by Jared Bean
In his series Immigrants Are US, award-winning photographer Mark Tuschman photographed and interviewed over 100 immigrants across varied socio-economic and documentation status. The grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, he hopes to highlight the contributions and humanity of those who are now the target of rampant discrimination.
Even in the midst of the extreme cruelty facing immigrants in the US and around the globe, it can sometimes be hard to allow ourselves to truly go beyond the images and audio to imagine ourselves inhabiting the shoes of those most affected. It can be doubly hard to imagine what, if anything, we can then do to effect change.
Maria Tran did not have the luxury of looking away when she encountered the photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off the coast of Turkey in September 2015. For her, It was a vision of what might have been.
She was also three when her parents fled political instability and violence. For the Kurdi family, it was the Syrian Civil War; for the Trans, it was the rise in anti-Chinese violence after the Vietnam War. The Trans also fled via boat, and were luckily picked up by the Hong Kong Coast Guard and spent less than a year in a refugee camp before being sponsored by a family in Oregon.
Maria, by then a successful product developer in Silicon Valley, struggled over how best to contribute to the situation in the Mediterranean. She soon found herself volunteering at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, but was dismayed at the lack of aid coming from governmental and non-governmental organizations. This inspired her to start Sea of Solidarity, which raises funds for grassroots organizations in Greece and Turkey, including three food projects, two schools, and a distribution center.
Trauma is endemic in refugee camps, as they serve as a kind of limbo for those fleeing horrible conditions and often lack appropriate physical and emotional resources. Recognizing this, Saadia Hameed, a school psychologist born in California to Indian immigrants, was inspired to volunteer for the AlAlusi Foundation’s Care Program for Refugees in Amman, Jordan.
Over the five years that she’s worked with this program, she’s taught courses for local professionals working with refugees and spearheaded a project known as Rooms of Resilience, which creates recreational facilities for children who have experienced trauma. This work has also helped inform her approach to students living in the US, whom she notes often experience different forms of trauma that present in similar ways.
As a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, these trips to Jordan have caused her trouble when passing through airports. Pat downs and accusatory stares were nothing new, but she found herself experiencing a lot of additional anxiety during the travel ban and has found herself the target of more stares and more questions in the wake of the election. She ended up going to Amman during the ban, despite her concerns, and wants those who are suspect of her to know that, as someone who has dedicated her life to helping children, she is the opposite of what they fear.
While faith has made an entire subset of immigrants and American citizens the target of US policy, it has also been what fueled Habibe Husain’s mission to help refugees in her adopted state of California. Having arrived as an international student from Turkey in the 1960’s, she had long been informally active in Sunday schools and women’s programs. It wasn’t until the Ramadan after her last child finished high school, however, that she discovered her true calling: collecting groceries for the recent influx of Somali refugees in her Bay Area community.
This grew into a weekly delivery service serving more than 100 families by the 1990’s, when her community saw an influx of refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo, and they were operating their own distribution facility by the time refugees from the second war in Afghanistan arrived. Her organization is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit known as the Rahima Foundation and serves roughly 1,000 healthy school snacks and 13-14 tons of food a month, in addition to providing necessities such as diapers, hygiene products, and backpacks to people in need.
These women each have very different backgrounds and experiences in how they wound up living in the US, but they each found their calling in helping those displaced by violence here and around the globe. They each found out how to leverage their skills in different ways to make the biggest impact they could think of, and they should serve as a model to anyone who wants to use their skills for good, even if they aren’t yet quite sure how.
Jarred Bean is a writer and analyst working in the New York City Department of Education. Coming from a working class family in North Carolina, he has gone on to live in and serve working class communities in the US and abroad. He has previously written for Brand New Congress.