For months, while the refugee crisis dominated the news, I wanted to help in some concrete way, yet I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. During the Yamim Nora’im, I reflected on my failure to take action. Inspiration came when I was asked to join BJ’s Refugee Employment Project (REP), and began to help refugees and asylees find work.
My first client was from Ghana. His draft resume had one position: Farmer, 1998 to 2017. He told me that, as a child, he was brought to the farm without his parents. I wondered to myself about the working conditions, and whether they paid him. As we talked, I learned that, over the course of two decades, he had actually risen to managing the entire farm operation of more than 200 people. I realized that, in trying to make sense of his unfamiliar story, I had been making assumptions about his life.
My client’s native language is Hoysaya, and his spoken English is halting. Not knowing how well he could read what I was typing, and not wanting to embarrass him, I offered to read aloud what I had written. To my surprise, without missing a beat, he said it looked accurate, but asked what the word “inventory” meant?
A few days later, I accompanied him to a job interview at a construction company. He was very anxious for me to help him with the application—in fact, he wanted me to write it. He had read his resume so easily that I must have looked puzzled. Seeing my look, he smiled ruefully and said, “I taught myself to read English, but I don’t know how to write.” Now I was the one who was embarrassed, having made an obvious assumption that may have made him uncomfortable.
My work with REP has made me even more aware of how little we often know about the “other,” and the assumptions we make to fill those gaps. Even when acting with conscious intention not to do so, we will make missteps that we must acknowledge. Connecting with those who seem unlike us requires vigilance, patience, and humility. But, if we seek to create a more equitable and just community, it is spiritual work that must be undertaken again and again.