Homesickness refugees’ biggest challenge

by Amy Kingsley

Chealy Sin fled the brutality of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in 1980. Robert Clarke’s family found refuge in the United States almost a decade before he secured the documents necessary to escape civil war in Liberia. Eppy Ndutte-Kyanya left his native Congo after successive governments failed to provide security and services for the central African nation.

All three refuges now live in Greensboro. But although they and the thousands of other refugees living here have left behind sectarian strife and political persecution, their problems are not over. Small struggles, like adjusting to the rules of a new society, and big ones such as finding employment sufficient to feed and house a family, have supplanted the troubles they left behind.

‘“I’m not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true,’” Sin, now the special projects manager at Lutheran Family Services, said, quoting Abraham Lincoln. ‘“I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live by the light that I have.’”

Citizens and advocates from Lutheran Family Services gathered June 20 to celebrate World Refugee Day alongside several asylum seekers who have taken up residence in the city. Participants enjoyed donated pastries and beverages while listening to the stories of refugees and supporters. This year event organizers focused on the theme of employment, an essential element for acclimation and survival in a new community. Refugees sometimes have trouble getting jobs because of language and other impediments.

‘“Traditionally we were largely a manufacturing-centered economy,’” said Shirley Thoms, the Triad area manager for Lutheran Family Services. ‘“So in the past you could approach a company and get eleven jobs in a factory. Now we have to do a larger effort to get more smaller employers.’”

Lutheran Family Services helps refugees gain employment, enroll children in school and adjust to their new surroundings. On Tuesday employers who have worked with Lutheran Family Services to offer jobs for newcomers delivered testimonials.

Arley Mitchell, owner of Buck’s Yard Service, extolled the virtues of two Montagnard employees. Jenny Zeller from Foster-Caviness said she regularly calls Lutheran Family Services when she has positions she needs filled. Clarke, a well-spoken man dressed in traditional Liberian garb, talked about how his job as a maintenance technician at Lodge America allowed him to support his wife and five children.

Representatives from city and county agencies have engaged with refugee organizations this past year to provide continuing cultural orientation that informs newcomers about local government regulations and programs. The program includes representatives from agencies including Guilford Metro 911 and Solid Waste Disposal.

Even though refugees may struggle with unfamiliar laws and economic hardship, those problems pale in comparison to the biggest challenge of all ‘— homesickness.

‘“It is hard to be a refugee,’” Clarke said. ‘“We don’t decide to be here forever.’”

-Amy Kingsley