We each have a unique story, though our stories often go untold. We’re intelligent enough to know we can learn from one another, but we stay in our bubbles because it is comfortable. I’m guiltier than most, with my busyness as my shield. If we took the time to just ask the questions we really want to ask and truly listen to the answers, our empathy would not only change us, but change our children as well.
In this new series, “What I Wish You Knew,” I am asking various mothers to tell their stories, and I’m hoping to become a better, more empathetic person and a more active participant in change. I recently interviewed Stephanie Giddens, founder of Vickery Trading Company, about her experience getting to know and working alongside many refugees in the Dallas area. What she has discovered may surprise you.
Giddens founded Vickery Trading Company as a way to help refugees in her community by “equipping them for long-term success.” She hires refugee women and pays them fair wages to sew clothing for the Vickery Trading Company brand. Employees receive training as professional seamstresses and instruction in American workplace behaviors and expectations. They are guided through the resumé-building, application and interview process and, as VTC graduates, given job placement assistance. The women are also trained in ESL, reading, handwriting, and typing before they leave. In other words, they are given a chance to succeed.
Stephanie, what do you think the majority of people would be surprised to learn about refugees?
Refugees are not illegal immigrants, migrants or asylum seekers. While there are millions of refugees that claim the Islamic faith, the majority of refugees in the world are Christian. Also, to date, no terror-related activities in the U.S. have been performed by refugees. ZERO.
What is the challenge like for these women, many of them mothers?
It’s different in all countries, but for the Rohingya community, for instance, their government comes to their villages to kill or capture many of the men and boys before sending the women and girls to refugee camps. Only 1–2% of all people in the refugee camps get resettled, and they are completely reliant on relief efforts.
Their first step is to be named official refugees by the U.N. After that, a lottery system determines whether or not they will be resettled. On average, refugees — the lucky ones who get resettled — spend 8–15 years in a refugee camp.
If they are chosen to resettle in the U.S., they undergo multiple health checks and security screenings with eight different government agencies. Once here, the refugees must find a way to repay the airfare and are given 90 days to learn English and get a job. Many of these women come from cultures where the women don’t work, so we try to give them sewing skills they can use to work from home with their children.
One of the most challenging parts for us is that these women were never taught how to learn. Many of them have spent the majority of their young lives in camps and have little-to-no education. The Rohingya women don’t even have a written language, so there is no way for them to translate words to English.
They struggle through all of this so that their children may receive an education and have hope for a different life.
What do they think of us?
It’s funny because when I was first beginning this business and interviewing women — of all cultures — they would always ask me if my three children had the same father. I finally got up the courage to ask why they would ask such a question. It turns out that the only impression they get of American culture in their homelands is from what they see on TV and in movies, which are not the greatest examples of morals and family values.
What have you learned from them?
They love so well. If I even have a headache, they bring meals to my door. The Muslim people groups really know how to slow down and celebrate life and the people in it. They are a communal people, and there is always a feast, a festival and a reason to celebrate.
If we don’t have the time to volunteer or the money to donate, what can we do to help these mothers?
We can model an attitude of inclusion in front of our children. Our children will see us if we smile and say hi to the women in the hijabs. It will register with them.
We can choose to go to a playground in a refugee neighborhood instead of the ones in our community. We can let our children play alongside the refugee children and show them that Americans are kind.
We can stop the cycle of fear that affects both their community and ours. The American mind has been trained to see a hijab as equaling terrorism, and the Muslim refugees from Taliban-laden communities have been taught that Westerners are the enemy. Oftentimes, they are afraid to engage with us, and surprised when we turn out to be friendly.
What do you want people to take away from this piece?
Be willing to look at someone differently. Be willing to see someone as a human and not as a political case or a statistic. You would be so surprised, and your life would be so much richer.