“Katastrofa!” the Russian woman exclaimed as she turned to me. Catastrophe. It was the only word I could understand throughout her whole conversation with the social worker. The distraught woman was seeking asylum status in France and was facing some difficulties with the paperwork the French Office of Immigration required.
During my fall 2018 semester abroad in Strasbourg, France, I spent a little over a month working for the Centre d’Accueil et d’Evaluations des Situations (CAES), a non-profit organization that aids individuals and families seeking asylum. I would often encounter distressed asylum seekers like the Russian woman during my time at CAES. The organization accounts for each person’s paperwork and helps translate for them during interviews with the French government. They also provide housing and health care assistance, especially for young families. The office was located in a house, one of four that the organization owned. There were about five women staffing as case workers, who were each assigned to certain families and individuals.
On my first day of work, I spent time looking over some of the case files on the families. All of them were from either Eastern Europe or Africa with many from Macedonia, Albania, and Georgia. Almost all of the families had young children. Many people stayed in one of the four houses the organization owned in a small neighborhood outside of the downtown area. On each floor, two to three families shared a kitchen and a bathroom. At the bottom of one of the houses, the basement served as a classroom and a children’s activity room. One of the projects I took on at the center was a painting project I did with a few young girls from Russia. The whole time, I felt in awe of their capability to communicate fluently in French, English, and Russian. By the end of the night, they took on the daunting task of teaching my coworker and me a few Russian phrases. We all couldn’t help but laugh as I stumbled over pretty much every word they tried to teach me. Their rapid ability to adapt struck me. I was overwhelmed with respect for these young girls, and this feeling continued to grow.
Throughout the whole month, nothing was more valuable than the connections I made with the families. In particular, there was a bubbly 10-year-old girl from Kosovo, seeking refuge with her parents, two older sisters, and younger brother. When I was first talked to her, I was surprised that she spoke with a perfect American accent. She said she had learned English through YouTube videos and American cartoons online. We bonded over the fact that our French was not up to par. The case workers in the office would get on our case about practicing, but we would sneak in English anytime we could. One weekend, a few NGOs threw a small carnival for the refugee families. She and I spent the whole day running around the fairgrounds, crashing bumper cars, and eating babe à papa, or cotton candy. She continued to come by my desk each week and chat about her friends at school or her latest crush. All this went on before the day I found that her father was in the late stages of cancer and only had a few weeks left to live. Besides having to move across the continent to seek asylum, she was having to face the likely loss of a parent.
I had no idea because of her constant positive attitude and bright smile. Later that day, I went up to her and told her, “I’m so sorry about your father.” For the first time in that whole month, she looked at me with a sadness I had never seen on her face before. She said, “It’s okay. You don’t know him… so you don’t have to be sorry or sad.” Then she walked away. Looking back on that moment, I realize that she was just speaking the truth. There are so many catastrophes that people choose to ignore because they don’t affect where they live or who they love. I came to this internship expecting to build a basic understanding of the asylum-seeking and immigration process. However, I found myself learning about the personal experiences refugees have in another country as well. At the end of the day, I think we could all benefit from the stories we have to share with each other. I will never forget and always be thankful for this opportunity I had in Strasbourg, France.
Amy Nakamura is a sophomore studying magazine and international relations at Syracuse University.