If you start chatting with your Ethiopian cabdriver, it can be rude to ask a lot of questions about Addis Ababa or the Great Rift Valley — he probably wants to be perceived as American, not Ethiopian.
But how should we proceed when the foreigner in question is a refugee, and was forced to leave his country? Nasser Jab, a founder of Displaced Dinners, encourages inquiry: “Americans don’t want to come off as offensive, so they don’t ask questions. But the only way to learn is to ask.”
Some people who work with refugees, however, take a slightly different tack. Kate McCaffrey, an associate professor of anthropology at Montclair State University and a founder of the Syria Supper Club (similar to Displaced Dinners, only these meals take place in an American host’s home), stressed delicacy.
She said, “If you were meeting someone who just went through a traumatic divorce, you wouldn’t necessarily say, ‘So tell me about the divorce — whose fault was it?’ You can have a very successful evening without delving into the past. And you don’t show up at a dinner party with a bag of used clothes.”
Dr. McCaffrey remembered one Syria Supper Club dinner she attended shortly after the organization was started in December 2015. “One of the cooks introduced herself to us all with, ‘Hi, I’m a Syrian refugee and I appreciate your help.’ People responded, ‘Oh, we’re so glad to be here, we really want to help you!’ But my partner and I didn’t want the conversation to go that way. We want to reinforce the idea of these folks being new neighbors. We want to reinforce their dignity. I’m not sure that storytelling is empowering.”
Indeed, even the word “refugee,” loaded as it is with meaning, can throw Americans off balance. One of the Displaced Dinners speakers is a gay Syrian refugee named Lutfi who was persecuted for many years for his sexual orientation. Disowned by his family and arrested in both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, he now lives in New York and works at a clothing store in SoHo.
Lutfi takes no issue with his official designation: “I don’t have a problem with ‘refugee.’ I’m a very proud ‘refugee’!” However, he added, “One girl at work, the first week we were very friendly. But when I told her I am a Syrian refugee, she stopped joking with me. Suddenly just ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’”
Some relief workers suggest that the best way to navigate these shores is to let the refugee steer the conversation, and to be discreet about using the “r” word. Hisham Zawil, who runs the International Rescue Committee’s office in Oakland, Calif., said that a person who has worked in the group’s youth program for two years “has never talked to these kids about their refugee story or where they’re coming from. It’s sometimes not appropriate.”
Manal Kahi, a founder of Eat Offbeat, a New York City catering company staffed with refugees, said of her employees: “They are chefs. We emphasize that they are chefs before we mention their refugee status.”
Another misperception that many Americans have is that all refugees are poor. “A lot of our chefs come from the middle class or even upper class,” Ms. Kahi said. “It makes it hard to be seen as someone who needs charity.”
Sam Jisri, the executive director of Syrian Active Volunteers, a resettlement agency in Ontario, told the story of Ahmet, who fled the bombing in Damascus with his family last year, losing one of his children to a bomb in Lebanon before reaching Canada. Once in Ontario, Ahmet overheard one resettlement volunteer ask another, “Why does Ahmet have an iPhone 5?”
Mr. Jisri said, “Ahmet looked at him and said, ‘I had what you have. But unfortunately I lost it. It wasn’t in my hands to have this war. But I still have my iPhone.’”
Americans are also sometimes wont to overvalue the solaces of their own country. “Refugees are being welcomed to a place that they don’t necessarily want to be,” Mr. Zawil said. “That’s tough for people to understand. An American native who’s very well intentioned might say, ‘You must be really happy that you’re in California!’ But to someone who’s just lost his home, that might be the last thing on his mind.”
Mohammed al-Jokhadar, a founding member of the Syrian Thanksgiving Group, which delivers meals to shelters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, made mostly by refugees and Syrian-Americans, said that a Syrian refugee asked him, “Are there any legal repercussions to me getting help from a psychiatrist?”
“In Syria, it exists, psychological therapy,” Mr. al-Jokhadar said. “But most people, especially older ones, don’t try it.” Mr. al-Jokhadar said that it may help if American and Canadian natives subtly let it be known to refugees if they themselves have sought psychological counseling.
But the greatest need, of course, is for Americans to educate themselves about the mores of their newcomers. Mr. al-Jokhadar, who said his fellow Syrians are more affectionate and excitable than Canadians, finds himself reminding new arrivals of two things. First, “In Arabic, you say that you ‘love’ a friend, but in Canada, you cannot walk around saying ‘I love you’ to everybody.”
Second, locking arms with another man has a different implication in the Western world. “We did it at Walmart and people thought we were gay” Mr. al-Jokhadar said of himself and a friend. “They were looking at us weird.” He has experienced similar misunderstandings when kissing other Syrian men on the cheek.
In an ideal world, the differences between the two parties — native and newcomer — would work to each party’s advantage. Consider the case of Jo Du, who was married in Guelph, Ontario, in September. Just hours before her ceremony, the zipper on her wedding dress broke. No one in her bridal party knew how to fix it, or where to find a tailor on a Sunday.
A bridesmaid ran next door to borrow a pair of pliers from a neighbor. This neighbor, it turned out, had been hosting a family of Syrian refugees for four days; the father of the family had been a tailor in Aleppo for 28 years. The father and his young son scurried over to the bride’s house, sewing kit in tow: wedding saved.
When the wedding photographer posted the serendipitous turn of events on Facebook, one of the photographer’s friends offered the tailor a five-thread table sewing machine for free. Another person set up an online fund-raising page to cover the health care costs of the tailor and his family.
In the end, resettlement is not a one-way street. When I asked Lutfi how he felt about the word “refugee,” he proudly said, “From the third world to the first!” But the first world must also voyage.