SIV Sips - Princeton: Listening to & Welcoming our Wartime Allies

This blog is authored by guest contributor John Falcone, President of the Graduate chapter of Princeton University’s Student Veterans Alliance.

This past Saturday, on a beautiful fall morning in New Jersey, I along with my fellow students and faculty of Princeton University’s Student Veterans Alliance met with recently resettled refugees at Starbucks on Nassau Street. It was part of the ongoing SIV Sips program between Vets for American Ideals and Starbucks, through which veterans and refugees come together for coffee and conversation.

Two Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipients—interpreters who served alongside the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq—joined our group of ten military veterans for a morning we none of us will soon forget. “It became obvious early on that there is a mutual trust between our two communities that was forged through some harrowing and difficult times,” said Tyler Eddy, president of the undergraduate chapter.

When our new friends entered the coffee shop, they broke into smiles when they noticed the veterans assembled for them. They hugged all of us and introduced themselves, and we all eagerly got to know each other. “I think the event was great partly because they simply just wanted to tell their story, and we wanted to listen,” Eddy told me later.

As conversation moved from small-talk to substance, we veterans began to learn more about the challenges SIV recipients face when transitioning to life in the United States. Eric McCrery—a prior Marine infantry officer and now a policy graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School—explained, “It's always a humbling, yet frustrating experience interacting with refugees who served with troops overseas. On one hand, I'm humbled because I see the amount of effort and sacrifice refugees make in coming to America. Most of them leave behind loved ones who still face security risks.”

He continued, “On the other hand it’s frustrating, because you see how hard refugees work, how hard they want to become American and contribute, but they are hindered by a lot of basic stuff that we often overlook like language skills, job skills, and just societal and cultural literacy to navigate daily obstacles.”

I came to a similar conclusion after I had time to reflect. I realized that we were all unsure what the morning was going to bring. I don’t think many of us expected the raw connections that we experienced. We learned about the glaring systemic challenges to refugee resettlement; we were simply honored to listen and offer advice where appropriate.

Almost the entire group was moved to emotion when, during our good-byes, one of our new friends teared up and thanked the group because, as he said, “Today is only the second day I felt like I truly made it to America.”

Writing for the veterans of the Princeton University Student Veterans Alliance, I can say we look forward to our next SIV Sips event. We also encourage others to take an hour of their time to listen and welcome these individuals who served the American flag as new community members at home.

To learn more about SIV Sips and inquire about bringing the program to your city, reach out to us at [email protected].