“It Mattered That I Was Here”
Ten years ago, Angie Plummer’s mother sent out her annual Christmas card to friends and family, updating them on what her daughter was up to. Angie recalls the card’s message quite well. “It was, ‘My daughter works at the Department of Human Services’—which was wrong—and ‘she does contract management’—which was also wrong.” Angie laughs. “But it was the equivalent.”
Compare that to what Angie is doing now—working one-on-one with refugees as the director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) in Columbus, Ohio—and you’ll find two careers at entirely opposite ends of the spectrum. Angie couldn’t be happier to have made the switch.
“I am so lucky,” she says. “Every day. I know how lucky I am to be able to do something so useful.”
In 1998, Angie was halfheartedly putting her law degree to use at an unfulfilling state job. Then she read an article about a lawyer who was volunteering for a fledgling refugee agency. When she contacted the agency to see if they needed more volunteers, they said, “Come all the time.” So she cut back her state job to thirty hours and started volunteering with refugees for twenty hours a week.
It didn’t take her long to fall madly in love with the work she was doing. She left her state job in the dust with no second thoughts.
The relationships she’s developed along the way have been deep and powerful. Take Amina, who was just eighteen when Angie started working with her ten years ago. Amina and her sixteen-year-old brother had suffered a long journey to get to the United States, and when they arrived, they didn’t speak a word of English. Angie helped Amina navigate the American justice system to get legal guardianship of her brother, assisted her when she ran into a problem with public housing, and was right by her side when Amina had her first child. Along the way, Angie became more than just a case worker; she became a friend.
Amina, now twenty-eight, has her citizenship interview coming up this year. She recently presented Angie with a beautiful framed photo on which she wrote: “Thank you, Angie, for always being there for us.”
It’s those kinds of gifts you just don’t get in a state job. And that’s because what Angie is doing isn’t just filing mundane paperwork or typing in numbers. She’s given hope to the hopeless by helping these people start a new life.
When refugees touch down in the airport of their new homes, the official work of the U.S. refugee resettlement agency that handled the placement comes to an end. At that point, one of the 250 local affiliates takes over. CRIS is one of those affiliates. That means they do on-the-ground work with newly arrived refugees, helping them acclimate to their new environment.
Whereas others might look at these people as hopeless and helpless, that’s not how they view themselves. For example, a Somali woman who arrives with three small children isn’t looking at her future as one hurdle after another—language barriers, young dependents, finding a job, etc. Instead, she sees herself as a survivor. She’s thinking, “I can do this.” And it’s Angie’s job to make sure that she can.
It’s not immediate. In fact it usually takes a little while for refugees to “settle in.” Learning English isn’t something that happens in one or three or even twelve months. Often, the parents have the hardest time learning the language. But often their children adapt readily and go on to become phenomenally successful. A former refugee turned CRIS case worker just had her eldest child graduate from Boston College law school, and her daughter graduated from Columbia with a masters. Her other three children are all college graduates. “They’re going to give back,” Angie says. “You have to give them a little time to get on their feet, and then they’ll make those contributions.”
Because of her administrative responsibilities, Angie considers herself lucky to work one-on-one with the refugees as much as she does. She still tries to go to the airport when she can to personally greet refugees upon their arrival. Airport scenes are always tender and poignant, like when the Somali orphans were reunited with their aunt and grandmother.
Angie smiles. “It makes me want to look back someday and say, “That mattered. It mattered that I was here.”
And she’s right: it truly did.
Make it matter that you’re here by:
▪ Contacting your local refugee resettlement agency and offering to volunteer. Often what refugees need most is a friend. They’ve just landed in an entirely world and could use help adjusting to their new environment—anything from learning how to cook in an American kitchen to shopping for groceries at the supermarket. A Rwandan woman once told Angie that the best thing her co-sponsor ever gave her was a phone number. She just needed someone to call when she was confused about some aspect of her new life!
▪ Making a donation to your local refugee resettlement agency in the form of either material items (towels, sheets, kitchen supplies, laundry detergent) or monetary donations.
▪ Joining the Genocide Intervention Network and the Save Darfur Coalition on Meetup.com to meet up with refugees and activists who live in your community.