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Paying Back Tenfold



“I have two questions.  When you arrived in this country as refugees did you receive any money from the United States taxpayers?  If so, when do you intend to pay it back?”


This October I was fortunate enough to be invited to the State of North Dakota to speak about my recently published book, “Nowhere, a Story of Exile.”  The book is a translation of my childhood diaries that I kept as an Armenian refugee from Baku, Azerbaijan.  We were forced to flee ethnic cleansing in our homeland, and spent two and a half years in neighboring Armenia as the Soviet Union collapsed. My family was granted refugee status and we arrived in Wahpeton, North Dakota with only $180 and a few bags in the dead of winter, 1992.  I was 13 years old.


The book tour in North Dakota had been a dream since the book was published and I was lucky to be hosted at ten different events in a span of four days.  I was invited by universities, churches, book clubs and various organizations.  The state that welcomed me as an unwanted refugee was welcoming me back to hear about my experiences both back in Azerbaijan, surviving the ethnic cleansing campaign, and in North Dakota, as a child refugee and a new American citizen.  Every organization that hosted me in North Dakota and every audience that listened to me have been amazingly supportive of my book, my human rights and activism work.


My favorite part of any presentation is the time for audience questions.  I love interacting with my readers and listeners.  This is where I gain an understanding of how I touched my audience, on what should I need to focus in my next presentation, have I missed anything, and in what that particular group is interested the most. 


During one event in North Dakota, however, one particular question and answer session struck me the most and I have been thinking about it ever since.  After just describing our narrow escape from ethnic violence and a two year wait to come to United States, a middle-aged gentleman who sat in the back row raised his hand and asked me a pair of aggressive questions.


What struck me the most was not the topic of the questions, but their ill-timing in the middle of a presentation about a child surviving anti-Christian and anti-Armenian violence in Soviet Azerbaijan 22 years ago.  It seemed to me that this man came to my presentation solely to interrogate me on this one point.  To him, our persecution, our flight and the exodus of my people were secondary, perhaps less, to the naked economics. How much did it cost the taxpayers to save my family’s life, he wanted to know.  At what point would that debt be repaid?


Inherent in his questions was an assumption that I had not, in fact, repaid the government back for saving my and my family’s life.  That I had a running tab with interest accruing.  That I owed the United States, its taxpayers and, specifically, him, and it was high time my account was called due.


There are some fundamental opportunities, like a chance at life without fear, that cannot be paid back.  But to assume that a refugee’s and an immigrant’s aim is to live off the government is an erroneous assumption unsupported by statistics that drive our economy. To predetermine that refugees are a financial loss-leader is flatly contradicted by American history.   


“My parents paid back the loan to United States government for the airline tickets from Moscow to Fargo,” I answered him.  “It took them several years. That airline loan is the norm for all refugees who arrive here. At the time I was 13 years old so I did not work.  Armenians are a proud and hardworking people.  My parents, educated people, worked their entire lives and were determined to work when coming here.   Finding a job in North Dakota then, with no English language skills, was an issue.  We all received food-stamps for seven months in 1992.  Finally, after months of studying vocabulary day in and day out, they found jobs in September of 1992, working and paying taxes.  My brother and I are college-educated, hard-working and productive members of our respective communities.  He lives in Williston, North Dakota and I live in Portland, Maine.  We own real estate, pay taxes, volunteer, donate, and raise our children right; teaching them to love their country and be kind to others.  I believe I’ve repaid the government tenfold.”


The gentleman got up and left.  He didn’t receive the kind of answer he had hoped for.  Perhaps he hoped that I couldn’t answer his questions at all.  What he did not know was that there were very little programs for refugees and no support structure for the sponsoring organizations in North Dakota in 1992.  We were literally dropped in the laps of the Methodist Church that sponsored us.  There were no English as a Second Language programs, no support network to reach out to if there were questions about paperwork or the way life is in United States.  No Russian or Armenian translators at all.  Aside from the handful of volunteers from the church, we were alone.  It is shocking to me that my parents, then 39 and 45 years old, were able to adapt to life in the United States and become a part of our community so quickly.  This speaks to the tenacity and will to make a better life for themselves and their children, which is a predominant refugee and immigrant mentality.  But many are not as fortunate as we were, despite their good intentions. 


What refugees need in order to be independent, efficient, productive members of the community are English language tutoring programs, adult learning classes or centers that reach individuals or families for help on the language needs of the day-to-day living.  They need help understanding and using public transportation and studying for driver’s licenses.  They need help with the language used in grocery stores, banks, public schools and essential services.      


It’s true, helping refugees costs money.  But if nothing is done, it will cost the communities exponentially more.  The lack of these programs isolates the refugee communities, stifles their resettlement processes, job prospects and hurts the greater community in the long run.   It is also an unnecessary trauma to the refugees, compounded to the trauma that caused them to flee their homelands.  Actively preventing them from becoming functioning, productive, happy members of the community in an effort to be penny-wise will prove to be pound-foolish.


I am thrilled that these programs are now in place in the Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks areas in North Dakota.  These much-needed programs didn’t really exist in 1992.  What worked for my family in Wahpeton without these programs is exactly what works within these programs now: one-on-one partnerships of families with tutors.  The North Dakota programs now take the refugees’ cultural and geopolitical histories into consideration.  Some families need to learn how to use their oven; they’ve never owned one.  Others from Eastern Europe like us, for example, who had access to higher education, need to learn how to fill out a job application or drive a car, because private automobile ownership simply didn’t exist for the majority of the population where they came from.


These are the invaluable gifts that no refugee can ever repay: the help of volunteering tutors, the kindness and time they dedicate to help these families cope not only with losing their homes and relatives, and sometimes their entire families, but also to successfully resettle to the American life and build successful lives for their children.


On January 31 every year I send my parents flowers for bringing us to this country.  This coming January it’s going to be 22 years.  They saved our lives and gave my children futures that every parent dreams of.  I live in the richest and most free country in the world.  But it wasn’t an easy task for my parents.  They worked days and nights in factories while studying English vocabulary at 5:00 AM every morning for years.  They love this country with the special appreciation that no natural-born American can understand (which is itself a gift). These are the very people that built this country.  If you nurture them, if you accept them, if you try to understand them, they too will pay back this country and this state tenfold. 



Originally published on November 21, 2013 in High Plains Reader