My arm was beginning to fatigue, but I dared not move for fear of the microphone picking up some sort of grainy interference that would ruin my audio. With every involuntary, sinewy twitch, I felt the joints in my elbow and wrist sort of click before locking up again in a new position. I took a deep breath and tried to suppress the dull ache. I didn’t want to break contact with her eyes.
I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, but I could feel the emotion pouring out of her, traveling up from her depths and materializing itself in the brimming tears hanging on to the bottom of her lids. Her voice quivered and vacillated between light and dark inflections, from a quiver to a sinister, shrill, almost piercing screech. Her face twisted with the confusing mix of feeling accompanied by each memory; a smile would begin to appear, but would be halted by the progression of anguish creeping its way into her countenance. Like a movie reel, her story replayed itself in vivid projections in her mind.
She was speaking Arabic, and I couldn’t understand a single word she was saying — yet somehow, I had understood exactly what she was attempting to convey: pure, unadulterated pain.
About a year and a half ago, during the time in which I was interning at the NPR member station, Michigan Radio, I was given an assignment covering a refugee women’s group based out of Lansing supported by funds from St. Vincent Catholic Charities. Since the 1970s, St. Vincent’s has been one of many private organizations providing vocational, settlement and therapeutic services for Michigan’s sizable refugee population, which in the 2011 fiscal year amounted to 2,587 people. Over the past decade, Michigan has accepted the entry of 23,547 refugees from an estimated 49 countries into its borders, a number higher than any other state in the Midwest except Minnesota.
According to data from 2011, some 8,802 refugees who have entered Michigan in the past year have hailed from Iraq; on a national scale, about 20 percent of refugees coming to the United States from Iraq choose to come to Michigan for asylum, most likely due to the dense Arabic population surrounding the Detroit area. For those seeking a better life, Michigan is an attractive resettlement location.
The woman described above is one such refugee. She is a native Iraqi who fled her homeland with her family only a few short years after the U.S. invasion in 2003; the sectarian violence that had already plagued Iraq, coupled with rising political violence between Iraqi and American soldiers, became too unsafe an environment for her and her family.
I later came to find out through the aid of a translator who accompanied me to the interview that she’d been recounting the moment in which she decided to flee Iraq: due to a misunderstanding by military officials, her family’s home — a farm house built by her grandfather which had since housed her family — was burned to the ground, along with all the family’s material possessions. Nobody sustained physical injury in the arson; however, the prospect of what may have occurred given different circumstances was enough to scare her family into abandoning their country of heritage for one which they’d only seen through the glass of a television set.
Bravely, they made their way through the Middle East onward to Europe, across the Atlantic, first to Canada, and then later across the border to Michigan, where family members in Metro Detroit housed them before they received enough money through philanthropic donation to settle in Lansing. Although they don’t reside in the best of neighborhoods, the woman told me, at least there is no immediate threat of car bombs or gunfire.
I do not tell this woman’s story to evoke sympathy for her or her circumstances, nor do I do it to put a face on the thousands of refugees in Michigan who attempt to assimilate to an American life without first being given psychological services to cope with the pain they’ve already experienced.
I tell this woman’s story as one which I hope will humble those who read it, who will appreciate the pain this woman has endured and the strength she has displayed in swallowing that pain against hardship in order to attempt to provide her loved ones with a life here in the United States — a place where she believed they would have more opportunity and autonomy in their lives as compared to that experienced in their native land.
I tell her story because, despite the toil that life can have, the depression for which it can be a catalyst, or the crippling doubt of choices made that accompanies the former and the latter, at least there is some form of choice in this country to change one’s circumstances without having to seek refuge in a strange land. With midterm elections upon us, it’s critical to keep this in mind.
Austin Davis can be reached at email@example.com.