Encountering a Modern Day Saint in Nashville

nashvilleFAN’s Jason Miller with some of his former co-workers at Catholic Charities in Nashville. Each was a former refugee.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, a growing number of Governors in the United States have stated that their states will no longer accept refugees. FAN’s Director of Campaigns and Development, Jason Miller spent a year after college with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Nashville, TN working as an employment specialist at Catholic Charities Refugee Services. In order to combat fear and misinformation about refugees we’re posting a reflection that Jason wrote on his first month on the job back in 2007. Refugees are escaping fear and persecution, and are the largest group that has been persecuted by Daesh. They deserve our support and help and we should not close our doors to them, especially as the United States is a nation built by immigrants.

I’ve only been working at Catholic Charities for about a month, but I already feel as though I have many important stories that need to be told. For those of you who have heard some of them, I hope you find these new stories interesting as well. For those of you whom I haven’t had as much contact with as I’d like since I’ve been here, I hope that these stories provide a glimpse of what life in Nashville is like. I want to focus on two individuals in particular who have stood out in my short time here. I often wonder if they will be able to rise above their particular situation in life in order to live out their hopes and dreams. This particular story in part one of this “series” will detail the life of the first individual I want to focus on, a man who has been a central part of my development and understanding of things in my short time here so far.

We have a lot of refugees coming to Nashville from Burundi, which is a very small, poor country in Africa. Some of these refugees have been in refugee camps since 1972, when they fled Burundi during the first genocide in the Great Lakes region of Africa. One particular refugee, Jean Bosco (just like the saint), was born in Rwanda to refugee parents from Burundi, and most recently, lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania. To put it quite simply, Jean Bosco is an extraordinary human being. While in Africa, Jean Bosco studied law and worked in a hospital as a medical assistant. Even though he is modest about his English skills, they are quite good. He has been a big help for me in helping his fellow Burundians to apply for jobs and go to interviews. Without him, a large portion of the thirty people that I’ve placed in jobs or secured interviews for would not have these jobs.

Jean Bosco is a God-send. He has a wife and three young children, whom he clearly loves very much. It is also quite clear that he has a passion for helping others. Jean Bosco wants to succeed in America and help his fellow countrymen succeed. He made this very clear to me recently when he was helping me with translations when we were filling out job applications. I wanted him to explain to the Burundian men that they were applying for cleaning jobs, but when I said this, some of them grumbled, and I told Jean Bosco to tell the others that this was a job fit for men, hopefully easing any preconceived notions they might have. Instead of translating this for me, he looked right at me and explained that it didn’t matter what job they were applying for, because they had come to America to start a new life and understood that they would be starting at the bottom of the economic ladder. It was clear that Jean Bosco understood this, although I am unsure if everyone else did.

What else is clear is that Jean Bosco already had his understanding of the American dream and was determined to live it out, that is, to work up that economic ladder to better the lives of his family, (and to another extent, better the lives of his bigger family of Burundian refugees.) This concept of the American dream has existed since the first immigrants began coming to America. But how is one supposed to live that out today, in 2007, when the cost of living in the past ten years alone has increased greatly, and an entry level job pays no more than $8 an hour? Jean Bosco has the will to succeed, and the skills to do it. His level of education should all but ensure a comfortable lifestyle, and if he was born in America he would already be a great success and would be helping others, most likely as a doctor or lawyer, given his education and experience. But Jean Bosco is going to be cleaning bathrooms at a hospital instead of assisting the doctors and nurses like he did in Africa. Who is going to give Jean Bosco his opportunity to rise above the poverty line?

As a non-profit organization, Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement is supposed to assist refugees in becoming self-sufficient within six months. But I wonder if entry level jobs lead to self-sufficiency? The “economic boom” that has occurred in America has not trickled down to the very poor. The poverty line in America is just over $19,000—less than what Jean Bosco would make at $8 an hour. How long is his family supposed to survive on food stamps? What about those who make just above the poverty line, how are they going to survive with even less government assistance but still not enough to get by? Jean Bosco, just like every other refugee, came to the United States with very little. Refugees start poor, and face a difficult climb in breaking out of the cycle of poverty, and few in society will give them a chance to succeed. In fact, many people that I have encountered here so far believe that refugees are some sort of illegal immigrant, who are trying to find work illegally. In fact, all refugees are allowed to be in the United States indefinitely, and are legally allowed to work. And Jean Bosco is one of the lucky ones. He has a college education and speaks English very well. What about those who don’t?

Jean Bosco has helped me learn a lot during my first month or so on the job. My first few weeks at Catholic Charities, I found myself wondering what exactly I was doing in a real office with real responsibilities and if I would be able to fulfill what I was supposed to do. Not only did Jean Bosco ease my fears, especially those about language differences, but ironically, he made me feel at home and comfortable.  This lead me to realize that even though I have a great responsibility to help refugees, I can succeed at my job and be one link in the chain that helps all sorts of people from all over the world start anew in America. Clearly, I do have a purpose here, and ultimately, we’re all in this together, but with help, those who need it can rise above the barriers that hold them back.

Luckily for me, I’ve realized that there is some hope. My roommates and I are not only assisting refugees, but also the homeless, troubled teens, single mothers, and ex-offenders. And there are others like us, all throughout the South, and all throughout the United States and the world who are doing all sorts of great things. Little by little we are making a difference. And with a little luck and some prayers, Jean Bosco will be able to rise out of the cycle of poverty that he and his family were trapped in the second they came to the United States. And with some more luck, and a lot more prayers, one day once we realize that we need to consume less, and care more, we will be able to say that not one person was left behind out in the cold, or without food, or without healthcare or without an education. One day, everyone will have the opportunity to be able to rise above the ordinary and seek out what motivates him or her.

For myself, at least for now, I’ve found what motivates me to rise above the ordinary.

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Published in: on November 16, 2015 at 3:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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