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New Book Describes Refugee Experience in US - 2002-07-21


The residents of Lincoln, Nebraska were once mostly white, Christian and native English speaking. But refugees representing some 50 nationalities have settled in the midwestern city in recent years. Since 1990, its non-white population has increased by 128 percent. How the refugees have adapted and how the city has adaptedare the twin themes of a new book called The Middle of Everywhere, The World's Refugees Come to Our Town. The author is Mary Pipher a psychologist, best-selling author and long-time Lincoln resident.

When Mary Pipher was growing up in the American Midwest, she liked to put her finger on a miniature globe, spin it, and imagine herself in another part of the world. Now she doesn't have to rely on her imagination. "One of the great things about living where I do, Lincoln, Nebraska, is I can have a meal with an Afghan family," she said. "I can have coffee with a Bosnian woman and talk about her worries about her adolescent son. I can experience so many cultures and the important things about those cultures-how men and women get along, how people raise children, how people deal with pain and suffering-and still sleep in my own bed at night."

In The Middle of Everywhere, Mary Pipher describes what she's learned from refugees as both a friend and a therapistsince Lincoln became an official refugee resettlement community. "Which means that when refugees get off the airplane, they're handed a ticket by an INS officer to Lincoln, Nebraska," said Mary Pipher. "They don't even know where Lincoln is, and in fact the funny common misunderstanding is refugees think they're going to Alaska, and they expect to see grizzly bears and igloos when they get to our town. I think we were chosen because we had zero unemployment, a very cheap cost of living and lots of churches that were willing to do the resettlement work, and a very low hate index, in other words, there'd been almost no racial incidents in our town. So it's been a safe place."

Safe, but still intimidating to new refugees. Maja Peci fled war-torn Bosnia, spent five years in Germany, and then moved to Lincoln with her husband. "We felt totally lost," she said. "We didn't have a car. We were just dropped at the apartment at 2 o'clock in the morning, and nobody showed up for five days. It was confusing."

And if Lincoln is confusing for refugees from European countries, says Mary Pipher, imagine coming from a tribal culture where even the American way of keeping time is unfamiliar. "For example, the southern Sudanese Dinka and Nuer people that have been displaced by the war, in their language they have no word for time," she said. "Many refugees have trouble keeping, say, a medical appointment, because in their country if you're sick, you just walk down the block to the doctor. In our country if you're sick you call, you talk to somebody who gives you an appointment three weeks from tomorrow at two in the afternoon. By that time they've either gotten well or they've forgotten about the appointment."

Refugees often face the added challenges of mastering a new language, learning to drive, and finding a job. Mary Pipher says many go to work in local factories, even if they were skilled professionals in their own country, "I heard an interesting anecdote about this," said Mary Pipher. "A woman was going through a factory talking to workersthese workers happened to be from Somalia and she was trying to figure out who had a little bit of education so she could make that person a supervisor over the other Somalis. So she handed this man a piece of paper that said two plus two, and he looked at the paper for a minute, and then he took it and wrote a paragraph-long quadratic equation and handed it back to her. And she realized this guy who is working in a dog food factory was probably an engineer or physicist in his country. But because his English is so limited he's doing this work."

Maja Peci says her husband found work quickly in Lincoln. She got a business degree and now works at the Lincoln Literacy Council, which helps adults learn to read and write. But she and her husband weren't prepared for the lack of job security in the United States. "We were shocked at first when we heard you can get fired for any reason or no reason," she said. "In our society you need to steal something or do really a huge thing to lose your job. But we found out also that you can lose your job today and tomorrow find another one, which is not that easy in Europe."

Mary Pipher says for younger refugees, the American style of dating and courtship can be perplexing. "People in their twenties from certain parts of the world like the Middle East frequently asked me if I would find them a husband or wife," she said. "There are many parts of the world where there's really no proper way for young men and women to meet and talk to each other. It's by arranged marriages. The genders don't mix from puberty until after they're married. And so they have no idea how to date. And that's another thing people would ask me is, 'Where are the marriage brokers?' And of course I'd have to say, 'I'm sorry. We don't have marriage brokers in our town.' "

Nancy Berdsley: "You write about a couple from Sierra Leone who lost their children in the civil war, a Bosnian teenager who saw his father and grandfather shot. How were these people coping with traumas they had experienced before they came to the United States?"

Mary Pipher: "One of the things I learned writing this book is all cultures have systems of healing. And what they tended to like was being with people, having parties. They love to be outdoors in the natural world. They liked food from their home countries, music. They wanted religious ceremonies. They wanted to have a reason to go on living. It helped if they had someone in the home country they were working to bring over. The refugees I worried about most were people who came to our town alone and were so depressed they weren't connecting to other people."

Mary Pipher says people in Lincoln have responded in a variety of ways to the refugees. At best, they've gone out of their way to help them. At worst, they've expressed bigotry and racism. But she believes everyone in the United States can learn from the refugees' strength and resilience. That became clear after the terrorist attacks of September 11. "They had been through this kind of thing before," she said. "They had experienced fear, confusion, loss, trauma. And so many people I know have said the refugees have helped me deal with this."

Those shared experiences could be important early steps towards creating a new sense of community in Lincoln. It's a place Bosnian refugee Maja Peci has grown to like for what she calls its safety and simplicity. She says she and her husband now have friends from Bosnia around the United States. But they have no plans to move. Lincoln, Nebraska has become home. The Middle of Everywhere was published by Harcourt, Inc., 15 East 26th Street, 15th Floor, New York, New York 10010.