Today I had lunch with a European study abroad student and dinner with a Middle Eastern refugee. These two woman had a lot in common: they were outside of their comfort zone and in a new country with a new language. They both came over by plane, and were both now living in Kansas City, USA. They also had a lot of differences: one could speak English, the other could not. One was happy to get to explore America, the other was happy to be alive.
The European had brought her own lunch, consisting of a thick slice of cheese on multi-grain bread, along with a big apple and yogurt. She ate methodically, and was so charismatic and present, like most all of the study abroad students I have met. This was her second time studying abroad in the US, and she viewed the world as full of opportunity, seeking out cultural differences and celebrating them.
My own time studying abroad introduced me to study abroad culture, which is the culture I find myself fitting in more than anything else. It’s a culture of questioning, of go with the flow, of risks coupled with positivity. It’s intoxicating to be around people from other countries who want to celebrate travel and our interconnected world. The number one rule of study abroad culture is presence. You must be right there with the person you are talking to, ready to overcome language or culture barriers, and ready to accept and try out whatever the person has to offer from their culture.
Later in the day I impromptu picked up my new Middle Eastern refugee friend, Aeni, at her apartment. Aeni recently arrived in the US, and doesn’t speak English yet, though she is learning very quickly. While driving, I let her know that I wanted to learn Arabic, and she began teaching me.
We “ate dinner” at my apartment, which consisted of bread crusts and water, because that’s really all I had in the apartment at the time. Aeni fed my cat treats, and shared her Kit Kat with me as we got back on the road together.
We met up with our mutual friend Jabala, a revolutionary feminist Middle Eastern immigrant, and sit down for an orchestra concert in an art gallery. There is free sangria, and I offer some to my new friend. Aeni politely declines, and I remembered that Muslims generally do not drink. I make a mental note to never offer alcohol again in the future. Our mutual friend Jabala however, accepts a big plastic cup of sangria and downs it as we leave the concert and walk down the street. Not all people from Muslim countries practice Islam, and those who do practice Islam have varying levels of adherence. It’s best to ask than just assume.
Aeni and I part ways with Jabala later on that night, and I drive Aeni back to her new apartment. She invites me inside for a bit. We walk in to find the place crawling with cockroaches, and a ceiling that is falling in. She tells me how much rent she is paying, and it is way more than it should be. She knows this already, but she has no other choice right now.
She shows me around her new apartment, and tells me without English that she spent all afternoon painting the old cabinets a fresh new color. Later, we sit on her bed and we point to objects, and I tell her what it is in English and she tells me what it is in Arabic. She quizzes me about the words that she is teaching me, and I realize she is definitely learning English faster than I am learning Arabic.
From my time studying abroad I can identify with the European student, but I can not fully identify with what a refugee goes through, because I have never been one. That is why I especially need to connect with my new friend, and other people who come from different lives than my own.
The European at lunch talked about all the crying and telling friends goodbye as she went back to her home country after a year abroad in college. The refugee briefly mentioned people who were young and dear to her who were killed in the wars.
The study abroad student talked about how fun it was to compare American and European cultures. The refugee was struggling to learn English and figure out how to survive in her new country.
The study abroad student had other study abroad friends who had all taken this journey by choice together. The refugee is alone, and has only come to this country because she had to.
One of them is calling her family back home, and telling them she misses them but they will be together again soon. One of them is calling her family and saying she misses them, and she hopes more than anything they get the chance to be together again someday.
One of them gets to celebrate her culture as coworkers ask about where she is from, and what her culture back home is like. The other one is forced to adapt to America without any knowledge of the English language: communication is near impossible in the beginning, and no one is asking about her culture- she is just expected to leave it behind and take up a new American mindset.
An immigrant is not always a refugee, but a refugee is always an immigrant. Immigrants can be study abroad students who come to live in the US because they love the culture, and immigrants can also be someone who is forced to flee their country out of desperation. Legal or illegal, they are here, and they are trying to get by just like everyone else.
What is the difference between being a study abroad student and being a refugee? Much. But the thing is, you would not have known the difference had you seen them both on the street.
Photo Credit: http://www.dw.com/image/18812116_303.jpg