This story begins a series on people escaping war and persecution around the world and finding refuge and safety in Mobile.
“I have a need to go out into the hardest places and work with the hardest people. I ended up in Mobile trying to get a community to care about people who are different from them. Refugees fleeing war and persecution is one of the big issues of our day and we can make a difference about this in Mobile. We settle about 150 refugees in Mobile each year and this began at a small church trying to help refugees with big needs. It takes 10 to 12 people to help a family settle in. We couldn’t provide enough help for what they need, so we started a non-profit named Dwell Mobile. It has been fulfilling.
We became an organization in May 2015. A few months later the picture came out of the Kurdish boy who drowned and was washed to shore when his family was escaping from Syria. Then Paris was attacked and our governor was the first to say we don’t refugees in this state. We are in the middle of something and people wanted to talk to me because Mobile is the only city in Alabama that takes in refugees. This started in 1975 with Vietnamese refugees for the fishing industry.
Refugees get to Mobile through a process and most are fleeing war and persecution. They escape to a neighboring country and live illegally or register to live in a refugee camp run by the UN. Their case begins when they apply for asylum. There are 15-20 million refugees, but there are 65 million displaced people. About 35,000 people flee their homes each day. In one week, Mobile would be gone. This happens every day and all of these people are told there is no place for you. Half of these are kids.
There is a process of disappointment when they finally get to the U.S. They come with big dreams and expectations of America and don’t realize how hard they are going to have to work because they didn’t have to work that hard in their own country. We also put them in the middle of poverty and broken systems. They are coming from communal societies and need a social network. In the U.S. we are so individualistic. We don’t give handouts but we give a network of support to help them through. They also have guilt because they get out and find safety and a better life. As soon as they can survive on their own they want to bring their family here.
There is a woman who came here from Sudan who is discriminated against at her job because she is black and Muslim. Nothing is given to them. I have never been through what they have been through and it makes me aware of my privilege. I am reading a book that says the time to use privilege is when you are pulling others up. I experience privilege every day and it is tempting to feel ashamed, but we are supposed to use that to help others.
We run a cultural acclimation program through classes at Springhill college. Acclimation makes a difference in preventing the radicalization of people. People don’t want to be radical. They need help and assistance adjusting. We help them learn how to make Mobile home and how to make a home. I know what we are doing and the human connection helps. We help change people’s stories.
Mobile is small and a program like Dwell can make an impact more easily here. We still have a lot we want to do. I want to help refugees to become volunteers in the community and to have a voice. This has to work because hopelessness and despair is the alternative.
Earlier this year, The Daily Show called me and wanted help with a segment when they were doing stories from Alabama. I was a little nervous about how they would present us but realized the worst they could do was spin it and say if these idiots can help refugees, you can too. I was okay to be that idiot. When taping was over, the reporter came up and said she was inspired by what we do. It was well done and gave a good picture of who refugees are.
Traveling and seeing the world changed me. I grew up on a farm in the middle of Kansas. My dad rented out farming wheat and I drove a tractor and wheat truck. In high school, we moved to Pretty Prairie, a small Kansas town. My class had grown up together and they didn’t know how to welcome a new person because they never had to. That was hard on me. I don’t think anyone intended to shut me out, it was just hard to step out of your own comfort zone to meet someone else. We also went to a Mennonite church that did a lot of service work. That all made me intentional about serving and welcoming someone who is new.
I have a different way to measure my success with Dwell. I know I can’t change anyone to look like me or have a life and beliefs that I have. I am more changed by them than they are by me. I help them, but they give me so much more. It makes the world smaller. I count that as the success because my world has changed.”