A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: Overview

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” – Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

When we talk about refugees we are talking about people affected by widespread violent persecution. It is important to begin at the very beginning of these stories. That is, we need to know why people are fleeing their homes to arrive in camps or cities seeking refuge. I’ve heard criticism of refugees to the effect of “They need to fight for their country or no one will.” But, before we get to the specific countries and situations people are fleeing, which will hopefully address the criticism, there’s some important information we need to go over. I am attempting brevity on incredibly complex and decades-long conflicts so bare with me, know that at times I may oversimplify things, feel free to leave corrective or explanatory comments, and I am attaching a lot of links so if you want to learn more please do so.

While I encourage you to read each overview of the conflicts in the countries we are taking refugees from there are some things they all have in common:

  • The U.S. has worked and continues to work in destabilizing many countries we take refugees from. Our foreign policy often creates  the refugees we refuse to take.
  • Some people invest heavily in maintaining war. People profit from war. Think of the factories in which military items are made, the fuel to power the war machines, the added need for recruiters, and so on. Think of governments who skim off of smuggling. Think of the smugglers and traffickers who can raise prices during conflicts, and so on. The economy of war preys on the average human. Aid organizations, sometimes inadvertently or intentionally, simultaneously alleviate and inflict harm onto people caught in conflict. There is money to be made, political gains to won and conflict is the catalyst to make it all happen. So while most the world wishes for peace, some do not.
  • Fleeing is a life or death decision that no one wants to make, ever. Because they are alive, they are in danger. Refugees face the condition, in which their existence is controversial and they woke one day to find that strangers want to murder them for some intrinsic part of their identity or because they exist in a certain space.
  • Refugees are over 50% children. Many are elderly, women or have medical conditions that make it difficult to defend themselves. And even if they are all young, strong, healthy men, they are human beings. Every single last one is a human being entitled to safety, dignity and human rights.

American Perspective Observations:

  • Sometimes we have a hard time understanding modern civil war. The American Civil War ended over 150 years ago meaning that we are generations removed from anyone who lived through the Civil War. In the late 1800s weapons were much less devastating. New technology included hot air balloons used to get an aerial view of enemy positions, muskets taking 20 seconds to reload (for perspective Usian Bolt can run more than 200 meters in that time), swords and knives were still used and men rode horses into battle. We only know our civil war in a historical, academic way. Technology and the level of damage modern warfare inflicts goes beyond what we can gather from our own war. Our war was also straightforward in that there was little foreign involvement, and the sides were clearly defined with clear motivations. Emancipating the slaves would destroy the agricultural South. The South resented the Federal Government for dictating to the South. The North fought for Unity, Emancipation and Federal Oversight. The South fought for Independence, Slavery and States’ Rights. To compare our Civil War to the civil wars generating the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II insults the people caught in the middle and belittles so many people who have died and suffered. The civil wars in Burma, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo along with other nations have far more sides. It is not us vs. them. It’s us vs. them vs. them vs. them and by proxy them and them and them—some of whom are not actual coalitions more like armed obstructionists or outright terrorists.
  • We have never had a modern war on our soil, so living in a war zone is difficult to understand. Perhaps my friends in the military can elaborate on this, but war is really really unfathomably terrible. Our belief systems as human beings nearly universally go against taking the lives of others. Many religions talk about the body as being a temple or sanctuary—the vessel of the divine in some way or another. Only in war are these beliefs suspended. Look at the struggles of our returned veterans. While some have peace, some certainly have mental trauma that shows up as homelessness, suicide, PTSD, random shootings, a disconnect with loved ones and so on. Our military is not compulsory which means our veterans signed up because they believe whole-heartedly in the need to protect and serve our nation. And, though I am a pacifist to my very core, THANK YOU for your service and sacrifice. Our soldiers at least intellectually understood what they signed up for, and yet, even the bravest heroes in our midst return affected by the horrors of war. Now imagine what that does if you are not a soldier, but just a child or a civilian who wants to live the only life you know.  It’s very hard for us as adults to conceptualize living in war zones, and it’s important that we try. To understand the need for refugee resettlement in the U.S. we have to try to understand what living in an active war zone means.
  • The Constitutions of other countries either do not protect people, cannot be enforced or do not offer checks and balances on power. So far, the constitution has kept us from allowing presidents to act like dictators. Power is divided to ensure no one can destroy the union or pass extreme legislation without consent of multiple branches. Not all countries enjoy this protection. Some have a singular leader whose word is law, or a rogue military that takes over the country, or terrorist groups show up one day to slaughter and rape an entire village or other situations where average citizens hold absolutely no power. A Syrian friend of mine said that when she casts her first meaningful vote in Syria we will dance from one end of Jamaica to the other in celebration.

