Real Talk: Humanizing The Refugee Crisis
At Foxxtales, we dare to dig deeper and uncover the truth about hard hitting topics. Kirsten Helgeson, a volunteer at the Headwaters Disaster Relief Organization, has dedicated her life to assisting those in the midst of crisis across the globe. From Haiti to Greece, Kirsten is on the ground providing aid to immigrants, refugees and orphans in need. She spoke to us about what she's learned throughout her service and we discuss how we can change our minds and open our hearts towards the refugees crisis.
Foxxtales: Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you are going to be doing over in Haiti?
KH: The organization that I volunteer with is the Headwaters Disaster Relief Organization. They’ve been down in Haiti, since the earthquake in 2010. While they were there, they made a long-term commitment to support relief efforts down there. I think the earthquake revealed a longer term need for support and on-going assistance. They focus on providing support for children, specifically in orphanages and in schools. The support that we do really varies place to place. We’ll spend time in a number of different orphanages that we have long-term relationships with. We bring a lot of supplies, like clothes, shoes, food and school supplies. We focus on doing different activities with the kids while we’re down there. A lot of the work that we do is anchored in psycho-social activities to help kids, in a group format, to work through some of the trauma [they’ve experienced] and learn how to handle their emotions. Simple activities that seem really insignificant can give them the coping mechanisms and tools that they need to heal from a traumatic environment and experiences.
Foxxtales: When you think of “relief efforts”, you don’t automatically think about relieving the mental pressures of being an orphan or a refugee. You normally think about clothes, food and medicine. But, you’ve seen how crucial mental relief efforts are for these people.
KH: It’s so true. There’s so much need out there to get more people through the emotional processing that they’re going through, when trauma occurs. There’s a lot that happens when a person experiences a traumatic or negative event. Just from basic safety. [They have questions like,] “Do I feel safe where I am?”, “Do I know how to deal with the negative circumstances around me?”, “How do I deal with that?”, “What does this mean for myself?” When there’s an earthquake, or a hurricane, or even in poverty, kids don’t know how to process that. The simple act of teaching a kid how to blow up a balloon can really make a huge difference because you’re teaching them how to breathe. Through deep breathing, they can learn how to calm themselves down.
CF: I believe that a big part of what you’re doing is sharing their stories. The media portrays what’s going on in the world as so remote from us. These crises can feel like something that you can’t relate to. When you share their stories, it’s a side that we don’t get to see. It’s relatable.
KH: It’s so easy to look at “disaster” as a whole or “refugees” as a complete cult. The reality is: all of these populations are filled with individuals who have gone through extreme situations. In many cases, [they’ve] seen the worst of what humanity can do to each other. [It’s important for us to] understand their sacrifice, the fear that they’ve had to overcome and the sheer love that they’ve had to walk through life this way. At the end of the day, that’s all they’re left with: love. You really start to realize that the things that we’re afraid of in this world, the barriers that we put up, and the labels that we give each other are just imaginary. They’re the things that separate us. When in reality, we have so much more in common. If we could just lean into that a little bit more, I really believe it will bring so much more good into this world.
Foxxtales: Speaking about acceptance, you told me how you were warmly welcomed into an Afghani refugee family. Can you tell me about your relationship?
KH: Yes. I feel very honored that I was able to be accepted into a family that’s gone through so much. I’ve never had to walk out of my country. That’s never been my reality. So yes, my Afghani family is extremely important and very special to me. Refugees are some of the most generous people that I’ve encountered in my life. They give so freely their love, their time and their affection. They cook for you. They welcome you into their tents. They just show up with so much love and compassion. With my Afghani family, this is exactly how I was received by them. When I was leaving them for the first time, they gave me a ring. They put a ring on my finger. When I looked down on this ring, [I realized] it’s a wedding band. This is a treasure to them and obviously came from someone in their family that they love. They’ve carried this one piece of jewelry with them across multiple countries, where they’ve had to sell everything else that they own. So, this ring - right here - is special to them. They gave that ring to me because they love me. They want me to feel that love everyday. I never take the ring off and I never will because it’s a constant reminder that there are people in this world that I deeply and profoundly love for reasons that are unexplainable.
