December 9th, 2018
I met way too many people at the NIIC (National Immigrant Integration Conference). By the end of the first day, I had already encountered too many faces, too many names, and too many stories. I know that I will forget almost all of these men and women. They will become a blur in my mind. That can’t be helped. However, I will try to describe some of them before my memory gets too muddled.
The conference seemed designed to throw the participants into a swirling mix. Every session rushed immediately upon the heels of the last one. Even the meals were incorporated into plenary meetings. There was no dead time. “Dead time” is probably the wrong term for me to use. Maybe I need to say “time for living”. There was seldom, if ever, a pause in the action, a quiet moment. There was not any time set aside for people to just hang out and learn about each other. For me, this meant that most of my contacts resulted in pathetically shallow relationships. It was always:
“Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do?”
I truly hate that. I would rather only meet a few people, with the opportunity to understand them a bit, than meet a hundred persons and not really know them at all.
Why was it that way? I don’t know. Maybe the organizers of the conference thought that they needed to give everybody maximum exposure to all the information available about immigration issues. I can understand that, but they could have opened up some time for interaction between individuals. Honestly, there were many really good programs at the conference. I readily admit that, and I am grateful for those sessions. It’s just that, at least for me, it takes time to get to know someone. The time I needed to do that was not available.
Enough bitching. I need to remember some people. Be advised that each of my descriptions is at best a snapshot. It would be a lie to say that I know any of these people well. All I know is that each person made an impression on me, and I need to write down each impression before it fades.
Malik: He’s an open, extroverted man with a ready smile. He likes to crack a joke and shake a hand. Malik a big black man from Ohio with whom I could somehow be totally honest. I know that he works at the YMCA (as did several other people at the conference), but I don’t really know what he does in particular. I know that he’s Muslim, but that doesn’t matter much to me. He’s more than just his religion. He mentioned it to me in an offhand sort of way: “I hope that you count me among your Muslim friends.” Malik is currently re-reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s a book worth re-reading. For reasons beyond my understanding we hit it off. We traded contact information, but that doesn’t mean anything. Our lives collided for a few moments, and now that’s done. Or maybe it’s not.
Khara: I met Khara at breakfast on the morning of the second day of the conference. We stood together at a table outside the main ballroom. He is short, slight man, easy to miss in a crowd. Khara is from Bhutan. He was once in a refugee camp in Nepal, and now he helps refugees in Pittsburgh. Khara listens. He is comfortable with silence. I admire that. Khara found refugees in Pittsburgh that were already cooperating in an informal sort of way. Khara brought these refugees together in to classes to learn English and to find ways to become part of the larger community. The man works in a quiet, subtle way.
John: He is a big man with a crew cut that is going grey. He looks military, but I’m not sure that he is. John harks from Richmond, Virginia. He helps run a refugee resettlement program. He has a southern vibe that I know very well. His program is slowly diminishing under the current regime in the White House. We found time to just sit and talk. I spoke to him about writing and about the power of stories. He told me about his support for people coming from other parts of the world. The man does very good work. I hope that he can keep doing it.
Djimet: I met this man during one of the short breaks. He was standing against a wall, talking on his phone. Djimet is tall, lean, with skin dark as ebony. I asked him where he as from. He answered solemnly,
“I am from Chad.”
“No, I meant ‘where do you work’. So, where’s that?”
He laughed, “Portland, man.”
Djimet proceeded to tell me about his work trying to mediate between refugee communities that can’t stand each other (think Croat vs. Serb). He is trying to settle differences between diverse immigrant groups from eastern Europe who all want to open a community center. Initially, some people wanted to call it the “Slavic Center”, which pissed off a variety of nationalities. It was the Ukrainians versus the Russians, versus the Romanians, et cetera. There were too many people still invested in the hatreds of the homeland.
I told Djimet, “Sometimes you just have to wait until that first generation is dead.”
He laughed again. “Maybe so. Maybe so.”
Senay: He sat with me at the very last plenary session. He is from the D.C. area. I do not know his ethnic background, and I don’t really care. I’m not sure what he does. It doesn’t matter. I do know that he cares about immigrants, and I do know that he doesn’t buy into all the political bullshit. He was a little miffed by the fact that a number of speakers talked like everybody in the room was a Democrat. He’s not. Nor am I. He has a job to do, and he will work with anybody who wants to help immigrants. The man seemed very pragmatic, and very real. I liked him.