So we will go into what each refugee is actually fleeing. The countries listed in the following posts are the countries the U.S. takes refugees from in order of numbers entering the country for 2016 based off of Pew Research. The most recent available statistics from the State Department are for the fiscal year 2015. The world of refugee resettlement in the U.S.  has drastically changed from 2015 to today so I will list the data from the State Department in addition to the 2016 statistics from Pew because 2015 saw a dramatic shift in bringing more people from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, and less people from Burma. Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) are not counted in the totals only those coming to the states on I-94 refugee visas. As a reminder, SIVs are Afghani and Iraqi interpreters for our U.S. troops recommended for resettlement by military officers. Click the links to see the history of the program in statistics and read specific stories from the UNHCR. I will cover the history of the program in a coming post in this series.

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A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Terms & Technicalities

“It’s not easy to start over in a new place,’ he said. ‘Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” -Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying

Like any specific process Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. comes with it’s own language and facts specific to this unique process. This will be the most dense and least interesting segment I write, but entirely necessary in understanding refugee resettlement and by extension invalidating the misinformation that exists in our politically charged public. We need to start with defining the word “Refugee” in context of resettlement. “Refugee“ colloquially refers to “a person who has been forced to flee his or her country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.” This definition comes to us from googling “define refugee.” Using that definition the UNHCR (United Nations High Chairman for Refugees—the global authority on refugees) gives us a figure of 65.3 million people who have been forcibly displaced as of December 2016. This number continues to grow.

However “Refugee” also refers to legal status as well. The UNHCR and the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency body that registers Palestinian Refugees) registered 21.3 million refugees by the end of December 2016. This number continues to grow. This number is significant because registering with the UNHCR gives a person legal right to flee their country. This status does not grant anything permanent, but identifies and legally legitimizes fleeing a person’s home country due to a credible threat. In practical terms registering with the UNHCR or UNRWA means that a person fled because of a real threat of irreparable harm as opposed to leaving a home country for other reasons. It is also important because this is the pool of refugees who may eventually come to the United States.

And lastly USCIS (A division of the Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services—the agency in charge of granting visas and other immigration benefits) grants I-94 “Refugee” visas. All refugees coming into the United States are granted an I-94 visa through a 18+ month screening process. Less than 1% of the refugees registered with the UNHCR or UNRWA are granted what is called 3rd country resettlement in the U.S. More on that later. The President sets the number of refugees admitted into the country annually starting at the beginning of the fiscal year in October. Under President Obama it was 110,000 and now under Trump is 50,000. Refugees are allowed to stay in the United States Permanently once admitted. After a year in the country they are able to apply for a permanent resident card (greencard) and after 5 years apply for citizenship. I will cover requirements for citizenship later on.

I want to draw the distinction between refugees entering the U.S. on I-94 Refugee visas and those pouring across the border in Europe and other countries. Due to geography people fleeing civil war, terrorism and persecution in the Middle East are entering Europe without first being registered by the UNHCR or undergoing additional screenings. The boats of people from North Africa and the Middle East cross perilous stretches of the Mediterranean and arrive in Europe where they hope to seek Asylum, register with the UNHCR and then get the legal status of refugee. This is a point where the colloquial “refugee” versus legal status “refugee” has caused great confusion and fear within the U.S.

