Tonight I gave a parenting workshop to Iranian refugees in our community. Most came to the States within the past six months, and a few have been here for more than a year. Initially hesitant, by the end of the workshop, parents didn’t want to end.
One 29 year old man discussed how his world seems like a chronic shaking earthquake. His outward appearance relayed an easy transition: culturally adapted and comfortable. But he spoke about two years in a refugee camp before being shipped to America two months ago. He’s trying to make sense of life here. Wanting to survive, he’s constantly scrambling, without language, means to work, or understanding various systems (educational, health care, etc). Layered on the perpetual search for basics like how to ride a bus, where to pay rent, who to talk to about legal paperwork to apply for a job, he’s also smacked by cultural differences of seeing kids talking back to their parents, glued to video games, etc.
I asked questions to him and the other 20 parents about their families, struggles, and ways of overcoming. I listened to their experiences and desperation when explaining problems they’re having with knowing how to be successful in America…or even what success means, as compared to Iran. Some talked about feeling lost – not knowing their identity anymore, and feeling pressured by their children and surroundings to shed cultural beliefs (like mandating higher education and professional jobs), to embrace and trust local American ones (promoting a child’s passion and independence).
It reminded me of traveling alone. Without language skills, often travelers are forced to become dependents. We can’t communicate our needs or intents, and resort to the gestures and frustrations of regression. Refugee parents undergo a parallel process with their teenagers, trying to develop, or re-create identities. To be vulnerable and lost as an adult is painful for the parent expected to provide and set examples for their children. Especially when the vulnerability becomes a norm, after years of extra-ordinary stress and adversity. Makes me wonder what qualities make some people endure and shape their challenges, while others retreat and fall.