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My best friend, a refugee

My best friend, a refugee: 
What she has taught me and what we as global citizens must learn

By Ashley Fisseha, SPS graduate assistant  |  December 1, 2015

Unlike many American fri​​endships in college, we did not meet over cheap beer in a raucous, dingy college bar. We did not meet in a residence or dining hall. We did not meet in a sorority. We met in Arabic class. Aside from my husband, Jamila is my best friend. She is also a refugee. She is also Muslim. She is also a wonderful person, a professor, a volunteer. The lessons she (unknowingly) taught me will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Her family initially settled in Kenya as refugees from the Pakistan-India border. More than a decade and three children later, her family resettled to a second location — Iowa. Their father moved first, as is typical for many refugees. Then the rest of the family moved. Jamila was eight years old when she left her friends and everything she knew home to be. She quickly adjusted to her new school, learned English, and made new friends.

It is easy to see a refugee child’s everyday struggles: fitting in, taking care of their parents, acting as the family’s interpreter, working as a teen, never staying out late. But what about the additional layer of being a Muslim refugee in America?

This question particularly moves me. As I reflect on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere and on many state governors’ rash opposition to refugee resettlement, I imagine how different my best friend’s life would be if she were a new refugee.

My friendship with Jamila, whose name I changed for this essay to protect her privacy, provides an insight into Muslim refugee life I otherwise wouldn't see as part of the white majority. Questions as simple as "Where are you from?" turn into fiveminute superficial conversations peppered with skepticism. "Oh, so you're Kenyan? Or Pakistani? Or Indian? Wait, you're Muslim? But what kind? So ... why do Muslims hate America?"

How is she, an American woman who loves her country, supposed to answer that question? What is expected of her? Should she take the easy route by answering with the expected, or should she take it upon herself to speak on behalf of nearly a quarter of the world’s population?

A story: One day our friend, a Bosnian Muslim refugee, was driving home from Friday prayers wearing a hijab. Sitting at a red light, a man next to her shook a cross at her, honked, and proceeded to follow her. She was afraid to lead the man home, so she drove around the neighborhood until he gave up. Another story: Our Palestinian friend, also a refugee, grew up in the West Bank until she moved with her father to the U.S., which accepted him as a refugee. Her father left her grandmother behind and continues to feel guilty for it. Her grandmother cannot visit her family. That means our friend has to wonder if her grandmother is alive and well after every news clip airs after recent Israeli-Palestinian skirmishes.

The American majority does not see these things, does not wonder if their grandmother was hurt in conflict, does not wonder whether the person in the car next to them fears them for what religion they follow, and does not have to answer on behalf of 1.6 billion people.

The lessons Jamila shared drive me to reflect in light of the recent terrorist attacks. Hate and fear fuel these attacks with the intent to breed more hate and fear. It’s a ploy to polarize our world. This is what Daesh survives on, and it is exactly what we must not afford Daesh. We must not marginalize fellow human beings brutalized by the same group.

After news broke about state governors opposing refugee resettlement, I contacted Jamila in disbelief. The governor of the state that once welcomed her now didn’t welcome other refugees.

What would I ever do without my best friend? How would her life be different? She wouldn’t be teaching in a university. She wouldn’t have volunteered for a year in China. She wouldn’t have invested in our economy. She wouldn’t have the appreciation and love for America that she does now. By letting hate and fear cloud our judgment and humanity, we lose the opportunity to see refugees as contributors to society and as human beings.​​​