For two hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I assume the life of a refugee. My name is Annet. I’m a 25-year-old widow with two small children. I’m from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and I have fled from civil unrest in my country. My younger child was born in the refugee camp, where I spent over three years applying for resettlement. In the DRC I was a farmer and did some gardening on the side. I have never attended school and couldn’t work in the fields because my late husband was very ill. He did not survive the journey to the refugee camp. I’m alone with two children and have reapplied for resettlement at least twice. My native language is Lingala, and I understand some French. When I hear someone speak English, it’s like listening to farm animals squawking.
My Sunday afternoon refugee experience was a simulation organized and conducted by Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). JVS was founded in 1938 to assist Jews fleeing to the United States from Germany and Austria. The non-profit organization provided job training and helped to secure employment. After World War II, JVS extended its services to all refugees from Europe, as well as returning soldiers looking to reintegrate into civilian life.
In the 21st century, JVS continues to expand its mandate and helps all refugees. Jerry Rubin, president and CEO, framed our afternoon with current statistics to help us better “experience the weight of the journey.” There are more refugees in the world today than at any other time since the United Nations has been recording the global refugee crisis. Sixty-five million people have been displaced from their homes. Of those 65 million, 25 million are officially refugees. However, as overwhelming as these statistics are, it was the horrific image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up dead on the shores of Greece in 2015 that galvanized the world.
Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled, and the process can take years before a permanent resettlement. This year, the refugee ceiling in the United States is capped at 30,000. This is the lowest cap since 1981. In Massachusetts, 1,000 refugees were resettled last year. That is half the number of people who were resettled the year before, and 75 percent less than the year before that.
Once in America, my confusion increases tenfold. I hit a wall of bureaucracy that leaves me dazed and frightened. I’m separated from the only person I found who understands my language. I’m alone with two children to figure out the maze of services I need to survive. After a number of false starts, I secure an apartment. But I have a list of four objectives to complete during the simulation. The first is to secure cash assistance. The task is herculean. I am turned away three times for various reasons. I haven’t filled out the paperwork correctly. The staff is on a lunch break. I need to establish proof of residency in Massachusetts.
I shuffle off to find the office where I can register as a Massachusetts resident. That process has its bumps, but I’m soon in possession of the proof I need for cash assistance. With cash in hand, I can buy train tickets to visit other agencies to register my children at school and go to JVS to attend a class in “English as a Second Language,” and to receive job skills training. I eventually land a job as a dishwasher.
I am tired and disoriented, yet relieved to have a job. I still have some of the money allotted to me and head over to the grocery store to buy some basics. Before I reach the store, time is up. The simulation is over. I have accomplished only three of my four assigned objectives. And I will wash dishes to support my children starting on Monday morning.
We number about 70 participants and debrief about experiences in groups of 10. Many people say they felt frustrated as they went through the maze of bureaucracy without language skills. One woman says she pantomimed her way to receive cash assistance. Some people talk about the fear of landing in an unknown place.
As for me, I feel sad. I think back to the five most important or valuable possessions I was asked to list as Annet. I fully expected to bring those objects with me to America. They included a necklace from my grandmother. At the entrance to the refugee camp, Annet is asked to divest herself of three of the five objects she has with her. Staying in character, I opt to keep practical things like a photo ID and some money I have saved. My grandmother’s necklace, a shining talisman in the midst of all this displacement, will not accompany me on my long journey after all.