A Resettlement Story

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The American backlash against refugees over the last few weeks has been fierce and shocking. On Thursday, Russell reported that the House passed a bill that could effectively halt Syrian refugees from entering the United States. Several governors have disinvited refugees from their states. But the refugees I’ve heard about from these elected officials have been nothing like the refugees I’ve known.

In the summer of 2006, I worked as an intern at an organization then known as Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA), now known as New American Pathways. In just a couple months, I got to see the process that new refugees entering the U.S. go through and what we did to prepare for them: picking up families and individuals at the airport, renting an apartment, filling that apartment with necessary furniture and cooking supplies and attempting to buy culturally appropriate food at Kroger, and endless hours spent at the local Social Security office.

These new Americans were usually excited and nervous to finally arrive in the U.S. after months or years of uncertainty and worse. In my reflection over this time in my life, one memory seems particularly relevant to our current debate.

My boss was a Somali refugee named Sofia, a woman with a cackling laugh and a candid manner. (“You don’t have a husband? Why not?”)  Sofia and I had just picked up a young Iraqi man at the airport and were on the way to an apartment where he was to live temporarily until he found something on his own. The current resident of the apartment was also an Iraqi refugee who had recently come to the U.S. When we walked into the apartment where he was to live, the man took a look around the apartment. Several crosses were hanging on one wall. He pulled Sofia and me aside. “I can’t live with him, he’s a Christian,” our new client said of his new roommate. “You’re in America now. That doesn’t matter,” Sofia responded.

I wonder if our politicians will remember that.