How Motherhood Inspired Me to Stand with Refugees

 headshot.jpg If I’m being honest, it was not my time in the service that compelled me to stand with the refugee community. It was being a mother. It was the images of women giving birth in crowded refugee camps, families trekking hundreds of miles across Europe in search of a new home, children huddled together asleep on cardboard boxes.

It was impossible not to imagine the immense pain these young mothers (and fathers) must feel, unable to shelter their children from war, hunger, and instability. I see in the eyes of the frightened children the eyes of my own children, and their suffering compelled me to act.   

After a bit of research, I discovered that I didn’t need to travel half-way across the world to make an impact. Through a local nonprofit, I was connected with a refugee family who arrived in March from Sudan a single mother and her six children, none of whom spoke English. They arrived in the United States after enduring a decade in a Chad refugee camp. You did not misread that. They spent a decade in a refugee camp.

Before I met them, I began my preparations, and I was quickly pushed out of my comfort zone. I learned about myself, and especially my cultural biases and ignorance, some of which I am not readily proud to admit.  As I grocery shopped for them prior to the visit, I asked myself, “Had they ever seen an eggplant?  Would they know what to do with a bar of soap? Could Muslims eat regular dairy products?”

I slowly became more comfortable wandering around the Halal market for the first time with my three-year-old daughter, learning that everyone there was just like my daughter and me—family members shopping, sharing a common humanity.

When I arrived at their home, a caseworker introduced herself and summoned the children in Arabic.  They greeted me with shy smiles and helped carry the groceries into the kitchen. The mother and I were left to get acquainted on our own as the caseworker took a phone call. I helped store vegetables and milk into an almost empty refrigerator and surveyed the small rooms. They had the bare essentials, all of which this nonprofit had provided. No television. No toys.   

The mother motioned for me to sit. She pulled a chair up to the coffee table draped with a red cloth embroidered with the Delta Airlines logo, given to them on their first airplane flight. The children presented me with a bottle of water, a coke, and a generous bowl of dates. We managed to communicate our names, as all six kids (aged 9 to 19) sat politely on the worn couches. 

Eventually the caseworker rejoined us. She translated the family’s horrific story and their most pressing fears. They have faced immense hardship that I myself cannot imagine. My hope is to be a friendly face as they tackle this challenging transition. As I rose to depart, the family surrounded me with hugs and handshakes, the youngest child letting go only reluctantly.

Now, six months after our first meeting, the family loves to practice reading and speaking English.  They’ve befriended fellow refugee families in their community, handle their own grocery shopping, and the children are excited to start school.

I have made new friends, perhaps lifelong friends. I have had the honor to participate in a ritual that has been performed for generations in this country. 

My advice to anyone who feels moved to help: Find out who places refugees in your community. Learn about their challenges and needs. Listen to their stories. Expose your children to people who are different from them. This is how we break down stereotypes. This is how we solve problems. This is how we enrich and serve our country.

Jessica Utter Bell is a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran who served as an Electronic Countermeasures Officer in Iraq.  She is a founding member of Impact100 Oakland County and resides in Michigan.