[This is the complete version of an article written for the Quaker House Winter 2017 Newsletter. It is enriched by illustrative examples from her own experiences working with refugees that were omitted from the newsletter due to space limitations.]
“I will write songs against you,
enemies of my people; I will pelt you
with the winged seeds of the dandelion;
I will marshall against you
the fireflies of the dusk.”
– Charles Reznikoff
It is challenging to bring together the enemies in the world without hatred. Yet, I argue that refugees displaced from around the world and veterans from the US military are in the same boat, and that it serves the interests of both to begin to view each other as part of the same picture and to have the opportunity to talk, that such connection may serve to develop and foster the sort of tenderness between seeming “opposites” that is described in the poem above.
As a fifth semester Master of Social Work student from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, I am laboring to integrate the lessons about militarism I have learned. Serving as a not-for-credit intern at Quaker House in this late fall is a final and necessary step for me in this integration toward understanding the ways in which “our liberation is bound up… together” (Lilla Watson) and the ways in which we may work together to bring about change.
Context: My Experience
Two years ago, when I moved from Michigan to pursue this degree, I had no experience with refugees. My next year interning in refugee mental health began awkwardly. Walking into a room full of strangers learning English as a second language, I didn’t know how to relate. By year’s end, I found myself seated in a refugee couple’s living room, eating figs they themselves had grown and being treated as if I were their daughter.
I’m surprised at how much refugees have become a part of my heart. I currently have a part-time internship through which I organizationally support—long-distance via Skype and email—a team of South Sudanese refugee leaders driving technology-facilitated community change in refugee camps throughout northern Uganda. My view of life experiences faced by refugees has become clearer and more nuanced.
Experiences refugees face are represented for me by:
- the woman who dutifully walked to English lessons and who tackled a many-legged bus journey through the North Carolina summer heat to weekly counseling appointments, to relate stories about a son killed for suspected association with the US military,
- a woman mothering several small children, isolated from anyone speaking her language in a large apartment complex of diverse refugees, mourning separation from the in-person support of her family, now many expensive flights and visa challenges away,
- a young woman worrying about close family members in distant resettlement camps who struggle with severe health problems and substandard care, wondering if they’ll make it to the US and thinking of them every day,
- the male refugee entrepreneur who loses his sister to inadequate tuberculosis care in a northern Uganda refugee camp,
- the refugee parents distressed that their young children wake up with bedbug bites every day. Refugees newly settled in the US are often accepted only in bottom rung apartments due to lack of a social security number and documented rental history, and
- the former interpreter for US forces who lost family members to kidnapping and can’t access help with job-seeking and impending homelessness because his resettlement agency in the US has closed in honor of Veteran’s Day.
These stories resonate with me every day. Currently, by interning with Quaker House, I am learning more about what is experienced by those affiliated with the US military. Shadowing hotline calls with Steve and Lenore (Quaker House’s GI Rights Hotline counselors) I am learning more about the uniques pains and struggles associated with being a US military member.
US military members, refugees from wars in which the US has a role, and US civilians beyond these groups compose the same web. I have identified several ways in which this interconnection may be experienced similarly by refugee people and US military members.
Pain. Conflict comes with pain, particularly when conflict is not fruitfully resolved. Refugee people and military members bear the world’s pain disproportionately. We as humans struggle with our fear of each other as people, our desire to hoard resources and well-being, and our hopes to stave off vulnerability. Refugee and military-involved people may experience the pain related to this struggle acutely. It hurts to be separated from loved ones, to lose one’s home, and to witness violence and death.
Pain from militarism may manifest in the form of moral injury—violation of perceived “right action” by those in authority, or violation of perceived “right action” by oneself (Litz et al., 2009; Shay, 2014). With moral injury, refugees and military members might experience two sides of the same coin. Refugee people may have experienced those in military power acting in ways that violated the “right action” they would expect; military members may have been ordered to perpetrate misdeeds against their own senses of conscience.
Lack of awareness. The challenges faced by both refugee people and military members and families are hidden from view in ways that perpetuate and rationalize the status quo for those in power. Refugee experiences are rarely considered by most US civilians. Likewise, the lack of access to healthcare and veteran benefits and the racial and sexual discrimination that many military members experience remain unseen for most of the nonmilitary US population. Policymakers safe in their offices rarely brush up against the experiences of refugees and military members.
