What does it mean to be a refugee? Livia Rurarz-Huygens examines her evolving sense of place and belonging–through her experiences as a humanitarian worker who helps refugees build lives out of the ruins of the past, and as the descendant of Polish exiles who forged a new identity from the ashes of political upheaval.
For years I have listened to refugees. Serving in Lebanon and Kenya as a resettlement officer for the UN refugee agency, I listened to their stories of suffering–torture and rape and starvation. And yet I, as a product of displacement myself, found listening to their narratives strangely comforting. Their experiences seemed so much more significant and life-altering than my own nagging sense of marginalization and not fitting in, which made it easier to drown out my internal disquiet.
One of my more memorable cases was that of a Congolese girl who, at age 14, had been abducted by rebels and held deep in the jungle for two years. She finally escaped one day when her captors forgot to lock the door to the hut where she was being held. She ran through the thick undergrowth until she reached a road and waved down a truck. The driver agreed to transport her to where he was going, which happened to be Nairobi. She told me of the towering buildings and street crowds that swarmed by. In Nairobi, she eventually gave birth, at the age of 17, alone, in an empty room. She named her baby – the child of rape – Lucky. She recounted her story to me with a few tears while I fought back my own. When I told her she was going to travel to another country. That her child would go to school. That she herself would receive an education. She sat in silence. “Do I have to marry anyone?” she asked. No. She agreed to go. She now lives in a Scandinavian town. I’ve since learned that she has discovered cleansing creams that have cleared up her acne. She is finally focusing on the things a young girl should. Her strength and perseverance, the affection she showed her baby, the will to seek a future were the reasons, I told myself, I do this job.
Resettlement is the relocation of refugees from countries to which they have fled to seek safety, mainly Western countries where they are offered permanent resident status and may eventually become citizens. Resettlement is considered a protection tool for the most vulnerable refugees – those who would face serious legal and physical problems if returned home.
As a resettlement officer, I identified and interviewed such cases for relocation. A phone call from me was a refugee’s golden ticket out of squalor, an end to their struggle and access to a new life full of opportunity. Or so they thought. Little did they know that all of my struggles to acclimate to the countries where I had been posted would soon become an inextricable part of their identities as well. In these countries I had to learn a new language, history, customs, norms, transport system, body language, cultural and generational hierarchy and eating habits. I embraced feeling easy about being ill at ease.
Perhaps this is why working with refugees appealed to me. There was a sense of commonality, of being in a new country, and of disorientation. But there was also enough distance between my family’s story and that of the Somalis and Iraqis with whom I worked that it felt safe to delve into their suffering without touching my own. When I would tell friends some of the horrific stories my clients would recount, I was often asked how I avoided secondary trauma, or becoming affected by their stories as if I had lived through it myself. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was immune to their most severe pain because I couldn’t relate to it.
I could also turn a blind eye to the integration issues they would face down the line. How would their kids cope in school? What would they think of the winter weather? Would they like the food? These details didn’t concern me because as far as I was concerned, they were going to a better place.
Earlier this year, I returned to the United States after spending three years abroad as a resettlement officer for the UN. With my return, I did not know that I would be forced to face what I had sought for so long to avoid and the thing so many refugees wished for: coming to the United States. Home is a place where you are supposed to feel welcome. But I had always felt out of place.
Since childhood, I have loved diving into family photo albums and exploring the photos that represent a frozen moment in time. The images of my grandmother before World War II in Poland show a stylish, well-groomed little girl riding a bike with her uncle. Reaching out to touch an elephant at the zoo. Decked out in a white dress for her First Communion. There are no photos taken during World War II, but the photos eventually pick up again; now, my grandparents appear, young, strong, full of vitality and ready to rebuild the country. My grandfather does a hand stand on a beach. When, in 2008, my grandmother and I traveled to her home town in Poland– the first time she had returned to her homeland since 1981 – she took me to her high school, Stanisław Kostka. She climbed to the top of the entrance steps and told me how, following final exams, she jumped from the top of these stairs because she felt so light and free. “The world belonged to us,” she told me.
At that hopeful moment, when my grandmother was only 18, she could not have imagined that her future lay beyond Poland’s borders.
As the photos attest, my grandparents (often with my mother in tow), continued zigzagging across the globe as my grandfather rose through the ranks of Polish diplomats. In February 1981, he was appointed Ambassador to Japan. They visited and hosted other diplomats at lavish parties. They were invited for dinner with dignitaries by Emperor Hirohito. The photos of my grandfather from that period show him shaking hands with Pope John Paul II.
Then, almost overnight, their lives changed drastically. Solidarity, or Solidarność, was a workers’ movement led by Lech Wałęsa that began organizing strikes, mainly to access more freedoms, in the Gdańsk shipyards, beginning in August 1980. When it became clear that the situation could no longer be controlled by the Polish government, martial law was declared by the then General of the Army, Wojciech Jaruzelski. In the early hours of December 13, 1981 Polish troops proceeded to seal off town after town and declared the Solidarity movement illegal.
