Weeks earlier, I had spoken to a therapist employed by a public school in Northern Virginia. The school enrolls an overwhelming number of immigrant students. While we talked she told me example after example of students struggling to make it in school, the hurdles they face as refugees, as new immigrants, or as children of those who fled because their lives in their homelands were at risk. The challenges they confront in resettling in a new place was enough to drive these vulnerable children into a deep mental malaise difficult to extricate from and to treat. One of the stories that stayed with me was that of a nine-year-old Sudanese girl who was sent to the therapist because the girl was failing all her classes. Her English was rudimentary at best. Worse, she was suffering from any number of psychological maladies that commonly afflict refugees. More troubling was the girl's mother, who refused to trust that the NoVa public school would protect her child. The mother suffered from physical and mental afflictions resulting from being tortured in Sudan. She has learned to mistrust schools because of what she has seen at a Sudanese school and wasn't inclined to trust one again in a new country. The therapist said it took about a year for the child and mother to get enough help to move forward but that it would take several more years to heal so that they could get back toward a semblance of normality in their lives.
At the end of our conversation, when I asked the therapist what advice she could give me in dealing with refugees, she said this, "just remember, their stories are not their lives."
It's a piece of advice I intend to follow as I begin my fieldwork meeting and interacting with Ethiopians in their community.