On privilege

The following is a reflection by Emily, a very talented World Relief Seattle resettlement intern.

I sometimes wonder if I possess natural talents that I don’t even know about. Like maybe I have innate soccer-playing abilities that were never harnessed, or an inborn knack for speed cup-stacking, but the opportunity to discover this talent never presented itself when I was growing up. (Technically, the soccer one did have the opportunity to shine, but I’m told that 5-year-old Emily was more interested in the food on the sidelines than the game on the field.)

I think about “what if” often–what if I had been exposed to this or pursued that, or given that cup stacking thing a try–how might my life have been different? But then I realize how luxurious and rare it is to even wonder if I have “untapped speed cup stacking potentialWhat a privilege that I can even entertain such thoughts!

I recently saw this thought-provoking post by “Humans of New York” floating around Facebook. It was a quotation reflecting on how the lives or refugees in Iraq have been affected by recent events:

“They have no place to be a child, so their only frame of reference is war and fighting. And when that’s all they know, how can they grow up to be doctors and teachers? All they can possibly know is the desire for revenge and hatred for their enemies. I wish people would understand that Iraq is filled with intelligent, civilized people. This was the cradle of civilization in the ancient world. Even the Garden of Eden was here. These aren’t dust-covered, nameless refugees being forced from their homes. The refugee camps are filled with architects and musicians and teachers.”

Growing up, my basic needs were a given. My thoughts had room to frolic, to entertain big dreams, and to get full of knock-knock jokes. I wondered what my next meal would be, but never questioned that it would exist. I fussed over which college I’d go to and what I’d study, but never questioned that I would be able to go. The thought never even crossed my mind that a given grocery store might not carry a shampoo for my hair type. And I have never feared for my safety because of my faith; no, I’ve always gotten to be picky about where I worship, and sip a latte while I do it.

Photo credit "Humans of New York"

Photo credit “Humans of New York”

Several months ago, with the “Humans of New York” quote floating in my head, I had my first encounter with refugees. Since then, I’ve been humbled, and have had many of my stereotypes about this population broken down. I’m not a fan of generalizations, but one you could perhaps apply to refugees is that they all have untapped potential, stalled by anything from access to basic nutrition to personal political affiliations.

The quote about the Iraqi people took on a completely new meaning when there were 4 faces attached to it–a family whose past circumstances appear to have so starkly suppressed the individuals they could have been. My gut reaction was pity, but pity isn’t the right response. Pity is an emotion of the “haves” for the “have-nots” that allows the former to still “have”. It’s a feeling that reinforces a hierarchy.

Above all, these people deserve dignity.

I’ve not always been one with swelling pride for being an American, nor have I been shy to express as much (this, too, is a privilege). But for many refugees, America represents freedom, potential, dignity, and an opportunity for growth where before it was suppressed.

I’m still trying to figure out how to respond to my privilege, but I recognize that I don’t want to be part of a game where winner takes all. I can mourn the untapped potential, innovation, and creativity of millions of people like those referenced in “Humans of New York”. I can continue to seek out conversations that open my eyes to the realities of the world, and I can try my best to dignify everyone I meet.

Young Emily explores her soccer potential...and the food on the sidelines.

Young Emily explores her soccer potential…and the food on the sidelines.


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