traumatic their endeavors have been.

But making it out of political madness is not the end of these refugees’ struggles. Many of them escaped overseas to the United States hoping to be taken into the welcoming arms of the American Dream, not knowing that this idealized notion has become just that – an elusive fragment of what was once a mostly accessible lifestyle to American citizens, that is now rendered to a systematic privilege that even the everyday-American can barely grasp a hold of.

Regardless of whether the refugees had drastically downgraded their lifestyles during the process of their escape, or whether they had already fled a similar lifestyle outside the context of political unrest, the fact of the matter is that many of them seem to be undergoing major culture shock. Instead of spacious homes surrounded by picket fences, many refugees are doing the best they can with smaller apartments that barely fit their family members with the level of comfort they are used to. At the end of the day, they do have roofs over their heads without the constant fear of impending attacks. For now, at least they have some sense of comfort and safety, but their wellbeing and stability are indefinite, as some struggle to pay rent and access basic living necessities. They are faced with challenges even outside of their new places of residence: Many refugees are not fluent in English or barely speak it at all, making it a struggle to simply communicate in a city where having at least beginner-level English language skills is necessary, not to mention having to adjust their interactions with others to what is considered the norm in America in order to fit in with the people surrounding them.

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Refugee families enjoying  arts and crafts at an Al-Bustan event organized with Nationalities Service Center – photo by Dave Tavani

Many adult refugees have also had to compromise in terms of how they would support themselves financially by taking jobs that they are technically overqualified for, but unable to pursue in their new environment. When it comes to families, refugee parents are especially determined to make sure their children receive an American education that will enable them to seek opportunities while they are still within reach.

These are only some of the underlying issues we learned about through speaking to people working at the Nationalities Service Center as well as through talking with the refugees, and we can only imagine what else they are struggling with when they are back in their new households. That is not to mention the distress that has come about with the recent outcome of US elections and the effects it will have on existing refugees as well as prospective ones.

Bearing all of this in mind, it only strengthens my belief in our mission to promote intercultural communication and cross-cultural exchange, and that trying to ensure that respect and understanding are the minimum requirements to creating safe spaces for diversity in our communities. Knowing that our efforts are not limited to collecting donations and material needs, but also expanding to creating forums that welcome Arab refugees to the Philadelphia community, gives me hope that we are part of a dynamic that is representative of Philadelphia’s mosaic and Arab hospitality.

— Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow

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