My grandfather was outraged – the Polish term for martial law literally translates into ‘state of war’. How could the government declare war on its own people? This went directly against the notion of self-determination and freedom that Poles had strived to secure following the war. I can only imagine the bitter sense of betrayal my grandfather must have felt. He was not a member of Solidarity or its outspoken defender, but he saw that it was a popular movement that deserved the government’s support, not repression. Many in Poland, whether they were part of Solidarity or not, wanted change and liberty. For my grandfather, the declaration of martial law was a sign that he was working within a system that was not free and would never change unless overturned.
My mother and I often discuss my grandfather’s decision and how he must have felt. He was a very principled man who realized he could no longer represent Poland with a clean conscience, and that, as a result, he could not return home without facing severe consequences. It was at this point that he arranged to seek asylum with the US embassy. In private, he spoke directly with the Political Officer at the US Embassy and asked if he would receive ‘assistance’ if he were to ask for it. The Political Officer said America would help.
Getting to the embassy was not so simple though. As a prominent public figure, my grandfather could not just walk up the front steps of the US embassy at the height of the Cold War. Only when much of the Polish embassy staff was called away to Yokohama, where some Polish sailors had disembarked and were requesting asylum, were my grandparents able to act. My mother began hurriedly packing their belongings into paper bags and throwing them into the car. This is, apparently, why my grandfather left Japan with only one pair of socks.
My family’s arrival to the United States on Christmas Eve 1981 was followed by a flurry of radio and newspaper interviews. As a diplomatic family, their refugee status was waved in the face of the enemy, paraded in the media to demonstrate the supremacy of the American way of life. My grandfather had hoped that his defection would shine a spotlight on the problems Poles faced. He testified in Congress trusting that the American people would stand up for the Polish cause. I recently found his hand written notes for his appearance on Capitol Hill.
“When it comes to me I dramatically demonstrated what I think about the events in Poland,” he wrote. “In a country with long tradition of tolerance and compromise, the basic human rights are being violated on an unprecedented scale and with excessive brutality.”
And then the cameras stopped clicking and the reporters stopped visiting and my family was left in silence to contemplate, acclimate and move on with their lives.
In his homeland, my grandfather was sentenced to death in absentia. The family home was confiscated and all their belongings vanished—whether into state coffers or thieves’ homes, no one knows.
Clearly emotions, like trauma, can be passed down from one generation to the next. My grandparents felt it most. They were unaccustomed to the American lifestyle – the constant driving, the excess, the sneakers and jeans. They were living in a country where their accents stood out, they had no community, and they had to start from scratch. My grandfather, an academic by training, buried himself in his books for the next 25 years. My grandmother busied herself with family life. My parents were younger, more flexible and quicker to change, but they still missed European bread, cheese and wine, as well as city life. Their children – American born and bred – rooted them to the United States. They learned about baby showers and Valentine’s Day though my mother continues to have to explain that her name is not pronounced ‘Ee-Wah’ though it’s spelled EWA.
The complexities of being part of a displaced family are many; family members straddle time, geography and cultures. Immigrant families. Refugee families. Relocated families. Trying to embrace the present and future with the nostalgic memories of the past. Holding on tightly to traditions only to witness their erosion by time and acculturation of younger generations. Language, culinary practices, religious rites, even music, all wither with time and only faded photographs remain as testament of a bygone era.
After returning to the U.S., I had to ground myself in my American experience as well as my immigrant identity. I found refuge through literature. In my reading group for refugee organization workers, Rethinking Refuge, I discovered works like Anne Michaels’ memoir Fugitive Pieces, where she recalls, “we were strays and gathered other strays around us”.
I have come to realize that my own sense of estrangement is, perhaps, magnified and accentuated in my mind. A product of having isolated myself through my work. I had to rationalize it and rather than examine my present, it was easier to blame it on my past. Returning to the US – a country that is politically stable – and having time for myself and my family again, and examining my experiences from afar through the writings of others, has been a learning experience. Where interviewing refugees in the field often renewed my wonder of human resiliency, I was eating away at my own by detaching myself from home. Home became more and more foreign to me and made me feel less welcome only because I had rejected it. My experiences, my family, my background were not to blame. They set me apart and make me proud.
My grandmother recently passed away thus severing the last thread that bound our family to a generation that had lived through World War II, that had seen the rise and fall of Communism and the advent of McDonalds and Coca-Cola in Poland. I traveled with my mother and sister to Poland on a pilgrimage to visit family and friends and to mourn our loss. Though snow lay thick on the ground and temperatures dipped to -10 Celsius, we were warmly welcomed by everyone. It was beautiful to celebrate my grandmother’s life with those who had known her as a child, who had watch her grow up and raise her own daughter, and who had maintained contact for the 27 years she was away. I had come to realize that while I had always felt distant from the displaced migrants I had helped in my work, I, too, was a refugee of sorts. But I had been lucky enough to make the journey back to my family’s roots, in a way that many others could not.