The experience of being caught up in a machine. “I don’t understand how people can just be in authority and just do something like that,” spoke one female military member who called about her rights. “I’ve already proved that the system is broken,” said a male serviceman. Refugee people and military members or veterans are human beings who find themselves subject to situations that exacerbate their powerlessness. Refugees become caught in a system bigger than themselves when forced by military authority to leave their homes. They are required to register with international organizations to receive a plot of land, food, and a temporary shelter, and they are subjected to the will of international governments to decide where they will go next. Disadvantaged people often take steps to empower themselves. For example, a service member may seek help from a congressperson to address a grievance; a refugee may pursue and secure an available job. However, even when such steps are taken, it is not from a position of full equality. For example, refugee professionals often cannot achieve certification in the US without years of retraining and high expense. Instead, refugees frequently take poultry processing jobs and hospitality positions at hotels in order to pay for housing and medical bills.
Lack of adequate funding. The rush of finding a job, the lack of funding for language learning and recredentialing, and (in states like North Carolina) the quick route to lack of medical coverage for adult refugees reflect inadequate funding allocated to deal with individual needs. Similarly, the US military’s lack of support including a tendency to classify service members’ health concerns as misbehaviors in ways that would lead to an other-than-honorable discharge (without benefits) helps the military trim costs.
Clarified perspective. Both refugee individuals and those associated with the US military have probably experienced a change in life that has transformed their values and ways in which they see the world. They have something to tell the rest of us about aspects of reality to which we are oblivious. Civilians in the US are part of the global equation impacting refugees and military members but usually experience less of and are thus less aware of warfare’s painful impact. US civilians might go about their lives, buying their groceries, sleeping soundly at night without considering the fear or dread experienced by those living exposed and strained existences in refugee camps. Experiences of peacefulness and safety are not themselves problematic—in fact, they should be the norm rather than the exception in the world. The trouble is that our seeming peacefulness and safety are built upon a military machine that outsources pain, justifies this pain as an enforcement of our freedoms, and feeds a tide of displacement and despair. Military members and refugees understand these dynamics more deeply than those of us not experiencing them up close. As such, they have something to share.
What Is Needed
Bring refugee and military member voices to the surface. If challenges experienced by refugees and military-involved families are understood by more people, then pain inflicted by US militarism will become harder to ignore. Paul Tinkerhess, a Quaker in Ann Arbor, MI, speaks about how all parts of a body need to hear each other’s pain. How else can we know how we need to adjust?
Hearing this pain can be overwhelming. When I began interning in refugee mental health, I experienced a period of disillusionment about building peace, then over time found a role in helping refugees directly and seeking to change relevant systems. The process of listening to pain is important. As Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, urges, those interested in social change must get “proximate” to the problem, close enough to hear.
Foster interconnection between impacted groups of people. It is important to provide opportunities for refugee and military individuals to speak and be heard by one another. These two parties know more about war than most other people. In my experience both refugees and military members often hope for peace, but in a way that is clear-eyed about realities. People in these groups may actually have motivation to work together and certainly have the knowledge to do so intelligently. How can we facilitate opportunities for this interconnection? The chance to understand the impact of militarism on one another and to address it together may help address moral injury as well.
Take responsibility. If we or those close to us have not been in the military or left home as refugees, we may have outsourced to others suffering that supports our lifestyles. It may be healthy to acknowledge this suffering belongs to us as much as to them. In my life, responsibility means learning more about military-industrial connections—how I can act on these and remove my participation—and figuring out how to bring individuals together in groups for productive conversation on these contentious issues. What does taking responsibility look like for you?
Find and nourish hope. It can be hard to work for change, especially on such dark, looming challenges as systemic militarism, without recharging one’s sense of hope. (As such, activists may choose to work toward “less formidable” goals).  While working to address entrenched issues, Dr. Ted Shaw, director of the UNC-CH Center for Civil Rights, proposes that hope may be found in our process and our actions, not in the result of which we actually dream.  Sometimes hope is found in working together, in seeing infinitesimal human-size changes we do make, in learning in our own ways what needs to be addressed, or in sharing that knowledge with others. Howard Zinn wrote of finding “the energy to act… at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.” May we be active and intelligent in our hope.
 Swanson, D. (Ed.). (2011). The military industrial complex at 50. Charlottesville, VA: eBookIt.com.
 Shaw, T. (2017) Activism in academia. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work Social Justice Lecture Series, Chapel Hill, NC.
Quaker House is committed to conscious, intentional, and consistent hope and action in confronting US militarization. We welcome your support and thank you for joining us in the ways that you are. Let us continue collaborating to address harms faced by military families and raise awareness toward the systemic demilitarization needed to improve health, safety, and well-being for both refugees and military-involved individuals and families. Feel free to comment with yiour suggestions regarding interconnections between refugees and military members and what you think needs to happen to bring about change.
~ With thanks, Claire Bates (Quaker House Intern, UNC-CH Master of Social Work & Graduate Certificate for International Peace and Conflict Resolution Certificate Candidate, Fall 2017; firstname.lastname@example.org).