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For my shadowing experience I attended the Thanksgiving dinner for refugees. While at the dinner I learned some things about the inner workings of being a refugee. That is, I began to see the culmination of all of their hard work. The main lesson that could be taken from this shadowing experience was the concepts of community and belonging.
My first task of business at the event was to assist the people there with getting their food. At first glance, I was disappointed with the job given to me at the event. I had felt as though I was simply “free-work” that one of the many frantic middle-aged social workers could use to assist them in preparations for dinner. However, as time went on in the line I began to learn much more of the forthcoming effects of the experience.
I found myself talking more and more as the people came through the line. At first, I would only ask, “Hi, would you like some cous cous?” After a while, however, it became apparent that I needed to not be working for the refugees, but working with them. As I thought of this my question suddenly becomes, “How are you?” What happened was that I noticed the blockade between the refugee and I—a blockade that I was attempting to find a way through. By asking the refugees how they were I was inviting them to accept my acknowledgement of them. In other words, I was attempting to open up conversations and show that I was not just another American there to give them something.
The experience only got richer after dinner had been served. I watched as the people of the world sat together and ate. My heart was moved by the harmonious beauty in this small church. Many people have expressed that they wish the whole world could get together and be peaceful. To my surprise, this is what was happening right in front of me. There was no hate or discrimination. In fact, I believe that everyone felt at one with the population in the room. This community, so vast and intricate, was doing things that the top politicians from all over the world could never do. They were not just talking to each other, but they were heavily engaged with one another.
After eating my own plate of food, I lost sight of the person in charge at the event seeing as they were most likely busy with all of the people in the room. So I decided that I needed to find something to do instead of sitting around. In the back of the room was the children’s area, which is where I decided to navigate myself to. Here I found myself swamped by kids who wanted to do nothing but play and laugh. Even in these children I saw a community and a respect towards each other. They were young enough, that discrimination was not real to them.
In my opinion, discrimination is a learned social construct. That is, we perceive discrimination being practiced and therefore it becomes a part of our identity. For instance take into consideration the notions of white racism towards blacks that our country has long battled with. As a child, I remember learning about slavery and thinking to myself that I never saw a difference between me and the black kids in my class. Of course afterwards, I began to notice the differences; I began to put a margin between the people “like me” and “not like me.” From this, discrimination manifested itself in me. I decided long ago that I was against discrimination, but still found it as something in me that I attempt to take notice of, furthering its social influence on my identity.
However, these children were not worried about discrimination in that sense. They were not worried about being from somewhere else, looking different, or believing in different values. Through this I began to see the deconstruction of discrimination in so far as its power became weakened by the ignorance of it. Further, by playing with the children, I started to become another member of their community. At some point, a young girl from Iraq had talked me into performing a puppet show with her. For me, this puppet show meant a lot more than putting a paper bag on my hand and making up funny things to say. The puppet show was me engaging myself in this collective community of people and them accepting me.
Looking around I would catch parents watching me and simply smiling. Some of them would mouth the words “Thank you” to me. One woman in particular, who I will forever remember, just looked at me with a look of complete love and lightly patted her hand on her heart. She touched me with her simple motions and it summed up the whole event and this whole experience in general. In a way, she was telling me that I can make a difference in the world. Her eyes were glazed over with tears as she warmly smiled at me and made this gesture of love.
So in the end, I got some hugs from kids that took an exceptional liking to me and many thanks from different parents and social workers. At some point my walls of discrimination broke down that night and I began to see people as what they truly are; humanity had become one. At the start, I mentioned that I did not just want to be an American there to give them something. Perhaps, I did give them something, but I do hope it was worth a lot more than just cous cous.
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