Skip to main content

"Dreams and Disorientation"

(this is cross posted from my non-profit marketing blog, and eventually from the official International Rescue Committee blog - I wanted to share it here too.

When was the last time you were moved to take action?

This post isn’t intended to get you to take action, or to make a donation to the International Rescue Committee, where I work currently. But there’s a good chance you just might because you will most certainly be moved, surprised and compelled to, at minimum, learn more about what I’m going to talk about. If I can manage to write what I have in my head you will literally be astounded.

Americans take the “American Dream” for granted. Big time.

For me, growing up in Westchester County, NY, college, a career and a family were only ever a question of time. It’s a given for many Americans that if they work hard they can live the life of their dreams. But to me, the "American Dream" isn’t really “American” – it’s more of a statement about the spirit of ALL human beings and their desire to live the life of their dreams.

I spent a few days last week with our San Diego and Phoenix resettlement offices seeing first-hand how “the dream” works for refugees. These offices are in the business of delivering the "American Dream" on a daily basis.

I bet you haven’t heard about the ’72 Burundians. I hadn’t. They are a group of refugees who fled their homeland in 1972 following a campaign of violence against them by Tutsi-led forces. What happened is sometimes referred to as the first genocide in Africa’s Great Lakes region and -- two decades before the atrocities depicted in “Hotel Rwanda” -- resulted in 200,000 deaths and triggered the flight of some 150,000 refugees to camps in Tanzania, Rwanda and Congo.

These folks have lived in refugee camps for 35 years. Two generations of people growing up in refugee camps. The government of Tanzania has made it clear that it doesn’t want them to settle permanently – but isn’t 35 years of living somewhere “permanent?”

What if you were kicked out of your house and run off to a foreign country – then after 35 years told to leave?

As for “the dream” - I have to give pause and wonder to myself how these people had any hope at all for a better life.

I met Augustine and his beautiful family (his wife and 3 young boys) as part of my tour of the Phoenix resettlement office. Resettled refugees like Augustine typically travel for up to 4 or 5 days to get from their camp to the United States. Our trip to Augustine’s house was the IRC’s “24 hour” visit – a chance for staff to check in on the family and answer any additional questions they may have.

Before my visit, I could only guess at how confused and disoriented refugees like Augustine must feel when they first arrive. But then the reality of his experience started to sink in. It was confusing and disturbing to me on so many levels:

Augustine grew up in a refugee camp and doesn’t know what an air conditioner is, or butter for that matter. He asked us what a bag of pasta was for – he held up a box of Pop Tarts and with a look of hope and confusion listened while we told him it was a breakfast food, sort of like bread with fruit inside. But Augustine now finds himself in a furnished apartment, with an opportunity for education and a job--and, of course, Pop Tarts and Cheerios. Thanks to the IRC, he's standing on the doorstep of "the dream."

In my eyes, Augustine is a hero – he is a man that I can only bow down to and honor. He has survived something that for any American is completely inconceivable. He is raising his family amid all kinds of upheaval, he speaks 5 languages and he has found a way to build a better life for them. I’m in awe.

Later that evening, I decided to go along with IRC staff to the airport to pick up another set of incoming Burundians who had been traveling for 5 days. At 11:16, a group of African men wearing standard issue gray shirts, blue pants and basic sneakers came walking down towards us, their eyes bleary, holding on to their IOM issued bags with their papers – their permission slips to "the dream."

As we stood around baggage claim, communicating in smiles and gestures, we soon learned that 3 of their 5 bags had been “lost” by the airlines. Americans get upset when they lose a bag with their pool toys and bathing suits. These folks lost bags with everything they own in them. The airline representative made us fill out forms and told us to call in 24 to 48 hours. Welcome to America!

Imagine if you packed your house to move cross-country, and the moving truck got into a wreck that destroyed everything inside.

I can imagine it – and it’s just horrible. But the newly arrived refugees just smiled. One of them picked up a copy of USA Today (he speaks no English at all) and found the weather map. He was looking intently at it and I leaned over to see if I could help him make sense of things. He pointed to Arizona and smiled. I pointed out New York and made an airplane motion with my hands - I think he understood me perfectly well.


Popular posts from this blog

What Would Google Do: Non-Profit Edition

I've been tweeting and yapping to friends about Jeff Jarvis's terrific book " What Would Google Do " even before I've properly finishing the thing. I sat myself down tonight and plowed through the last 100 pages where Jarvis examines different industries including automotive, manufacturing, telcom, healthcare and more to see what Google would do if they were in those businesses. On one hand, I was really hoping that Jarvis had taken a look at the non-profit sector given my personal history in the sector and my ongoing interest in how non-profits operate. I'll also note that I used to write a fairly well read non-profit marketing blog . Unfortunately, the book doesn't delve into this much, if at all. I thought, instead of a basic set of notes or a book review as I usually do that I'd jump back in time and take a look at the sector with fresh, and "Googley" eyes. If you haven't yet read the book, the basic premise is that Google fundamenta

The Future of Non-Profit Fundraising is Already Here, and You Are Not Ready

This blog post is loosely transcribed from a talk I gave as part of a Future of Non-profits meet up hosted by my buddy  David Neff . I was asked to do no more than 5 minutes and came up with the following. I'm also posting my hand scribbled notes I used to plan the talk, may as well show you my doctor like scribble. The notes were written on my iPad mini using Penultimate in case you were wondering. And now... the talk... Hi everyone and good morning (In my head there is awesome music playing!). My name is Marc Sirkin and I'm currently a Director with PwC, focused on helping organizations transform their digital marketing and social media. I spent 10 years in the non-profit sector, with large health charities such as March of Dimes, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Autism Speaks. Most recently, I've been volunteering and doing pro-bono work for much smaller organizations focused on mentoring and youth. Before I jump in, let me warn you, I'm extremely enam

Disconnect - 3 keys to disconnecting while on vacation

Previously posted on Medium , reposted here. I blog so infrequently, I figure I need to repurpose as much content as I can! (Photo by Marc Sirkin, Utah Mountains 2013) Even before mobile/smartphones I was bad; sneaking away to check email, reading business books or memos while on the beach, working on proposals or ideas at the pool. All behaviors of someone who would rather lose himself in work, instead of being present with family, focusing on clearing the mind and having a good time. Over the past few years I’ve improved my efforts to disconnect. I did however notice that it would take 2 or 3 days to fully disconnect. Similar to an addict, I’d have dreams about work, fanatically check in and have to almost physically restrain myself from replying to emails. It was bad, very bad. I’d come back from work up to date, but feeling like I hadn’t even had time off. As my kids grew older, it became more and more important to disconnect from work and get focused on my family and fri