I also want to draw the distinction between refugee status and asylum in the United States. ALL REFUGEES COMING TO THE STATES HAVE UNDERGONE A 18+ MONTH SCREENING PROCESS. Asylum seekers arrive in the U.S. and then file for Asylum. This process is much more complicated in that Asylum seekers did not file for Asylum before entering the country. Asylum seekers may come on a temporary visa like a student, work, or travel visa and then apply to stay for well-founded fear of persecution or having actually experience persecution. There are 2 processes for seeking Asylum Affirmative or Defensive. Defensive is filing to prevent being sent back to the person’s country of origin whereas affirmative is filing in advance to be granted indefinite status. Asylum seekers may live freely in the U.S. or be detained pending the results of hearings, and factors like sponsors, families, etc. In 2014 (the most up-to-date reliable stats I could find) list China, Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Nepal, Haiti, and Guatemala,  as the top 10 countries for Asylum seekers to the U.S. with nearly 50,000 asylum applications.

Additionally, USCIS admits people at discretion on humanitarian grounds through Parole. Commonly confused with convicted people leaving prison on parole, USCIS can “use its discretion to authorize parole. Parole allows an individual who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the U.S., to be paroled into the U.S. for a temporary period.” Essentially this is a status given to people in immediate need of shelter but does not give them the indefinite status of Aslyee while waiving screening process of the refugee visa. Until January 2017 people from Cuba fell into this category when President Obama ended “Wet-foot, Dry-foot.” Haitians also fell into this category until September of 2016. There are also special Parole programs (family reunification for Haitians and Cubans, the Central American Minor Refugee/Parole Program and the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program), but I will not go into those at this time, and you can click here if you’d like to read about it on the USCIS website.

And lastly there is a program called SIVs (Special Immigration Visas) these visas are granted to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who help serve U.S. troops overseas and are recommended for resettlement by the U.S. military. This visa is essentially an expedited Refugee visa.

My point in sharing these different statuses with you is to say that 1. These are the legal statuses granted on a humanitarian basis and knowing the difference is crucial in understanding exactly who we are talking about in refugee resettlement, 2. Immigration to the U.S. is extremely complicated, and 3. We are talking about people, human beings with unique circumstances and unique visas that denote differences in their backgrounds.

 

I have a few other facts and revelations to get us talking about refugees. They do not flow together quite as well as legal statuses and definitions do so I am going to simply list them:

