Refugees change the face of the heartland

As a native Nebraskan, Mary Pipher is fond of describing her state as a place filled with "large, rather plain, white people," her family among them.

But increasingly, her affectionate characterization tells only part of the story. Nebraska, sometimes airily dismissed as "the middle of nowhere," is becoming a cultural crossroads. In the early 1990s, the US Office of Refugee Resettlement chose Lincoln, the capital, as a good place for newly arrived refugees to live.

From Bosnia, Laos, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the former Soviet Union they began coming, hands clutching cherished possessions and hearts filled with both fear and hope. Now 52 nationalities intermix with the "rather plain, white people." Schools echo with the voices of children speaking 32 languages, and libraries carry books in Hindu, Arabic, and Urdu.

"We're becoming a richer curry of peoples," Mrs. Pipher says.

That "richer curry" fascinates Pipher, a friendly woman with a sunny smile, a strong voice, and a deeply caring heart. For three years she has immersed herself in refugees' lives, sponsoring three families, teaching English classes, and donating her services as a psychologist.

Now these newcomers form the subject of a touching book, "The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town" (Harcourt, $25).

Sitting on the patio outside a hotel in Cambridge, Mass., on a sunny spring day, Pipher, the best-selling author of "Reviving Ophelia," about teenage girls, and "Another Country," about aging parents, talks about her role as a "cultural broker," helping new arrivals navigate bureaucratic labyrinths to find housing, enroll children in school, receive food stamps, and obtain driver's licenses.

"Arrival stories are survival stories," she says, expressing admiration and respect for the hardships refugees endure and the resilience they exhibit.

Those survival stories can be harrowing. Families tell her about trudging barefoot through the snow in a mountain pass. A poet survived torture in an Iraqi prison by recalling the beauty of a flower. Grandparents carried children across raging rivers.

A young Kurdish woman, Shireen, recounting the torture her family endured under the Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein, speaks for many refugees when she says: "It was hard, but we got used to hard."

Yet, surviving hardships in their native countries is only the first challenge. More survival stories unfold when they arrive in their adopted land, impoverished, unable to speak English, and bewildered by a fast-paced culture.

Some have never used a telephone. They may not know how to drink from a water fountain, shop at a grocery store, brush their teeth, wear socks, or eat an ice- cream cone. Some have never held a job. Others do not know what a birthday is. And they have never seen anyone wearing shorts or sporting green hair.

One of the biggest problems newcomers face is money. "Many had never budgeted, never had money," Pipher says. When telemarketers call, they think they must buy. They believe they have won magazine sweepstakes. And they don't understand that they must pay their Visa bills.

The American view of time also poses problems for those coming from cultures where time is structured by seasons, births, and deaths – no calendars, no clocks.

"People from slow cultures don't have an abstract word for time," Pipher explains. "When someone tells them, 'A week from tomorrow at 11 o'clock I will meet you at a certain place,' they don't understand." Those from the Middle East and Latin America are shocked to discover at work that they have a 10-minute timed bathroom break and a 25-minute lunch. "They say, 'How can we talk to our friends in 25 minutes?' "

Refugees and immigrants have always been consigned to what Pipher calls three-D work: difficult, dangerous, dirty jobs. In Nebraska, those include working in meatpacking and dog-food plants. In the past, people who worked hard could gradually climb rungs of a ladder into better jobs. Today, growing numbers have no way to move out of three-D jobs without a college education.

"If people don't get out within two or three generations, they're stuck," Pipher says. "They lose their newcomer's zest and give up on the newcomer's dream. Then they're really in trouble."

The latest arrivals in Lincoln have been women from Afghanistan, most of whom are widows and illiterate. "They have never worked outside the home. They don't drive. They're cloistered. Many of them have eight or nine kids. Now they're expected to be self-sufficient."

Like all refugees, they're also expected to deal with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). But after extensive contact with the agency, Pipher calls the INS "a mess" and "a dysfunctional organization." Rather than blaming employees, she sees the problems as structural.

"Because of its problems, it really creates a Kafkaesque nightmare for refugees," Pipher says. "They have to get certain stamps on official papers to escape deportation [from the US] ... so they have to deal with the INS. As one person put it, 'It's the dragon we must slay.' On the other hand, they can't deal with it. I am sure there have been suicides resulting from despair. They kill themselves rather than deal with the INS."

Pipher is not sure the agency's problems are fixable. She has read that the INS receives 100,000 calls a day on customer-service lines but answers only a fraction of that number. "It's criminal," she says. "Think about an Afghan woman who can't read or write in any language, working at a meatpacking plant. How can she handle the INS?"

The refugees most able to adapt to new and difficult surroundings, she says, are oriented to the future rather than the past. They know how to pay attention. They show ambition and initiative. They can express their needs. They have an optimistic nature and know how to stay calm. They are flexible. They also love new people.

Could Americans trade places with refugees, going to their countries and adopting their cultures, and succeed?

"Certainly some Americans, if you dropped them in southern Sudanese grasslands, would survive," Pipher says. Yet she questions her own ability to prevail amid enormous cultural change.

"Beyond a certain age, it's very hard to learn a new language," she says. "And if I had to work in a dog-food plant 10 hours a day, I'm not sure I would want to live."

Pipher the realist knows that not all refugees make ideal citizens. "All cultures include malcontents and people who operate on a different moral plane, and who are lazy, cruel, even dangerous," she says. But the majority have "a real sense of purpose."

She cautions against stereotyping refugees as uniformly poor. Many enjoyed good lives in their homelands, and were middle class and educated.

"People show me pictures of their home and say, 'We had a nice house.' Then their world just turned upside down."

To help make refugees' new lives promising, Pipher urges Americans to become cultural brokers in their communities. "Probably wherever you live in America, there is somebody who could use your help."

Potential volunteers can call schools and churches for information. Many churches adopt a refugee family.

To start a conversation, she suggests asking individuals where they come from. Most are eager to talk. "They're honored that someone doesn't just see them as another dark-skinned person sweeping the floor."

She urges the government to waive its requirement that refugees repay the cost of airfare from their countries to the US. One young Sudanese man, Joseph, who lost his parents when he was 12, came to Lincoln with three younger siblings. He now holds a minimum-wage janitorial job in a hospital. On a monthly income of $1,100, which supports four people and covers car expenses, he must pay the government $200 a month for four plane tickets. Joseph told Pipher, "We do not eat much."

Pipher also calls for better working conditions and a living wage, noting that it is impossible to support a family on the minimum wage. Refugees, she adds, also need more free opportunities to learn English and trades.

Despite the influx in Lincoln and other cities, Pipher emphasizes that the United States takes in only 1 percent of all the world's refugees. Making a case for trying to bridge the divide that separates newcomers from natives, she says: "I would like people to ask, 'Is this person human like me?' After asking the question, they would reach the conclusion, 'Yes, we are human together.' When they do that, there is a joy, a desire to reach out. That would be my goal."

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