The words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “nobody is ever just a refugee, nobody is just ever a single thing,” were referenced more than once during the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program’s capstone event: “What We Carried: A Glimpse Into the Refugee Crisis.”
MRAP works alongside a nearby refugee resettlement service, Jewish Family services, Samaritas and the Detroit Mayor’s Office to connect University of Michigan students with opportunities for working with and on behalf of refugees.
Over 100 students and community members gathered inside the University of Michigan Museum of Art on Thursday night to listen as former refugees shared their stories of resettlement, and professionals in the refugee sector provided their own unique insights into the current humanitarian crisis.
“What We Carried” was based on the collaborative storytelling project of photographer Jim Lommasson, who sought to preserve the identities of displaced Syrian and Iraqi refugees through the objects they chose to bring from their destroyed homes.
Lommasson said he began his project after an Iraqi woman living in Portland asked him, “I thank America for removing Saddam Hussein, but did you have to destroy my entire country to do that?” From there, the photographer began to capture images of the personal items refugees took from their homes in order to tell a story.
Lommasson noted that, though people often point to photography as an attempt to humanize its subjects, it is not the refugees who need to be humanized.
“The things that I photograph were sometimes kind of exotic, as we would expect, but sometimes there were Barbie dolls, things that we wouldn’t expect, but it sends a message that we’re all alike,” he said. “You don’t need to be humanized, you’re already that. It’s probably people like Donald Trump who need to be humanized, it’s not you.”
The stories of the refugees, all told through the help of a translator onstage, were all united by common threads of shared humanity, desire to help others and a love for American democracy.
Omar Zadoyan said he came to Michigan in 2014 with his wife and two sons. Once he settled, he began learning English online and applying for jobs. He noted how hard it was to start from a place less than zero, and how easy it is for people to forget they share humanity with people from different cultures.
“I am a person just like you and we are all from one humankind, and I want to live somewhere safe and secure,” Zadoyan said. “Arabs and Iraqis also have culture and customs, like Americans … We are human.”
Another speaker, Shihab, who also did not provide his last name due to his immigration status, detailed the horrors that refugees encounter in Arab countries such as Egypt, then expressed his deep love and admiration for the United States. He said he hopes his voice will reach people across the world, and that he can start a new life replete with happiness and safety in America.
“We as Muslims, and specifically refugees, really love all of you guys,” Shihab said. “Especially as refugees looking for a safe place to live to live in safety and freedom, because we were denied that right in our own home countries. We wanted to come to America to live, to live in happiness and safety and freedom. To live in democracy and justice. To build a future for our kids, and to teach them knowledge and good manners. Oh people, I ask you to help me. So that my small voice, me and my brother, will reach the rest of the world.”
At the end of his talk, Shihab read aloud a small portion of a letter he wrote to President Donald Trump. In the letter, he asked the president to provide refugees with a safe place to live, and said refugees respect his leadership and policies.
“For the sake of refugees, please help us, please help us, Mr. Trump,” he said. “Look carefully in your future plans. We deserve and we need to live in a safe place and we respect your policies and your orders, and respect your fear for the American people — because America is more important than anything.”
Students in attendance said hearing the refugees’ stories made them consider their privilege, and how immigrants can become part of U.S. society today. LSA sophomore Rasha Jawad added she is also a part of planning for Arab Heritage Month, which lead her to the event.
“Really, I’m just understanding my privilege, and how lucky I am to have been born in this country,” Jawad said. “Being a Lebanese American, I’ve seen stories through my own family members, so seeing how that translates to a different country. Also, being from Dearborn, I’m surrounded by immigrants.”
Panelist Ruby Robinson, a staff attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, also touched on immigrants settling in the Detroit area. He said though immigrants are usually expected to rapidly assimilate to American culture, his work involves making immigrants feel welcomed and accepted in their new communities.
“The traditional model is how quickly can immigrants assimilate to America,” Robinson said. “We in Warrendale, we in Hamtramck, we in this community, embrace immigrants coming in and we don’t want you to change.”
Robinson also discussed the strong faith guiding many of the people who participate in his line of work, as a majority of faith traditions embrace helping others. He said you can find this sentiment in the Old Testament, specifically in the passage that propones treating others with dignity: “Remember, you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Panelist Taylor Nelson, executive programs coordinator for the city of Detroit’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, further shared the message of treating everyone with dignity, especially members who may be new to communities. She said she works to provide refugees with opportunities to create generational wealth, have jobs and have sustainable lives in Detroit.
“From housing to public safety to transportation, we work to make them accessible to refugees in the city and immigrants in any way,” Nelson said.
Nelson also sought to appeal to students, stating they must work to identify, address and then find solutions for the problems in their communities. She said she obtained her position by identifying a gap in refugee services, then learning how the city could play an important role in fulfilling that gap.
“Its very simple: If you see an issue, if you see something you want to address, work to address it,” Nelson said. “What I did was I saw there was a gap in services and I worked with different partner organizations and learned how the city could really be vital in this role, and from there I took action.”