  • Refugees in the United States, though sharing a singular legal status, are not a homogenous group. A businessman from Aleppo has nothing in common with a rural Karen farmer from Burma. While I occasionally will reference refugees as a single segment of the population each group entering the U.S. is unique and within each nationality exist different ethnic and religious groups and within those groups exist people with different genders, sexual orientations, family structures, perspectives, education, histories, values, personalities, ages and aspirations. To group all refugees together severely under represents the individuals making up the whole.
  • Refugee camps are considered international land. If a person is in a refugee camp, they are not considered admitted to a country instead the camps exist as holding place where people are registered and can wait to return to their home country when it is safe, apply to resettle in the country they fled to, or hope to be selected for 3rd country resettlement. As a stateless land zone there are not necessarily schools, jobs, higher education, quality health care, medicine, police, etc. Corruption, rape and other forms of violence are well-documented in camps. Each camp functions slightly differently. You can read about individual stories here and scholarly articles here. I will also recommend a book here: City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence. The point is that refugee camps offer safety compared to the circumstances necessitating people to flee i.e. genocide, terrorism, civil war, etc. but do not necessarily offer a safe space especially for the most vulnerable—women, children, the elderly, those with medical conditions and those with disabilities. When we talk about refugee resettlement in the U.S. we are talking about the most vulnerable cases that are not safe in refugee camps.
  • The United States is not the only country who takes refugees through 3rd country resettlement. The list of countries accepting refugees has grown from 14 in 2005 to 37 in 2016.
  • Americans enjoy privileges of unrestricted travel that few others in the world do. Americans can travel to the entire world relatively easily. Most countries do not require a travel visa or grant travel visas at port of entries to Americans for small fees. Some countries such as Brazil, and China require Americans to submit travel itineraries and prove they have enough money to purchase round-trip airfare as well pay for a visa, but even these requirements are fairly easy to meet and visas are granted to all who meet these requirements. There are few countries Americans cannot go like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, but even these countries have exceptions. There is another set of countries it may not be safe to travel to such as Syria, Iraq, parts of Somalia, etc., but we can easily, legally travel to most corners of the globe. This right and ease to travel do not extend to the majority of other countries. I remember venting frustrations to my dad about a client who was terminally ill, too sick to travel and desperately wanting to say goodbye to family members, but the visa process was taking too long and his or her family would likely not be granted admission to the U.S. in time to say goodbye. The process for family reunification takes a minimum of 3 years and usually takes more like 5-7 years so almost 3 years into the process it looks as if it might be too late. He was surprised to find out people cannot even visit the U.S. without visas and those visas are not granted simply, cheaply, universally or easily, especially from some countries. I wanted to touch on this to illuminate the reality of families who will never be reunited and to highlight the need for specific humanitarian visas.
  • Being a refugee is a temporary identity. Refugee status is an indefinite status meaning you could stay in the U.S. forever on refugee status, but most people transition to permanent residents and then on to citizens after 5-10 years in the country. Many of my friends will say things like, “I came over as a refugee, but see myself as a Burmese-American” or “Iraqi-American.” Some will drop their home country and not look back considering themselves entirely American. Others will never quite see themselves as fully American, and hold tightly to their home country identity. Some do return to their home countries when it is safe. Many go back and invest in their home communities, but still live in the U.S. Being a refugee is essentially being internationally homeless in a sense. The home a refugee left does not exist in a recognizable form anymore, and their new home feels foreign because it is. Being a refugee more accurately marks a transition period than a lasting identity. I bring this up because we often speak of refugees as if that is an all-encompassing identity and it really isn’t. I again will urge you to read stories written by refugees or this set, or these children’s books explaining refugees because I am not a refugee and therefore cannot properly explain it, and we should support our refugee friends who write, and because representation is important.
  • And lastly immigration in the U.S. needs overhaul. All sides agree to this, but differ in the application and correct route to pursue. Due to Americans having fewer children than the generations before us, we need immigrants to sustain and grow our populations at desired levels. When we talk about undocumented immigrants, we talk about a huge variety of cases. We are talking about victims of human trafficking to drug smugglers to people who have done everything in their power to remain legal, but have been taken advantage of or are tied up in infuriatingly slow processes or simply refuse to leave their loved ones or truly do not understand the complex system. Immigration also has a HUGE impact on things like national security, the messages we send our allies and enemies, our economy, the underlying social issues in our society like racism and the identity of what it means to be an American. I bring this up to say again that we are talking about human beings who cannot be marginalized to singular identities. We are talking about families and while we like to think that government does not dictate how we treat people, in the case of immigration it definitely does. In all the complexities of sorting people through our semipermeable immigration membrane it is easy to lose the humanity in it. The more we speak about refugees and immigrants coming into the country, the more it starts to sound like a simple unit of import, and that is hauntingly dangerous. So as we go through refugee resettlement and the issues surrounding it, let us keep the people in the story and be ever cognizant that we are talking about real people with real families and real life or death consequences.

In the interest of transparency and information sharing here are the sources of information I used. If you are interested or do not not agree with what I have written, please read them! I have not listed some of the links to books mentioned above because they are linked and do not provide substantial information.  I have tried to stay as close to the original source as possible when citing facts and processes.

