Refugees come to the United States expecting to be free of the hardships they faced in their old lives. However, life in America presents an entirely new set of challenges.When refugees picture their lives in America, they envision a world where they can obtain anything if they work hard enough. They can have financial stability, safe living conditions, job opportunities, quality education, and freedom from persecution. These expectations are often tempered by several factors, such as discrimination and language barriers.
Uwiringiyimana succinctly summarizes this concept in How Dare the Sun Rise. She writes:
I had grown up in a war zone, but life in America, I realized, was a different kind of war zone.Discrimination.
Uwiringiyimana, page 171
Unfortunately, discrimination is prevalent in American society. All the refugees I spoke to reported that they had felt this in one way or another. Some were stereotyped because of their accent or race; employers assumed they were not capable or intelligent. Others experienced it in the education system, where it was too hard for some schools to communicate effectively with parents across culture and language barriers. Chambers gives an example of discrimination within the American education system in her book Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus.
Discrimination within American religious organizations can also make life harder for refugees and immigrants. Portes and Rumbaut examine the role of the Catholic church in their book, Immigrant America.
Beyond accusations of police brutality, a very real concern for Somali parents is the education and safety of their children. The graduation rate for Somalis is low, although the true number is impossible to specify because Somalis are lumped into the “African American” category. Respondents in this study expressed uniform concern about providing educational and employment options for young people, who might otherwise turn to illegal activities, gang affiliation, or other negative behaviors. A Columbus respondent explained:
"Somali kids don’t see a lot of options. A good number don’t graduate [high school], and then they are left without options. They have the same problems we see among other kids from poor areas of Columbus, only they have the added challenge of feeling as though people in the community don’t care about them because they’re Somali.”
Chambers, pages 53-54
Lopez contrasts the Italian immigrant experience of a century ago with that of Mexicans today. Despite the initial resistance of the Irish-dominated hiercharchy, Italians were eventually incorporated into the Catholic “mobility machine” of elementary and secondary schools, universities, and hospitals. Mexicans, on the other hand, were largely excluded from these vital services and were never sufficiently integrated into the priesthood or the church’s hierarchy. Their Catholicism continued to adhere to the traditional practices of processions, masses, and prayers but without connection effectively to the church-linked secular initiatives that provided a “lift” in the past for successful integration into American society. If anything, services went the other way as the traditional [religiousness] of migrants in the United States subsidized the upkeep of Catholic parishes and schools in Mexico.60
Portes and Rumbaut, page 332
Much of the literature I reviewed discussed the impact of systemic racism and police brutality on the refugee/immigrant community. Zoboi wrote about this at the end of her novel, American Street.
Uwiringiyimana also addressed this topic in How Dare the Sun Rise. She wrote:
Yet, more often than not, these girls and their families leave their home countries only to move to other broken and disenfranchised communities. I kept thinking about how these girls balance their own values and culture with the need to survive and aim for the American dream.
One girl in particular stuck out in my mind. When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in February 2012, he had been on the phone with Rachel Jeantel, the daughter of a Haitian immigrant. During her testimony in the George Zimmerman trial, I recognized a little bit of myself in Rachel, and in the many Haitian teen girls I’ve worked with over the years. We fold our immigrant selves into this veneer of what we think is African American girlhood. The result is more jagged than smooth. This tension between our inherited identity and our newly adopted selves filters into our relationships with other girls and the boys we love, and into how we interact with the broken places around us. I saw Fabiola in these girls, and that’s how this story was truly born.
Zoboi, page 326
I began to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of race in America. I learned that the way black people were portrayed on TV certainly did not reflect the much more nuanced and complicated reality. I learned about tensions between black people and the police. I learned how black parents would warn their kids to be careful around the officers, because a black kid could get shot for simply running down the street. I learned how black parents would advise their kids to keep their driver’s license somewhere accessible, so they wouldn’t have to dig deep for it, lest the cops think they were reaching for a gun.
Uwiringiyimana, page 169
Language barriers can stand between refugees/immigrants and good opportunities. Those who resettle in America often cite learning English as the most difficult part about adjusting to their new environment—in fact, a majority of the women I interviewed emphasized this point to me. Without English language skills it can be hard to access education, employment, and social services.
Watch the following clip to hear from immigrants about their experience learning English in the US.