Making New Friends

We spotted them by the white IOM bags they were each carrying. Jimi* was one of the tallest, darkest men I have ever seen – at least 6’5″. He walked gently down the concourse with his mother (65), his nephew (13) and two nieces (9, 6). I think Jimi is in his mid-20s but cannot remember because I have already read dozens of case files this week and it’s only Wednesday! Such is life when you work for a refugee resettlement agency.

My colleague Olive greeted them in Arabic. They were a beautiful family, it was obvious even behind their Covid-required face masks. I wish I could have taken a picture to share with you, but privacy! Jimi speaks Dinka and enough Arabic to be able to communicate with Olive. He tells us his mother speaks a little Arabic. The children may not, it was hard for me to tell. They were each decked out in what appeared to be new clothes – smart looking sweats & jeans – probably provided by IOM when they left Egypt or landed in DC. I still have lots to learn!

Displaced Sudanese teen, photo by Mauro Fermariello 

We collected their luggage (2 large and 1 small suitcase) loaded into our cars. I had Jimi and his nephew in the car with me, it reminded me of driving home from the hospital with my newborn — precious cargo aboard! The women rode with Olive. We drove them to the Long-Stay Hotel. Affordable housing is elusive in our community – like most US urban areas – so we had to place them here until an apartment opens up in a couple weeks. A local volunteer brought them a hot meal which is standard protocol for arrival and Olive would be heading to the grocery store for them in the morning. After getting them checked-in, the youngest, Maddy, quickly turned on the TV and we found some cartoons. I sat with them while Olive checked their temperatures (we are still in a pandemic, after all) – they were all fine. Since they came from a refugee camp, they are required to quarantine in their hotel room for 10 days before going anywhere. Then Olive gave them a quick cultural orientation in Arabic. This was enough for safety and communication for the first 24 hours — it includes how to call 911 (“Help. No English. Arabic.”), how the amenities work in the room (A/C, door locks, not letting strangers in and where smoking is/isn’t allowed). Then Olive presented Jimi with a new cell phone and made sure he knew how to use it (he did). She left a 2nd phone for Mama when she was ready to give it a look. She seemed tired from a few long days of travel.

Olive and I left them to rest and we wrapped up our day. She had the chance to briefly speak privately with Jimi, where she learned that his sister (the mother of the children) went missing, so he and his mother have raised the youngsters. They have not seen their mother in years. Jimi told Olive his mother has “seen too much” and suffered greatly. I don’t know the particulars but they are probably like many Sudanese who land in our community — they flee the war in Sudan and end up in a refugee camp in Egypt. They are usually there for a few years (or longer) before they are able to get their refugee status approved and travel details confirmed. Even when they know it’s their time to ready for leaving the camp, it can still take more than one year to get all of the Is dotted and Ts crossed. Refugees are highly vetted – they undergo numerous security screenings that occur over 12-15 months, and when that is attained, they undergo the health screening which is valid for 90 days. Hopefully travel arrangements will be confirmed before their health screening expires!

They go through all of this because it is not safe to live in their homeland. They chose to leave their family and friends and their home to these unknown experiences because they felt leaving gives them a better chance of staying alive. Can you imagine?

My official role is to secure housing for the refugees that are constantly arriving in our community. There is a solid system in place, but safe, available housing is a challenge so I have my work cut out for me. Right now it is exciting and a bit daunting. I look forward to sharing some of my experiences via this blog. As you settle for the day in your home, take a moment to be grateful for the roof over your head, the clothes on your back, the food in your refrigerator; and the healthy people in your family. These things cannot be taken for granted.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy