News

Home at Last, in America
(by Holly Johnson, director Tennessee Office for Refugees, for Tennessee Voices [The Tennessean])

Posted 06/20/2014

Last fall, the Tennessee General Assembly commissioned an independent study on the cost of refugee resettlement to the state of Tennessee. What this study found was that refugees pay more in taxes than they consume in benefits - in fact, twice as much. Although the study was comprehensive in its scope, it was unable to address the non-monetary value of refugees in our state, and that number cannot easily be enumerated.

One of my favorite posters states, "A bundle of belongings isn't the only thing a refugee brings to his new country. Einstein was a refugee." When most of us picture a refugee, we usually visualize someone who is malnourished and poor, with a hopeless expression and a small bag of clothes. We picture someone who may not speak any English. We think of someone who doesn't know our culture or our norms, and who may not have any obvious skills to share.

And this image is spot-on. At least on the day they arrive.

But then something miraculous happens. They arrive at the apartment that has been rented for them and they smile. They have a HOME - something that's escaped them for, in the majority of cases, more than a decade. They have beds and pillows and they have access to food. And most importantly, they have the very beginnings of a community.

Shortly thereafter, refugees begin to learn English. They learn about and observe our culture, and they experience life in the U.S. Their kids are in school and they're looking for a job and life is a little kinder.

Then suddenly, refugees are no longer "refugees" but Americans. The skills they brought with them to this country become evident and are put to good use. They create businesses and employ others. Their children go to college and become doctors. They start organizations to help others in need. They pay taxes and they vote and it's hard to tell them apart from those born in this country.

This transformation doesn't happen overnight; it isn't easy and it takes a community. Those who find themselves fortunate enough to resettle in Tennessee are welcomed by those who share in the pain of their past, the celebration of their present and the hope of their future.

Today, we recognize World Refugee Day as a day in which we, collectively, across the globe, do the same - share the pain, celebrate the present, and hope for a future where others don't experience what so many of our friends and fellow Americans already have. We reach out to those who are new to Tennessee and we do what Tennesseans do best - we volunteer. We volunteer so that we can be a small piece of someone's joy, of someone's transformation - of someone's life. This is what makes us human, and what makes us American. America is a country of people who bring their gifts to the table and share them with others. Let us all do the same in honor of those who have struggled more than we will ever know.

Holly Johnson is state refugee coordinator for the Tennessee Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee Inc. designated by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to administer the state refugee resettlement program; hjohnson@cctenn.org.

SOURCE: http://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2014/06/20/home-last-america/10896563/





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