  1. UNHCR Resettlement Data
  2. UNHCR Figures at a Glance
  3. USCIS Refugee and Asylum Page
  4. American Immigration Council Fact Sheet on Asylum
  5. USCIS Humanitarian Parole Page
  6. Refuge Council USA 7 Largest Refugee Camps
  7. Smithsonian Magazine: Where are the 50 most populous Refugee Camps
  8. Special Interest Story on a Refugee in Indianapolis by Indianapolis Monthly 
  9. Story of a Young Syrian Entering Canada
  10. UN Peace Keepers role in General and as it Relates to Refugees
  11. Refugee Stories from the UNHCR
  12. UNHCR US Family Reunification Page
  13. US State Department’s SIV information Page
  14. UNHCR Page on 3rd Country Resettlement

A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Introduction

“Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.” -Carlos Fuentes

In the coming weeks I intend to right a few posts on refugees and refugee resettlement in the U.S. I want to stress that I should not be considered an expert on the topic, nor do I represent my former employer while I am writing this. These are my own thoughts, observations, research and conclusions. This is a wordpress blog, which means you should ABSOLUTELY FACT CHECK ME, and let me know if I get something wrong via comments. I will be doing my research for this and cite as much as I can. I will also rely on books I have read on the subject like The Middle of Everywhere: Hepling Refugees Enter the American Community by Mary Phipher, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar, among other books and materials including academic materials from sociology and political sciences classes from college. I will also rely on my experiences working with refugee resettlement first in special medial case management, then reception and placement and the youth program, the stories of my friends (here and abroad), coworkers, and clients. Though I will not use specific examples as that breaches a good number of confidentiality agreements and personal boundaries, I will relate the ends and outs I’ve learned. And lastly I will use true, factual media articles—meaning I will stay between the Washington Post and Fox on the media left/right media balance.

While I 100% all-day will fight for refugees and refugee resettlement in the U.S., this series is not meant to be a partisan political piece. I seek to share the information that leads me to conclude refugee resettlement is good for America, a moral mandate and poses no risk to our national security. In a sense, the existence of refugees, and by extension those of us who work in refugee resettlement has become political. Every time I answer the question: so what do you do for work? my answer raises emotions and politics. It is unavoidable. Many people applaud working with this segment of the populations others have raised questions of safety, and a few even feel the need to get loud and angry. While answering the phones at my former employer we got calls from all sides and confusion exists for those in support and opposition, hence the motivation for this mini series. All aspects of immigration are dense, complicated, difficult to access in their entirety and ever-changing so I do understand needing more information and hopefully I can add to the truth.

R&P Closure

When refugees arrive in the U.S. they aren’t just dumped into the general population, they go through a refugee resettlement agency. The agency greets them at the airport makes sure they have a small amount of cash, drive them to their new home, make sure they don’t have any immediate needs, makes sure there is a hot, culturally appropriate meal, give them a cell phone, and in the coming weeks provide cultural orientation classes, helps them navigate the healthcare system, go to health screenings, get kids enrolled in school, get their necessary documents like social security numbers so they can then get a job and be self sufficient, and do all the intimidating legal stuff like register for the selective service and register their new address with USCIS. Refugees are generally entirely self-sufficient in 3-6 months after arrival. The first 90-180 days are called your Reception & Placement period or R&P for short.

