Excerpted from an address to Episcopal Charities
Thank you so much for being a partner in our work and for inviting me to share a bit about what we do. As you know, part of our mission is training refugees with the greatest job entry barriers. The other half of our mission is people like me and you. By selling a refugee-made product that we can enjoy every day, we're exploring ways to connect everyone we know to the practical needs of refugees.
Your event organizers were kind enough to order you one of our granola bars. When you get a chance, I’d love for you pick it up. Look at it. Hold it in your hand. There are some stories behind that bar. There’s a man named Iman who had to leave his daughters behind in Somalia and flee for Ethiopia. There’s a woman named Solange who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo for Uganda, eventually resettled in Arizona and then moved here.
Most refugees carry a story of terrible ethnic, political, or religious persecution that forced them to flee their homes. There are now about 65 million of these stories in the world--comparable to the population of France or of the UK. 50% are under the age of 18. Most of these upheaval stories are followed by non-stories of being forgotten, hidden, invisible—even warehoused in a camp. The average refugee spends about 20 years uprooted out of their lives: not able to work, not able to contribute, not able to fulfill their potential, not able to learn, not able to be fully human. Sometimes this extended time of putting life on hold and feeling forgotten can be more devastating than the danger they were running from.
But there are also stories of hope. Most refugees arriving in Providence are solidly determined to reclaim their humanity and agency. They do not want to be isolated and given a meager handout anymore. Even if they have no experience, or English language, or literacy, they want to work—to start paying their bills and supporting their families. Most are willing to take any job, no matter how hard the work or low the pay. They want to contribute and meet their neighbors and help their children adapt and succeed. They want to use their gifts.
Solange, one our trainees this year got a job at a bakery cleaning equipment at night. When we see her she throws her arms around us. When Iman started our training program over a year ago, we were intrigued by how gifted he was at communicating with his hands. He was so good at this that we recently hired him onto our staff team to help coach each of our new trainees through orientation. He can’t speak their language, but he can coax them to do whatever it takes to communicate with their 10 fingers. He’s teaching them confidence and agency, which are the fundamental skills for finding work.
The main reason we organized as a non-profit/business is that we believe in two way streets: meaning refugees don't just need to get something from us; they have something to give. In fact they need to give. In the same way, you and I don’t just need to give to refugees, we have something receive. In fact we need to receive.
There are all kinds of rationales and foundations for this idea. Historically it’s true that refugees contribute to economic renewal and even start businesses at higher rates than the average immigrant or native born American. For others it’s rooted in a deep appreciation of other cultures. Many of us gathered here are inspired by the metaphor that a community functions as a body: made up of individuals yet creating a whole. If this is true, then we can't really know who we are unless we are thankful for those—the other body parts—around us. A hand can’t ever be a foot; but it will be a happier, more humble, more curious, more effective and real hand when it begins to depend on that foot. So that’s the invitation. The warning is that if we ever participate in marginalizing other people—or start thinking we don’t need them—then we distort both our sense of ourselves and our sense of humanity.
So when some of the Burmese in Myanmar tell a million Rohyinga, “We don’t want you. It would be better that you were not here at all” and run them out of their homes—this isn’t just a form of genocide. It's a form of self-mutilation. And if the rest of us in the world turn our backs and try to ignore the Rohynga or let them stay in camps for decades—then we are depriving ourselves of what we have to give and what we have to receive.
And if you don't mind my saying—hese things don't just happen in other countries.
Of course, real life in a political world complicates these ideas, but here's a simple starting point: there are refugees who are resettling around us as part of our country’s humanitarian effort. Fact: they are now neighbors. Every one of us has an opportunity to engage with them. We can give and receive. For people who aren’t sure where to start—we're trying to make sure you can talk to one at a farmers’ market. You can buy a bar. You can get a membership and get refugee-made granola delivered to your door every month. You can enjoy it, and you can talk about it with your kids, and you’ll be helping refugees rebuild their lives and enter the job market.
We have so much to say thanks for. Thank you for your partnering with us.Thanks for your generosity. Thanks for inviting me to speak. And thanks to all of you who go out of your way to welcome refugees. You’ve no idea how meaningful that can be to them.You might find it's just as meaningful to you.