In 2005, on my first day of school in America, I got off at the wrong bus stop. Days before, my family and I moved to Portland, having fled genocide in our native Darfur, Sudan. I was 11 years old, had never ridden a public bus before and couldn’t speak English. I walked around lost for eight hours until the Portland police finally found me. I’m now 26, and I think the most courageous thing I’ve ever done is to get back on that bus the next day.

I’ve thought about this story a lot during the pandemic. Like everyone, I feel the uncertainty and pain of this moment. But when I remember the struggles I’ve overcome as a refugee and newcomer to America, I am reminded of how resilient human beings are. You certainly don’t have to be a refugee in order to know perseverance, but take it from someone who has been displaced, lost and in fear of her life: we can get through this. Here’s how.

First, find your purpose by serving others. Given the trauma that refugees have experienced, you wouldn’t expect us to be so resilient. But we forge ahead by reaching out. It’s no surprise that healthcare is the second most common field for refugees in the U.S., according to New American Economy. A fifth of refugee healthcare workers are personal care aides, 14 percent are registered nurses and 8 percent are doctors. Refugees fill these rolls, because we want to give back to the country that welcomed us. But we also do it because selflessness eases our suffering. I became an ESOL teacher five years ago because I knew I would be in a unique position to help young newcomers. I’ve walked in their shoes and understand how to build a safe learning environment for them to thrive.

Second, find hope in community. In refugee circles, even those of us who aren’t strictly “essential” are lifting our neighbors up through mutual-aid organizing. This is a type of local support that refugee communities use to fill in the gaps after our resettlement assistance ends. In normal times, networks of neighbors might organize ride shares and translation assistance for newcomers. Now we’ve added services to meet changing demands. Before coronavirus hit Portland, there was no existing infrastructure to get groceries to the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. To meet that need, myself and other volunteers are doing the shopping for them. I’m also hosting virtual information meetings to keep the refugee community up-to-date on the latest coronavirus guidelines and teaching people how to use services like Zoom so they can participate and keep up with friends and family.

Lastly, don’t keep your fear bottled up. Refugees know how important it is to have an outlet to express our feelings. This is true for so many of us who have experienced trauma, but especially the women who suffered sexual violence during war. That’s why my mom is a care provider at Spurwink, a Portland organization that helps individuals affected by mental health challenges and developmental disabilities. And it’s why I started hosting bi-monthly conference calls for anyone who wants to share their pandemic experiences. Given widespread job loss, food insecurity and the inability to pay the rent, it’s no wonder that experts are warning about the profound impact coronavirus will also have on our mental health. Talking to your friends and neighbors or simply lending an ear is crucial to breaking through the isolation. It reminds us that we are not alone.

If coronavirus has taught me anything, it’s that we all have far more in common than we think. As states begin to slowly reopen in the coming weeks and months, we will need each other more than ever. Refugees are used to approaching challenges day by day, because tomorrow has never been promised to us. We are proof that all Mainers—and all Americans—can persist through this crisis and adapt to our new normal. We may feel lost, but tomorrow is another day. Have courage.

 


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