Well ironically I have been here for a little over 5 months and it’s time to close my reception and placement at Exodus. Like our clients the adjustment takes time. As I leave Exodus, even though I don’t want to (like a good number of clients), I am ready. They were kind enough to help my readjustment process—something that is hard for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. It is hard to explain, but America is hard to readjust to. You hear stories of RPCVs wandering around Wal-mart crying hysterically. I experienced that emotion in Europe. I spent hours walking around looking at cheeses simultaneously excited about the delicious options and panicking at the cost. When I came home for my sister’s wedding from Guyana I spent no less than 4 hours wandering around REI just touching items, asking questions about products I had no intention of buying. I did end up buying a few things including a super cool knife made by Bear Grylls, but it was just this overwhelming feeling of convenience and appalling level of greed. It’s hard to articulate really, but coming home is hard. You learn and grow when you are living that far outside your comfort zone and you come back as a new person. Your priorities change. I found that I am a more understanding person, but I have to fight against being an elitist butthead from time to time. There are things I cannot unknow, and it impacts my day-to-day life. There are good things like being better with money. It made me more humble, but less tolerant of injustice—perhaps a good thing. I now have a lot less in common with some of the people I love the most. A piece of me will forever be in Guyana and I miss that piece daily.

Then there is the practical adjustment. I am terrible with my phone. I let it die and forget it about because I went a long time without carrying a phone with me. I am learning about new social media and feel like a grandma because I just really haven’t invested in new social media the way my friends have. I have missed out on movies and music and fashion trends and food trends and come back to a slightly foreign homeland.

I also have renewed faith in my relationships that stood the test of time, distance, and change. I still have amazing people in my life who care about things because I care about them, and genuinely love me for the underlying character traits even if we have less in common. It’s easy to be friends when you see someone every day; it’s much harder to stay friends when you live a world away with limited technology. My family at large has been proud of me even though they don’t always understand me.

And so while I wish I could stay at Exodus longer. I wish I had an 18 month R&P period, but I guess 5.5 will have to do. I am grateful for the smooth transition and the many inspirational people who reminded me how to live in the U.S. Until next time!

Reentry

After a few tumultuous months in the states, it’s time for me to get back to processing via writing. So let’s recap quickly the time since I last posted here. I embarked on a 3 month backpacking trip through Europe with Jeremy (for travel blog see: www.BearsandBells.wordpress.com). We arrived back on October 4th, 2016 and on October 6th I met with the Executive Director from Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc., and was rehired as a case aid in the Reception & Placement Department. Jeremy met my friends and family and then I flew to Oregon and met his. Then I started work.

After a week at Exodus, I took on the role of Youth Program Associate and started managing the youth program. It was amazing. It was what I wanted. I was in a role with upward mobility working with vulnerable kids who had no idea they were in the middle of a misguided political pissing match targeting the world’s most vulnerable populations in the name of national security. Of course in refugee resettlement there is always more work than employees so I soon took on 1.5 days/week watching the front desk and answering phones. I also took on some graphic design work with our Outreach and Development department. This was pre election when refugee resettlement agencies were preparing for 110,000. The election’s surprise results left us all in a waiting pattern. We met weekly to say we will wait and see what’s going to happen. After a month or two the shock and mild panic fades out.

Then it was January 27th and a horribly misguided, xenophobic executive order was signed. I don’t want to digress into politics, but simply saying I work with refugees throws me into so many heated political conversations. And while I could, for what feels like the ten millionth time, go step by step through the screening process, give you the history of the program, the differences between refugees and undocumented immigrants, and how refugees contribute to their new communities, for right now I am going to move on (I will likely write that out into a post soon). As a non-profit we walk the line between advocate, an essential part of the job, and remaining apolitical. So that will be the tone I attempt to stay with. While the ban overreaches in a few areas like setting religious preferences, and denying current legal, valid visa holders entry, the scope of the order is unprecedented and the roll out was horrendous leading to mass confusion, most of the Executive Order is legal. The president’s power of determinations allows him to say how many refugees and from what countries we will take refugees. I disagree with his position on Muslims, and Syrians, but the process is inherently discriminatory and that is the power of the presidency. All of this is to say that aspects of the order will stand even if the courts dismantle the 120-day ban. The program will be cut from 110,000 down to 50,000 arrivals. That means that the program was cut by over half, and as that trickles down, that means about half of us will or have lost our jobs, and so that is where I and many of my counterparts across the country am. I wonder what that will mean at the national level, at the state level, the employers who depend on newly arrived refugees, resettlement agencies, interpreters, and so on. I am 26-years-old and unemployed. It sucks!

