The following is an edited transcript with Alex Sukles ’17, who received a grant from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund from Bowdoin to work with Lutheran Services of Georgia, a refugee resettlement agency based in Atlanta, this summer.
I realize you did an Alternative Spring Break at Lutheran Services of Georgia. What was it about that experience that made you want to return?
We visited a family from South Central Asia who had been here for only a couple of weeks, and we were able to hear about their journey. Few people understand the struggle that refugees go through, and each and every individual has a unique story. It is a grim statistic that less than one percent of them are resettled and that the remainder will continue to survive in camps where they will often stay for up to, on average, a decade. Being resettled is not that simple. These refugees have come to an entirely foreign country, language, and culture. It is LSG’s mission to assist them to become culturally and economically self-sufficient as quickly as possible.
At the downtown Atlanta office, we worked at the English and job orientation with LSG’s Matching Grant program, which is an intensive job-placement program. There I admired the way they were culturally and linguistically orientating their clients weekly to the American job market and professional English. After the group work and the presentation of that day’s topic, we split off into groups to work on resumes. All these refugees were job ready and thirsting to work. I could see the impact we each had with helping with the resumes alone. LSG does not have the resources to give long periods of individualized attention, and every extra person is valuable. The few hours we each offered constituted valuable progress toward that person starting a new stable life in America. When I saw how great an impact I one person could have, I knew then I wanted to explore this type of service. I wanted to understand better the struggle of the refugees within our own country before exploring the worldwide issue.
What are your days like?
The days can vary between the office downtown and a suburb, Clarkston, where we relocated most of our refugees. Certain Tuesdays and Thursdays I worked with the social adjustment department all morning to help a client navigate the healthcare or education system in America. On Wednesdays I worked with the same job orientation program that I worked with on my Alternative Spring Break. There we helped acquaint the clients with the American job market. However, despite schedule regularities, every day at LSG was new, given the human element. It was this variety and change, along with their challenges, that I loved and found satisfying. I could be helping with apartment set-ups, working with clients on their job readiness, helping to write updates to send to LSG’s national affiliate on client progress, or finalizing financial reports for the month. I gained so much knowledge about not only refugee and world issues, but also life lessons about being in the real world. The world I have been exposed to is one that I do not think the majority of Americans have experienced. It is not a world we can experience at college. I feel both fortunate and grateful to be given this grant. It has offered me not only the chance to explore work, but also life.
Can you recount one experience so far that has been particularly meaningful or interesting?
I brought a client to the hospital to help get a check-up for their daughter. She is turning five and still does not speak. They were worried about her hearing and brain function. The client really did not speak any English and this procedure would take the whole day and the child would be under anesthesia. This little girl had scintillating eyes and a constant smile on her face. When we arrived at Emory Hospital, I helped them get checked in. With their limited English, this would have been quite a challenge for them to handle alone. The girl waved at people around us and her infectious smile spread to others. I was lucky to get an in-person translator for the day to be with us to explain the procedure and the results. We sat and I spoke through the translator with the mother. It was not the most exciting day, or unique, yet it was a nice day. We sat for three hours and cobbled a conversation through Arabic, French and English. Not yet an Arabic speaker I felt quite handicapped. However, I was able to learn about the large family and their difficult past. After another insipid hospital cup of coffee we went back to wait for the child to wake, and to get the results. I was invited in to stay with them. The results came — she was pre-lingual deaf. She also had no brain response to sound at any level so there was little to no chance that a hearing aid would work. It was hard to look at the mother. I felt so much pain for her. As the translator explained the results, the mother’s eyes watered. She dabbed a few tears away, yet recomposed herself. This was hard, but I understood it was just another pain upon what she already had gone through when fleeing her home country. I was there to comfort, but I was little more than a stranger. We walked into the room where her daughter was groggily waking from the anesthesia. She was uneasy as the nurse wheeled her out of the double doors to my waiting car. As I helped the girl up to the second story apartment, I could only feel pain in my heart. Two little boys, at home alone since their father worked the dayshift, opened the door, and the mother showed me into the room where I was to lay her daughter on the bed. She had tears in her eyes from the residual pain from taking out the IV tube. She smiled and waved faintly. I looked at the mother. She smiled, her faced boarded by the hijab and she said “shukran – thank you.” I smiled you’re welcome, and I left.
That night I could not sleep well. I just could not imagine what more hardship the mother was going to have to go through with a child with this disability. She was not only going to have to learn English but also sign language to communicate with her daughter. I was able to find that the Atlanta area school for the deaf was located in their suburb. That gave me some rest, that she would not have issues with transportation when her daughter started school, but there was still so much more. As if trying to resettle in a new place, culture, and language were not hard enough.
What’s been the most challenging part of the summer? The most rewarding?
The most challenging part of the summer was remembering how to cook again and provide for myself! Bowdoin spoils us and we get accustomed to the amazing food and resources. I grew up being taught at an early age to do things for myself, and one of these was how to cook well. I forgot how to do this after a year of coddling. It was nice to do these things again. It was like living in the real world again. Also, it was hard to come to a city where I had been only once before, rather than returning to the safety net of my hometown and network of friends. Here, in Atlanta, I was on my own, securing a rental car, setting up my living quarters, and navigating in a region of America, with its own specific history and culture, that I have never explored. It has been exciting and enriching.
The most rewarding thing was that first friendly, welcoming face. Every interaction I have had with a client was still one of their first ones with a native-born American. I strive to foster good relations and tolerance. I didn’t want the arrogant American stereotype to propagate amongst newcomers from other countries and cultures. I wanted them to see the good that America and Americans have to offer.
Have your studies or activities at Bowdoin intersected at all with our work this summer?
I love the McKeen Center for the Common Good. I was first acquainted with it through my orientation trip, which was focused on immigrants and refugees in Maine. I then learned more about nonprofit work through the Common Good Grant Committee, which has given me a greater depth into understanding the vitality of nonprofits. I also find respect for human dignity to be a priority for me. I believe that we as a people don’t have to love or even like each other, but at the minimum we should respect each other. I have been active in Amnesty International on campus.
Has your time there so far made you think differently about your future plans? If yes, how so?
The ideas for my future have immensely changed. I still wish to work with finance and numbers in my future, but now I wish to share my time with humanitarian legal activities. I have seen that there is so much need for legal guidance and advocacy in the world, yet not enough altruistic people who will provide that help. I wish to help fill that gap. This past year I have been told by numerous people that law school is a good experience; like vitamins it betters you even though you might not like taking them at the time. Law school is a possibility I will continue to consider as I continue my education at Bowdoin, but I still have time. Also, living in the U.S. this summer has changed my view on where I would like to work in my future. I know that I must be in a large city for part of the time and that I must also go abroad for the rest. In my fond memories of growing up hearing numerous languages, the homogony of English mixed with the dashes of Spanish aren’t enough! I would like to live in a place where not only are the races and cultures mixed, but also languages.