People Who Belong Here...

“I’ve been called a refugee since I was a child. People I love died because we were refugees. I don’t want to be known as a refugee anymore.”

The room was silent for a moment after these words were spoken. Like a sacred pause. Like a small stone had finally dislodged from the dam. And then the river came rushing through, with the force of all the voices in the room that now felt free to speak.

“Being called a refugee makes me feel like I will always be lower than other people, like I don’t really belong here.” 

“I know people who call us refugees don’t mean to hurt us, but it triggers a lot of painful things in our hearts.”

“It makes me feel like I am back in the refugee camp. I wish I could have left that word behind when I left the camp.”

“When someone says ‘refugee’, my mind goes immediately to all the painful experiences. Then the nightmares return.”

“I don’t want to be known as a refugee. I want people to get to know me as a person.”

“It causes me shame, like I will always be known as someone who needs help.”

“Before we came here, we were called refugees because we didn’t have a home. Now that we are here, we no longer want to be called refugees. We want to be people who belong here.”

While the term “refugee” can be useful as both a common and legal definition for those fleeing their homes, for many people who are resettling, being referred to with the title "refugee" often holds stigma related to issues of culture, class, and historical trauma.  As we seek to create inclusive communities, we can take an important step in that direction by using language that reduces stigma and restores dignity and respect.

We often find that the word “refugee” can be most useful when used as an adjective to describe situations (“refugee resettlement,” “refugee camp,” “refugee journey”) rather than using it as a noun to describe people, which unintentionally labels them. This is especially true for folks who have already arrived in their resettlement country in which they will most likely be citizens within several years. 

As we seek more honoring ways to refer to an individual, we often discover that it’s not actually necessary to include information about the status with which someone entered this country. Sometimes it’s best to resist the natural pull to identify or categorize people in this way, and to replace it with something like, “my friend Miriam” or “my co-worker Sam” or “my neighbors”. This helps both the listener and the speaker to see the person as an individual whose identity is not found in their immigration status, but in who they are as a person. It allows people to choose how they want to define themselves. 

On the occasions we do need to identify, for informational purposes, the circumstances under which an individual or family arrived in this country, we can do this in a way that portrays dignity and respect by using "person-first" language.  This means we first name the person and then follow with the descriptive words. Some examples of person-first language:  "people who came to this country through the resettlement program" or "a family who is resettling here” or “students from diverse cultural backgrounds.”

Jesus said that the words we use flow from what is in our hearts (Luke 6:45

Making these shifts in the words that flow from our mouths can also help bring about much needed shifts in our hearts and minds, as we intentionally choose to use language that replaces “us/them” thinking with “we’re all us.” 

Traci Harrod