So here is where I am going. I am aggressively scouring for jobs. Luckily I have some awesome references fighting in my corner, and some majorly marketable experience and skills to fall back on. I took a one-way flight to spend some time with Jeremy on the West Coast. We are headed to the coast today as I write this, and I know that I will find something. I applied for grad school and will likely get my bartending license in whatever state I land. I feel free again and have a great opportunity to create the life I want, and that’s what I intend to do.

Come Let Go

 

It is that day. The day I leave di rock. The day I am officially an RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer). My duty is inactive. My time is now my own. It’s a great burden and relief. I want to cry and smile. I want to be numb and robotic and nostalgic and have the feelings. I want it to be over and I never want to leave. It doesn’t feel real, but it is. I feel all things and nothing. It’s insane. I want my time in Jamaica to matter more. I want to be leaving Guyana. I want to be where I was supposed to be, but that isn’t the case. I am afraid of reintegration. I am excited to see my friends and family. My identity must again shift.

As a PCV people assign you great traits—humanitarian, decent, insured. As a recently returned volunteer you get less great traits—unemployed, broke, lost. It’s a transition that leads to new identities and new meaningful work. I’ll get new titles like case manager, resident, student and maybe attorney. My bank account, phone number and address will once again all be in the same country, and in a year or so they might all even be in the same state! It’s a lot to look forward to and a lot to be grateful for.

And so it is time to go. There’s numbness at this stage. A thoughtless movement that separates me from the severing and reformation of daily life. So if I have to keep moving I will take my cue from Xavier Rudd. One of my favorite songs that remind me of my service is his song Come Let Go on his White Moth Album. It’s one part encouragement to let go and enjoy life and one part the unwavering passage of time. It’s a reggae version of carpe diem, hold the Latin. The video is a series of snapshots of paradise, which is how I will remember my PC time—the snapshots of pure joy that kill the moments of discomfort and distress. And I also take his song Follow the Sun from his album Spirit Bird… yeah I might be a little more hippie than I used to be, but it makes sense for me. I’ll be setting out with Jeremy and then home then out west so I will literally follow the sun and the wind.

My time in Jamaica brought a lot of healing. Leaving Guyana was by far the biggest heartbreak of my life. WAY worse than any break up or hurt feelings. I didn’t do much in terms of development work. I have some kids that I hope learned something. I have some students who I hope will remember that they were so special to me and so important. It’s an odd thing to be at this precipice. I have a lot of peace and come out a better person than I was going in. So I suppose all I can do is take in the view and follow the sun. Until next time, Cheers and Walk Gud!

COME LET GO

Come my Brother

Come Slowly

Come Easy

My friend, come my friend

Come my Sister

Come Easy

Come Breezy

On me you can depend

Come my Brother

Put your Hands up

Take your heart out

Let Go, Come let go

Come my Sister

Can I hold you

Can I squeeze you

Let Go. Come let go.

 

Come Let Go

Come Let go

Come Let Go

 

Come the winter

Come Summer

Come Autumn

Come Spring

Do your thing

Come the river

Come the Mountain

Come the Ocean

Come the trees

You will see

Come the wind

Come the rain

Come the tide in

Come the tide out again

Come the wind

Come the waves

Come the tide in

Come the tide out again

 

FOLLOW THE SUN

Follow, Follow the sun

Which way the wind blows

When this day is done

 

Breathe breathe in the air

Set your intentions

Dream with care

 

Tomorrow’s a new day for everyone

A brand new moon, a brand new sun

 

So follow, follow the sun

The direction of the birds

The directions of love

 

Breathe, breathe in the air

Cherish this moment

Cherish this breath

 

Tomorrow’s a new day for everyone

A brand new moon, a brand new sun

 

When you feel life’s coming down on you like a heavy wave

When you feel this crazy society adding to the strain

Take a straw to the nearest water and remember your place

Many moons have risen and fallen long before you came

So which way is the wind blowing and what does your heart say?

