Where to begin? Six months have passed, yet I feel like I just began to get the hang of things. Growing up the daughter of two immigrants and biracial, I can empathize with the feeling of existing in between; as a newly arrived refugee, you are neither an American citizen, nor are you often a recognized citizen of the country you fled. For some, they have never even stepped foot in the country their parents or grandparents fled, yet the country they were born in or have resided in their whole life does not recognize them either. I am truly honored every time I get to welcome a family into the U.S. The process they had to undergo to get here can hardly be compared to any other immigration process; their stories often include warnings of family friends who missed a single appointment, and were subsequently denied their request for resettlement, not to mention their journeys prior to making it into the refugee system.
At the same time, however, I cannot help but tremble behind the smile I show them as they descend the steps at the airport. They have been told such wonderful stories about the U.S. – the counselors in the refugee camps tell them uplifting stories about living in the U.S. while families sometimes wait years to be resettled. Yet I know nothing in the U.S. will truly come easy for my families; the U.S. is an amazing place, yet it is not without its own problems. I must admit, learning to manage expectations is the hardest part of my job. For the highly skilled worker, I must often inform them that in the U.S., their work experience often puts them at a disadvantage, as they are over-qualified for most positions that will hire them immediately, and “underqualified” for the positions they held previously, as their degrees and work experiences are not readily recognized in the U.S., and they must compete with other highly educated Americans who can wait several months before being hired. My job has also taught me to look past a person’s words to see their true meaning: Someone who is upset about their housing is not expressing dissatisfaction at perfectly adequate housing that many low-income families in the U.S. would only be happy to have if they could afford the security deposit and various application and permit fees. Rather, this is a head of family who realizes they must protect and advocate for their family to help them prosper in the U.S. by making sure they never miss an available opportunity to receive something better. And sometimes it is simply a matter of failed expectations, as all some have ever seen of the U.S. is what makes it into magazines (HGTV Magazine for example). Nevertheless, one thing all my clients seem to agree upon is regardless of any impediments they may face during their resettlement period or the years and decades after, the U.S. provides them, their spouses, and their children with more opportunities than they had previously, and that alone is enough to overcome any obstacles they may face. That, and all my clients agree that the food in the U.S. is incredibly plain or way too salty.
The second hardest thing for me has oddly been my own religion and being a part of Mercy Volunteer Corps (MVC). Being a Mercy volunteer and a life-long religious person basically explicitly emphasized to me the need to be merciful. The Spiritual and Corporal Acts of Mercy all speak to the trend of giving without reservation: providing to individuals what they need and looking past transgressions – or at least, that is what I understood prior to undertaking my service year. What MVC taught me, through both my position and the guidance of my MVC support team and spiritual sessions, is that mercy takes many forms; mercy can take the form of comforting a client when they are expressing concerns about being unable to pay bills and helping them to find a way to pay their bills. However, mercy can also be allowing a client to spend a few days worrying over a bill or forgetting to pay a bill, so that they will understand the consequences of failing to save their money for important matters or remembering deadlines while they still have the comfort and safety of their case manager to help them when they stumble. Our agency’s guiding philosophy is we work with our clients rather than for them. Everything, especially mistakes, is a learning experience that empowers a client to face challenges in the future. I would rather my client make mistakes when they can still turn to me for support, rather than a few years down the road when they are on their own, and only have minimal support from the agency. My desire and prayers for my client and their family’s success mean that I must sometimes be comfortable with my client being uncomfortable. I must allow them to overcome their discomfort to achieve their goals, even if it means simply serving as a kind and supportive presence as I watch them make fixable mistakes I had warned them against, only to teach them how to fix them, or watch them struggle through a process I could have completed myself on their behalf in half the time. Moreover, I have begun to more fully appreciate the value in informing my clients of my own mistakes and let them witness my own frustrations on their behalf, to allow them to realize it is o.k. to make mistakes, and even more so to get upset when someone is denying you something you may deserve, and to use that frustration to motivate oneself rather than simply giving up.
The biggest compliment my clients can give me, as a case manager, at the end of their resettlement period is to say they do not need to rely upon me anymore. While I constantly struggle with feeling as if I am being hard-hearted and unmerciful, in reality, I remind myself it is more merciful to empower someone to be their own advocate and to become confident in their own ability to overcome challenges and rely upon themselves. It was something I was taught growing up when facing adversity, and I am infinitely appreciative that I now get the chance to pass on that lesson, with its many forms of mercy, to my clients.
Basically, the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) version is: if you want to learn more about yourself and become a better people-person, all while having the support of an amazing, always having your back (even when the water stops working), and get-you-though-anything-but-please-pick-your-socks-up-from-the-floor community, MVC is for you!
With love from the Pitt(sburgh),
P.S. Did I mention I love my community? We’d definitely win Survivor together.
Aquiel Warner: AJAPO, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania