The title of my very first blog may seem a little redundant, but – wait – there’s an explanation beyond the announcement of my first entry. Lately I’ve been thinking about beginnings. No, not the kind that start with a big “bang” or an ear-splitting wail. Something a little more simple, a little more complex. I’ve been thinking about how people start their lives anew, whether it be by choice or circumstances beyond their control; whether their vision simply expands to include the peripherals or whether their realities are entirely switched for another.
I have a friend who has been caught unwittingly in the second beginning of his life for quite some time now. His name is Idriss Bangi and he is a refugee from Sudan. We met earlier this year while I was working on a project based on refugees in Chicago. Idriss has lived in America for well over several years since seeking asylum in the U.S. in order to flee Sudan’s civil strife. In his past life he was a history teacher; currently he is working as a parking valet in downtown Chicago. Chances are you’ve probably seen his grinning face, perhaps even exchanged some pleasantries.
When I went to see him two weeks ago, in-between his “quick” hellos to familiar faces (quick for Idriss translates to at least a ten minute conversation) and attending to customers in a rush to get back to their cars and their lives, Idriss and I caught up on ours. My update consisted of the typical agonies of a sophomore, the middle child of college. I felt I was at the precipice of something that was new and frightening. Was my major right for me? What did I want for my future? Why did everyone seem so assured of themselves and their goals? I’m sure I sounded like a crow to Idriss, cawing away about my problems. But he indulged me – no, he listened. And then we got to him: money issues, discrimination at work and the flu he had caught for two weeks, but had no time to properly rest for.
The contrast between our situation is so stark and yet so implicit. Refugees’ and immigrants’ situations are the epitome of a new start. Frequently caught in a cycle of working low-wage jobs, struggling to attend school for re-certification in the rare spare hour, and juggling with cultural shock while often dealing with post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD), these individuals are the silent heroes in our society.
As Darwensi Clark, the Associate Director of Refugee Family Services at Heartland Alliance, put it:
“I think there’s a sense of entitlement in this country that happens from time to time when you’ve been here for a number of generations and refugees don’t have that, they’ll come and they will work circles around you and I think that that refugee experience and being able to see that is really special because it motivates you and makes you think of the opportunities you have and how you might be taking those for granted.”
I’ve been thinking about beginnings, because I’ve been thinking about how I want to begin mine. I’ve been thinking about the beginning of one refugee in a city of over two million individuals and how fighting on a day-to-day basis is sometimes the best strategy a person has.
And how sometimes beginnings, no matter how seemingly insignificant or difficult, challenge us to really consider what are the important things in life and become stronger.