 

So follow, follow the sun

And which way the wind blows

When this day is done

 

Representation

I bought a little book for each of my students so that I could write an inscription to each student. So I go to the bookstore in Morant Bay to buy some books. I ask the lady working there if she has some cheap quality books and we see the Tarantula Tales which are classic tales like Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Ugly Duckling and so on. She also comes up with these workbooks that teach life skills. I looked through them and while the content was good, every single book featured white people. Since none of the 178 students at Cedar Valley Primary Junior High School are white I asked if she had any copies with non-white people in them and she just burst out laughing.

I think part of why she laughed is that white people don’t often talk about race because it generally makes us feel guilty and uncomfortable (no excuse) and so my question was surprising. And I think she laughed partly because it’s absurd that Jamaica at 93% black, features white folks in their books about life skills—and by life skills I mean books about the traits one should acquire to be successful and most pleasant. I settled on the Tarantula Tales books that featured animals so as to not offer more white people in a black republic. It seems like such a little thing. After all I read a lot of books featuring non-whites, but the big difference is that I also have a WIDE array of white stories to choose from. This is a big deal to me. I grew up knowing that I could be anything. I read about white presidents, white princesses, white veterinarians, white scientists, white photographers, white teachers, white nurses, white doctors, white lawyers, white athletes, white writers, white anything and everything. I also read about the occasional non-white, but the examples were few and far between.

 

And the reason this is sooo damaging is that my students don’t see that they can be anything. They read story about white people even while being in a black republic. They are taught that white stories matter more than stories from people of color. The message goes on and on. They see a lot of people of color in entertainment roles like Beyonce or Vybz Kartel or LeBron James and the internalized message is that blacks can be successful as entertainment, but very rarely as professionals. It’s so problematic and infuriating. President Obama is hugely popular in Jamaica, and not because his policies are popular, but because the U.S. electing a POC sent a message that the U.S. does value POC. It’s a huge step in the right direction, but one of very few steps.

 

And the few stories written by POC are about “culture.” That is the only time we read POC in school is when we are seeking out a niche. We want to read about Africa or Asia or South America. We do not read stories about POC very often in our day to day about ordinary life. We read Chinua Achebe because he writes about Africa. We read Langston Hughes as part of a minor movement in our history. We don’t read POC talking about politics or fashion or history or in science fiction or romance. We only read POC when they talk about distant lands or offer an indictment of Donald Trump to rally around. It’s assigning POC a singular role.

 

And this lack of representation goes from childhood on up. And it is not as if POC don’t write. It took one google search to find 1000s of blogs, magazines, reviews and books by POC. The problem is that as white people we seek the guidance of white people first. I think back to some of the influential books I’ve read about race throughout my schooling and with the exception of Mya Angelo and Toni Morrison, I have Tim Wise (white), Harper Lee (white), Mark Twain (white) and others. While these writers get props for being concerned about racism and for taking the role of white allies, they ultimately made money off the misery, oppression and struggles of POC throughout history. While fighting racism they became a white surrogate to actually listening to POC. THIS IS NOT OKAY. We owe people of color not only a platform to write, but our attention. If we are to seek out the truth of racism and really truly endeavor ourselves to eradicate it, we need to start seeking out voices that really know and understand what it is like to be a POC in the states. We need to read not only the Obama’s of the world, but also the blogs. We need to grant the plurality of identity that white people enjoy to POC. So without further rambling I offer you Some Awesome Blogs From POC talking about issues of identity, racism and how to be better people:

African Voices

Kweli

Kin Folks Quarterly

Writing With Color

Kyoto

50 Books by People Of Color