By Hannah Lee
This past weekend, my father-in-law startled me by saying that the assistance that I provide to my refugee clients may not be in their best interest, that it may even hamper the development of their own independence. He urged me to interview my parents and ask them about the difficulties in their first year in the United States as immigrants. No one helped them, did they? No, no one or any agency did. He continued: This country is great because of the immigrants who’ve come and succeeded– on their own. We do a disservice to them when we pamper them to the extent of inhibiting their own initiative.
I was so perturbed by this conversation that I sought out my Rabbi for a perspective based more on ethics than on Darwinism. How could I be doing wrong by my refugees?
More after the jump.
His teshuvah (halachic response) is that there must be a balance. Historically, the immigrants who have succeeded the most– the Jews, the Irish, the Koreans– did benefit from the assistance of their own communities. They did not wait for government handouts. Their brethren provided valuable resource in the guise of networking, interest-free loans, and employment opportunities. Everyone had to undergo the agony of cultural assimilation and the foibles of alienation. A family tale: My husband’s aunt came to visit her daughter in New York and because her Israeli accent was thick, the driver (who may have also been an immigrant and burdened with an accent of his own) did not understand her stated destination of Roosevelt Island, so he drove her to Riker’s Island, where the main prison is located and from where no taxis can be hailed! No, no agency could have helped her with her situation.
During this graduation season, I am witness to the different kinds of parenting among my friends and acquaintances. A woman from my shul told me she was renting a van to drive her daughter to Chicago and would I need anything brought home? No, I don’t want anything brought back home! Then, a dear friend told me she’d brought her housekeeper along to clean her son’s quarters upon graduation. By dint of unusual circumstances as well as personal choice, my daughter left for college by herself with only two bags and she has never asked us to drive her to or back from Chicago. She will be moving to her new apartment without our assistance. Her father has given her money for her living expenses, but we have friends who told their children that they are on their own after college (or they could move back home). I’m glad our daughter is motivated to being independent.
Babies thrive best when they have a safe and stable environment with nurturing caregivers. We endow our children with the resources of our families. They proceed to negotiate with the outside world on their own terms, drawing upon the family capital but also drawing on their own strengths and talents.
Immigrants are motivated for success by choosing to leave their families, their people, their land. You could say that they are pre-selected for success. However, as my Rabbi has noted, even individual hard work needs the benefit of siyatah d’shmayah (Heavenly assistance). So, I am relieved to conclude thus: my refugees do need help while they are learning the language and mores of our culture (and more than the 180 days that HIAS is contracted to provide). The Social Worker had cautioned me about not beguiling them with American generosity; however, she’s met refugees who came off the plane with so few possessions that they filled only two rice sacks! So, I’ll try hard not to pamper them needlessly. They will land on their feet and succeed, and I serve as their Advocate, the “angel” (if I could be so bold to say so) who could give them some assistance along the way.