Monday, June 18, 2018

Special guest post by Daina Jurika-Owen about refugee life stories

I have a special guest post by Daina Jurika-Owen today.

Originally from Latvia, when Daina Jurika-Owen, Ph.D., came to the U.S., her first job was at a refugee resettlement agency in Abilene, Texas. Throughout her tenure, she learned to navigate the complicated waters of the refugee process while meeting people with unique and uplifting stories of survival.

In her book, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories, Daina guides us through their journeys and draws us into the world of refugees and resettlement staff, describing the passion and energy needed to help these courageous storytellers resettle in the US and the challenges they faced.

Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories, winner of the 2018 IPPY Silver Award, features refugee storytellers from a broad swath of cultures—Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Cuba, Iraq, Bhutan, and more—who reveal their compelling, sometimes humorous, often bittersweet tales of resettlement in West Texas. Through their life stories, refugees share their powerful experiences about the long, hard road they took to get to the US. She says, “Their story worlds offer a deeper understanding of humanitarian causes, cultural diversity, and the complex issues faced in a variety of ways.” Each chapter contains a hand-drawn map of the respective country to serve as the entry point to each culture and life story, along with photos as representations of each ethnic group.

Six Lessons from Ten Cultures
As I reflect on all the valuable lessons I’ve learned from refugees while working on my book Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories, I realize they are totally different depending on which “hat” I choose to put on or which identity I assume. “Me” as “a professional resettlement worker turned writer/interviewer” learned something quite different from what I learned as “a simple human being.”

Well, let’s get done with “business identity” first. The main lesson here—in several disguises—was about assumptions:
  1. Never assume. Do not assume that refugees who speak fluent English know everything about American culture and social norms. It took me a while to figure this out, but after an English-speaking family from Kenya had decorated their sofa cushions with table mats and a young Liberian man did not show up for his first day of work simply because it was raining, I learned my first lessons.
  2. Assumptions followed me when I started interviewing refugees, as well. I took for granted that all refugees hated living in a refugee camp until I interviewed Issa, one of my Liberian storytellers, who stated openly that she liked her life in the refugee camp just fine. It did not matter to Issa that her bed was made of dirt and covered with straw. She could still enjoy her life in the camp and various activities—Friday evening dance parties and sports events where she was a cheerleader—and had good friends and neighbors and fellow students in the camp school. I had neglected to notice the impact of human connections.
  3. I also assumed that those same refugees who had happily shared their life stories with me while I was employed at the resettlement agency would want to tell those stories for my storybook. I was wrong. When I started my book project and called my refugee friends to invite them for interviews, many of them were not interested. I realized that refugees had shared stories with me because they had a reason: getting my attention as a refugee worker, looking for a special treatment. Their stories were meant for me as a social worker and not anyone else.

The other lessons were “personal lessons,” ones that touch all of us as human beings:
  1. The one I enjoyed most is this: everything tastes better with a dash of humor. If you can learn to laugh about your own mistakes and take your mishaps with a smile, you will be alright. Or even better—laugh, if you can! My Burundian storyteller Patrick has mastered this and makes us laugh with him as he tells about his mishaps during his first year in the US. So, when I feel too important, I remind myself about Patrick.
  2. Another lesson, a more serious one: learn to forgive. We all—or almost all—have one or two people in our lives who we cannot easily forgive. They were mean, hurt you, made you cry, shorted you of the deserved promotion at work, stole your boyfriend or girlfriend... We struggle with the notion of forgiveness. Rwandese storyteller Herman brings forgiveness to a different level, reflecting on his ability to forgive the people who killed his mother and siblings during the Rwandan genocide. In his case, he cannot hate all Hutus just because some Hutu extremists killed Tutsis—people from Herman’s ethnic group.
  3. And the final lesson: we are all human. “Oh, what’s new in that?” you’d say. But we forget about it so often that this reminder is quite in place. We often focus on our differences—different languages, traditional garbs of different colors, strange customs and traditions—but what we forget is that under all these differences, we all are human, storytellers and interviewers, case workers and newly arrived refugees, writers and readers. And we all want to live in peace, experience love and happiness, and follow our dreams. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying ethnic food, but that should not divide us.

You will find more about resettlement work and refugees and their lives in my book Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories (Amaya Books, 2018). I am sure each one of us has a lesson to learn, although it may be a different one.

About myself:
I am a former refugee resettlement professional and an academically trained folklorist. Originally from Riga, Latvia, I live in Abilene, Texas, and am a freelance writer, translator and refugee advocate. My nonfiction book, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories is available on Amazon and at my own website. In April 2018, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories was recognized with a silver medal in 2018 IPPY Awards.

I have authored several publications on culture, folklore, and proverbs and published a cultural cookbook.

I love diversity and hearing different languages in my office every day. My dream is to live through a hurricane season in Belize rainforests and collect people’s stories there.

Thank you for sharing part of the story with us today, Daina.


Unknown said...

Having worked as a caseworker under Daina for short period, and then reading her book ten or so years down the road, I have to say that this book is accurate and incredibly authentic. I learned so much during my few months as a caseworker that I would be able to fill my own little book with them.

I would say that my first lesson came from Victorine, a beautiful 16 year-old unaccompanied minor I was a "befriender" to when I was a graduate student in Scotland. As her volunteer befriender, we would talk in English and meet up at different places in town to practice her language skills and to experience life in a new country. One time, we went to the ice skating rink. I was petrified of riding public transportation. I could handle the subway (It is just a circle in Glasgow and hard to get lost on.), but buses were beyond me. She is the one who got us to the shopping center with the rink, not me. I showed her how to skate some, but she is the one who lead the way there.

Daina Jurika-Owen said...

Lisa Haselton, thank you for the opportunity to share my 'lessons learned' on your blog.
Leyla Norman, I appreciate your comments! I wish we could engage more participants.