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Refuge on the Horizon

Annie Hallquist

 The Oxford American Dictionary defines a refugee as someone who “has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.” On the surface, that is exactly what a refugee is, and yet it is hardly a complete picture. Defining refugees this way is like observing a painting of a sunset. It may be an accurate representation, but it only shows a small representation of a greater truth. A painting with all its color and emotion pales in comparison to the ribbons of magentas,  alizarins, tangerines, cornflower blues and all the colors in between that expand in a moment of mayhem over the placid horizon. It will always fail to express the moments that leave us grasping at glimpses of heaven. 

Refugees are no more defined by their displacement anymore than the house in which I live defines me. Living circumstances are situational, they are not who we are. The identity of people, displaced or not, goes much more to the core of being than to what one does or a place where one resides.

My name is Annie. I grew up in small town Minnesota. I have never endured a civil war, never been persecuted for my beliefs or my heritage, never had to leave my home in the middle of the night. No one would ever tag me a “refugee.” So what do I have to say on this topic? What authority do I have, if any? Maybe none at all, these are just thoughts on a page about what refugees have meant to me.

My first significant encounter with a person labeled as a refugee was during college. I lived in Boston in a house with a group of Liberians displaced after the civil war conflicts and the reign of dictator Charles Taylor. When I first moved in, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after many late nights filled with good food, hearty laughter and passionate discourse I learned things that forever changed my working definition of the word refugee. Nasche taught me to cook, Bonah, about the perils of politics and greed. One housemate, Torli Krua, once taught me that to extend your hand to a refugee is to hold hands with the whole world. Another man I lived with, Taiwan Gongloe, has since returned to Liberia and is now acting Solicitor General. He was quoted as saying, I always say that I have a responsibility to make Liberia right.  I don't say that 'others' have, I don't say 'we' have. I say "I" have.  I always ask what I am doing to fix this situation, to change this situation.” They all taught me so much about what it means to be responsible with the short time we have in this world. Years have past since I lived on Drayton Ave, but the relationships I gained still hold firm today.

My first set of experiences in Boston were educational and eye opening, but my journey had just begun. In 2005 I met a young Rwandan woman named Marie-Aimee Abizera. We met at a bonfire in Nashville, but it wasn’t until 2007 that my life would change forever. Aimee and I met for coffee one day and the rest is history. Aimee is the kind of woman I hope to be; passionate, driven, accepting, loving, forgiving, hard working, kind, bold, compassionate, the list could fill this page time and again. I laugh the hardest when I am with her and miss her when life takes us apart. She is a sister to me. Her family, immediate and extended has taken me in and I am grateful everyday for it. We have traveled as far as East Africa and Nashville coffee shops together. We share our dreams, our hopes, fears and frustrations. We share life. Our pasts are a part of us, but in this present moment, we are learning the fine art of living together.

When the press reports on refugees, it sends this air that we should take care of them because we are from Western societies and it is our duty. We have SO much to give them. We could help these “poor unfortunate people.” While there is some truth to this, it is so very egotistical. We present ourselves as the so very important “saviors” of the world. If this is so, we have failed horribly, yet we also fail to see that refugees have so much to teach us. They have seen the very definition of hell on earth, and lived to tell the tale. Their lives are living testimonies that there is much pain and heartbreak in this world, but also there is much to rejoice and much to love as well.

Where I have the ability to help people that have come into my life by way of displacement, there is so much to learn as well. I can offer help in learning my native language, help finding employment or housing or the grocery. I have found though it is often in the words or deeds of my friends who have come from the other side of the world the help to learn the language of the heart. They have taught me the steps to the dance that we call life.

The word refugee’s origin comes from the French word refugie meaning “gone in search of refuge.” I know that I seek refuge often. Aimee often acts as my shelter from life’s hurricanes. My friends from my Boston home have acted as my protection from ignorance about the plight of refugees. I could never thank them all enough.

So what to do with all of this? Open our arms to the world, our hearts to our neighbors and our eyes to the sunset. Beauty is all around. Pay attention. We have much left to learn.