The National Catholic Review

Every year the president determines how many refugees will be allowed into the United States for permanent resettlement. In 2001, President Bush set the number at 70,000. But in the wake of Sept. 11, the government decided to carry out a security review of the refugee screening process and shut down almost all of its overseas refugee resettlement processing. The review dragged on for months. By January 2002 the State Department had admitted only 700 refugees. The entire resettlement system now stands in danger of collapse. Though written before Sept.11, the new book by Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere, vividly illustrates what our country would lose if we stopped welcoming refugees into our communities. She introduces us to a diverse group of refugees recently resettled in her hometown of Lincoln, Neb. The author, a nationally known psychologist, volunteered part time in the local refugee resettlement agency. Pipher helped the newcomers navigate their way through the many complexities of American daily life. In the process of befriending the refugees, she discovered that the world had come to Lincoln, and Lincoln would never be the same.

To understand how and why refugees can transform themselves and their adopted communities, Mary Pipher gently draws a picture of where they came from and how they got here. Every refugee has a story, and these stories can sometimes break your heart. Consider an Afghan woman named Sadia, whom Pipher befriends. Sadia spent most of her life on the run and in Taliban prison camps. In Nebraska she works long hours in a factory to support herself and her teenage daughter.

Sadia is not an immigrant; she is a refugee. Immigrants voluntarily decide to move to another country; refugees are forced to move. Almost a million immigrants enter the United States legally each year, but the number of refugees is much smaller. Refugees must first prove to the satisfaction of the U.S. government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that they were forced to flee from their home countries because of persecution. The terrorists who hit New York City and Washington, D.C., did not enter the country as refugees because the screening process is too rigorous. It is ironic that the U.S. government shut down the refugee program, which involves all sorts of fingerprinting and background checks, but continued the immigration visa programs, which can be much less demanding.

If a refugee passes all the tests, she then gets approved for entry and is turned over to one of several national private resettlement agencies. The largest refugee resettlement agency, for example, is run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops through many dioceses. The national agency, with the help of a modest State Department grant, assigns the refugee to a local community or church agency in some area of the country. And so, sometimes in a rather arbitrary way, the refugee is sent to a place like Nebraska. The personal background stories of refugees arriving at the airport in Lincoln are littered with horrifying experiences of near-death, torture, rape, imprisonment and dangerous escapes. They leave most everything behind except what they carry in their hearts and souls. As the author says, they arrive “penniless but not cultureless.”

Mary Pipher understands that of all the needs of the human spirit, the need for roots is primary. Without roots, there would be no language, no culture, no cuisine, no religious traditions, no family life. So persons who are forcibly uprooted and then set down in a new place go through a severe, almost ontological, experience during which their entire lives are turned upside down. They must learn a new language, a new cuisine, make new friends, adopt new cultural habits. Psychologically, the most amazing thing about refugees is that they survive at all. But survive they do, and often they thrive in their new land.

Pipher quickly notices that with refugees, what one sees on the surface is different from what is going on inside. The Iraqi dishwasher in the restaurant kitchen used to be an architect. The smiling Vietnamese teenage girl, decked out in her flashy all-American clothes, was raped by pirates and saw her father murdered. The cocky Kurdish boy who is listening to hip-hop music saw his village exterminated by Saddam Hussein’s army. It is as if the world and all its tragedies are parading through our home-town America, but we never notice them.

The refugees in this book are not passive victims. They change the face of the communities in which they take root. As an example, Pipher notes that when she was growing up in Lincoln, it was strictly a white, Protestant meat-and-potatoes town. Today, the city bubbles with many ethnic festivals, exotic food stores and world religions.

The newcomers can also witness to the dark underside of American freedom. Pipher details how over and over again the refugees are shocked by the sexual promiscuity, teenage drug use and disrespect for teachers and elders in Lincoln. One refugee concludes that Americans seem to care only about time and money.

The reader who listens carefully to the refugee voices in this book begins to see how they are bringing to our shores cultural values that our own society is in great danger of losing: sexual modesty, communal sharing, strong families, love of learning. Refugees come bearing these and many other cultural and spiritual gifts.

The saddest sections of this book are not about the dramatic horrors the refugees left behind, but the challenges they face in American life. Pipher tells us about refugee teenagers trying desperately to fit in with their peers but never being accepted. She sees older refugees who fail to learn English and are condemned to live out their lives in a neighborhood where they cannot speak to anyone. She describes families that unwittingly fall into major debt because no one explained to them how a credit card works. Mary Pipher also shows, by her own volunteer service, how one person can make a big difference in the lives of refugees. She acts as their “cultural broker,” helping them to get a driver’s license or enroll in school or find a doctor. In the Jesuit Refugee Service we would call her role “accompaniment.” She is simply present to the refugee as a trusted friend, serving in any way she can. But accompanying a refugee can also be fun. Clearly the author takes much joy in the picnics, laughter, small gifts and new friendships that emerge from her work as a volunteer. Refugees, more than most people, have a deep appreciation for what is important in life. That appreciation can be contagious.

The book is bound to motivate readers to seek out refugees in their own communities. In fact, Pipher includes as a handy appendix “Instructions for People Working with Newcomers” and “How to Become a Cultural Broker.” Unfortunately, since Sept. 11, Heartland Refugee Resettlement in Lincoln, Neb., has had to make a 30 percent staff cut because so few refugees were being resettled there. The Bush administration has promised to jump-start the national program, but given our new homeland security concerns, it may be very difficult to meet the president’s goal. This book, through the rich individual stories, makes a compelling case for bringing more, not fewer, refugees into our communities. Refugees can put a human face on the wildly chaotic events taking place in the world today. Through their interactions with us, these poor and vulnerable people bring the world to our doorstep. They bless America with their presence.

Richard Ryscavage, S.J., is secretary for social and international ministries at the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C., and national director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.