As a sixteen-year-old Haitian refugee, my birthmother climbed out of a refugee boat with her boyfriend onto the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The protective shield of the refugee camp became a tiresome burden once the young immigrant realized she was pregnant with a baby boy. After a long pregnancy, on June 4th 1995 I was born into the anxious arms of frightened teenaged parents who did not realize their new family would be soon torn apart. Three weeks later, my birthmother and I were sent to Grand Rapids, Michigan to be raised in foster care; presenting a better opportunity than being returned to Haiti. Unfortunately, my birthfather, after being considered too old, would be sent back to Haiti, disappearing for almost two decades.
Previously my birth mother and I tried living on our own; she refused to accept help from welfare and our former foster family and determinedly set out to make ends meet on her own. She was wrong. Due to her minimum wage job we could only afford food for six out of the seven days in a week. At first, the malnutrition brought anger: I would watch T.V. and be jealous of the kids on the other side of the screen smiling behind full plates of food with their gleeful families. As I watched those food commercials over the years, my jealousy and anger gave way to a solid determination. I promised myself that when I got bigger and older, I would be like the people on T.V. and always have enough food and a full stomach. That promise came quickly after I was adopted; in a new family I experienced the privileges of having enough food and gratefully accepted anything offered to me. The years spent with my new family reshaped my identity around moving forward from the past and creating success from my humble beginnings.
That feeling is what led me to California. For many it might seem strange take a year after college and instead of working, or going onto more school, start an internship with a small nonprofit. Yet for me, I know this to be a crucial time to rediscover and reclaim a distant path. Right now, I am a Volunteer Coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service. As a refugee and an immigrant working with refugees and immigrants, the very people I serve represent a piece of my identity. For someone who frequently studies the past to discover deeper meanings about the present and future I often overlook my own. I sometimes forget that my identity is shaped around the complexities of belonging to more than one place. I am more than just one place. I am both refugee and immigrant, American and Haitian, foreigner and familiar.
Every day in my job I serve people who represent that multifaceted truth. Eager immigrants who are excited to learn English while teaching me new words in Armenian and Spanish. Cautious refugees who are relieved to be in the United States but also sad to leave behind part of their cultural heritage. Dedicated volunteers who patiently go through immigration forms line by line because they want our clients to successfully become citizens. Kind anonymous strangers who donate $150 bedsheets hoping that the refugee family that receives them can sleep feeling peace and safety. Joyful church groups excited just to financially commit to families they’ve never met who worship a different God they probably wouldn’t agree on. Watching these simple acts of hospitality unfold leaves me hopeful that I too will be able to reaffirm my past and embrace my future.