Imagine that you live in a society where people like the bloggers and readers of FAR — activists, academic, writers, and others who speak up for human rights — are persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. You have finally escaped with nothing but your life to the US, only to be thrown again into prison or end up sleeping on the street homeless. Behind the endless tirades in the media and around dinner tables about America’s system of vetting and settling, or rejecting, refugees and asylum seekers, are real women and men who had the courage, wisdom and commitment to stand up for human rights as protestors, lawyers, health educators or journalists only to find themselves treated as criminals or unworthy of having basic needs met here also.
The process in the US for settling those who come because they fear for their lives is cumbersome and complex. Those called “refugees” have already been given refugee status by the US government before they arrive. They may be coming to the US to find work, to escape war, or other reasons. Refugees can work and live in public housing. Those in the most desperate straits, who arrive here without documentation because they have escaped in the middle of the night due to fear of death or persecution are “asylum seekers.” Even if they pass a “credible fear” interview at the airport, they cannot work or apply for public housing or other benefits until they obtain official asylum status or work authorization, a process that can take two years. If they do not have a local address, they can be sent to prison or may end up living in homeless shelters or on the street. Even if they can find a community of those from their country, people may not take them in out of fear of retribution by the governments back home against family members still there.
Why are we, as a nation, creating such obstacles against the very people we so need in the US? They embody the best ideals of respect for human rights and activism for equality of all. Why are we not welcoming them with open arms? Why are we not making room for them on the faculties of our universities, in the boardrooms of our governmental agencies, in the editorial offices of our news media? Asylum seekers are a gift, not a burden.
As a citizen, it is my duty to speak out for the funding to provide adequate staff and whatever other changes may be necessary for the agencies overseeing the system vetting asylum seekers to do so expeditiously and compassionately and to create awareness of the importance of welcoming rather than further traumatizing asylum seekers. Truly, my feminism and spirituality are hollow if I am not also impelled to find ways to support human rights by aiding those asylum seekers who are already in my own community. Sometimes the only way to do this is to just do it.
Two years ago, two women, Sharon Carlson and Andrea Hewitt, formed an organization called “Dignity in Asylum” (DIAS) in metro Boston to provide housing, food, healing, and a positive introduction to American life for people whose commitment to human rights and bettering our world made them dangerous to their oppressors but tremendous potential contributors to our communities and nation. Much of their support comes from friends and neighbors who got behind their vision and donated clothes, household goods, and money to rent an apartment for eight women until they have work authorizations and can live independently. Sharon and Andrea have also recruited a corps of volunteers, many from this cadre of friends and neighbors, who mentor the women in finding a job, transport them to legal and medical appointments, teach them English, and generally offer care and support. Just in the past month, they have opened a second apartment for men. DIAs is one of too few community-based organizations that serve asylum seekers in meeting basic needs, but theirs is a model that could be replicated in almost any neighborhood.
DIAS is only one organization in one small part of the world but its deeper meaning, like others that in one way or another provide one-on-one help to those who are oppressed, is that friendship truly is a powerful force. It began with Sharon and Andrea’s own friendship, then extended to friends and those they knew in their neighborhood, and now includes the friendships formed between the women and men they serve and the volunteers who provide direct assistance like transportation. The simple bonds between human beings that come about from everyday contact, or from a resonance of values and ideas, or of shared experiences may seem as if they cannot overcome the worst that human beings can do to one another, but they can, one asylum seeker at a time.
Feminists, as has been written about many times on FAR, have long known the importance of friendship to effecting positive change, whether individually as we hold up one another through life’s challenges or march in protest shoulder to shoulder or transform lives as we sit or make ritual in circle together. Asylum seekers, both women and men, represent some of the most persecuted people on our planet. Bringing our best friendship-building skills to help provide them assistance in our communities, whether in the US or elsewhere, is one way to expand our feminist ideals to the global struggles that are so closely aligned, as human rights for anyone can only be assured when they are assured for everyone.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a human services administrator, herb gardener, and writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog, www.goddessinateapot.com.