Foxxtales: That’s so beautiful and touching. I remember you showing me pictures of them at dinner. I can tell you really love them. But, I think what’s going on it America today is that there’s so much fear about who people are different from us, etc. What is something that you could tell America to alleviate some of these fears and open us up more?
KH: One of the most feared people in the United States is a 40-year old Middle Eastern man, right? For me, my Afghani family is a complete family. There’s a mom, dad and three kids. That’s really special and lucky because most families don’t have all of that still. When I first met the father, he was very honoring to me and bowing. The Muslim culture is very respectful to gender.
He told me a story about how he left Afghanistan 25 years ago. He then went to Pakistan. Obviously, things in Pakistan didn’t go well after awhile. So, he moved to Iran where he met his wife, who is also Afghani. They got married and had three kids. He worked in the Iranian oil fields and that was very hard, things weren’t easy for them. So that’s how they became refugees and wound up in Greece. He said, “Look at my life. I feel like no one is listening to me. Everyday, I wonder how did we get here? Is anybody listening?”
He said that he has a sister who he left when he left Afghanistan. Back then, when you left, you left everything. He said it brought him tremendous sadness in a way that was very hard to explain to people. He said that for the first in 25 years, when I walked through the door, he felt like he had his sister back. He was getting very emotional about all of this. He said, “My family is your family. You are my family.” When you think about it, this is this archetype of fear: a 40 year old Muslim Middle Eastern man. Here he is, wandering this Earth and trying to find a place called “home.” He’s wondering where his home went. It’s that kindness and compassion that builds those bridges. Through that, we’ve been able to find a deep, familiar love.
When I think about talking to the American people, [my words would be] “give people a chance.” Know them. Hear their stories. Understand that the struggles that they've gone through are not so far off from where you’re at. When I hear people [voice their concerns about allowing refugees in], I say, “What would it take for you to walk out your front door and never come home? What would it take?” These people have crossed that threshold a long time ago. Through compassion, openness and a curiosity for each other, we can really break down those barriers between us. [We realize] that we have a lot more in common than in difference.
Foxxtales: Also, when we spoke, you told me how refugees are actually some of the safest people coming into our borders. I had no idea about the strenuous evaluations, background checks and tests that they have to go through.
KH: It’s a crazy process. I think that people think refugees can just come into the country and lodge anywhere they want. But they can’t. For example, the refugees in Greece have to find a camp or a place to stay first. Then, they have to register with the United Nations and get paperwork. Basically, they go through a consideration [process] to become a refugee. They have to be granted refugee status which means that they can settle in a new country and build a new life. For the U.S, that process only considers about 1% of those refugees to resettle here. Of that 1%, only a fraction actually get resettled in the U.S. The background checks and the detailed process that they go through typically takes about 18-24 months. It requires multiple levels of interviews, background checks, even biometric data - like fingerprinting and retina scanning. They also go through every agency that the U.S has for security as well. There’s about 5 or 6 agencies that they need to be approved by. By the time a refugee actually gets accepted to come to the U.S, they’ve gone through more background checks and verification than probably most of the American citizens. Of all of the 750,000 refugees in the U.S, zero have actually been associated with any sort of act of terrorism. The fear out there about immigrants and refugees is imaginary - it’s not even real. They’re some of the safest people here. I’m not afraid of refugees. Some of the other people here in the U.S, I would maybe be a little more skeptical on. The most dangerous person in the U.S is a straight, white man. I’ll choose a refugee any day.
Foxxtales: I agree. I just feel like we don’t have access to this sort of information or insight. That’s why the work that you’re doing is so important for refugees on the ground, but also for us. For you to be able to share your experiences with us, with me, I think that’s a big part of your work too. You're changing the way that we look at this whole crisis. You’re changing stereotypes and stigmas. So thank you.