Sarah Massoni is a fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Hofstra University currently contributing to Long Island Wins. She interviewed her aunt, Sally Dworak-Fisher, who is soon set to mentor a family seeking refuge from the instability and totalitarian government of the African nation of Eritrea.
A few weeks before Christmas of 1985, Sally Dworak-Fisher—home for winter break from Cornell University—was sent by her dad to buy some music for the holiday. He didn’t think he needed to clarify his instructions. They were straight forward. Surely, his youngest daughter would go out, buy some Frank Sinatra, or maybe some Bing Crosby, and he’d be able to relax with some carols in peace. But, Sally was never very good at following directions.
The album We are the World had been released a few months earlier, and featured several songs meant to raise money for famine victims in Africa. Some of the most famous names in music contributed, including Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Tina Turner. Sally decided that Christmas carols could wait, and spent the money her dad gave her on an album that was produced to help save starving people in Africa.
Needless to say, her dad wasn’t happy with her executive decision to save the world, rather than get him some holiday music like he had asked, but that single-minded drive to help other people is what shaped Sally’s life.
After graduating from law school at the University of Michigan, she worked as an attorney at Ayuda, Inc. for a few years, where she helped defend low-income individuals from deportation. Since 2002, she has worked with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Maryland, where she currently leads the center’s Workplace Justice Project. She and her husband, Keenan, decided to adopt their 9-year-old daughter, Lucy, from China eight years ago.
One of the many organizations the Dworak-Fisher family supports is the International Rescue Committee (IRC), founded in 1933 as the American branch of a European group called the International Relief Association, originally created to help Germans suffering under Hitler’s rule.
Since then, they’ve aided Vietnamese citizens after the French were defeated by North Vietnam, resettled thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees fleeing authoritarian regimes, and helped to curb the spread of Ebola in West Africa.
After Sally gave a presentation on immigrant rights at a resettlement office in Baltimore that was also attended by a member of the IRC, she received an email asking if she would like to be a mentor to a refugee family that was in the process of resettlement.
“These are families from anywhere, basically,” Sally said. “But, they want a commitment of at least two hours a week per family to mostly do assimilation. Like, if the families want to practice their English, if they need practice understanding the transportation systems, most of them don’t know how to drive so they rely on public transportation. Doing basic things like going to the library, getting library cards, taking the kids to the park, introducing the kids to activities, and things like that.”
Since both Sally and Keenan have full-time jobs and are also diligently involved in Lucy’s school and recreational activities, they weren’t sure if they had two free hours a week to spare. So, they recruited two other families with kids around Lucy’s age to help out.
“We want, not just for ourselves, but we want our kids to be able to help out, and get to know kids from other cultures,” Sally said.
The three families met with a representative from the IRC and were given a list of 10 to 15 families, all of which had young children, and were in need of mentors. It was a difficult decision made harder by the fact that they could only choose one family, and many of the families had been waiting for more than a year for a mentor. They eventually chose a family of seven from the African nation of Eritrea.
Eritrea is located on the Eastern coast of Africa, bordered by Sudan and Ethiopia. The country gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, and their first president, Isaias Afwerki remains its leader today. His party is the only political party in the country, which Afwerki runs as a totalitarian state where citizens live in constant fear. They are constantly monitored and any information gathered against them can lead to arrest, imprisonment, torture, or death.
The national service also requires that all children be conscripted when they turn 18, and the period of service is indefinite. Conditions in the military camps are terrible, with reports of sexual assault against women and forced labor. Young people are forced to flee the country if they wish to avoid military service, comprising the largest portion of refugees from Eritrea.
The family that the Dworak-Fishers and their friends will be mentoring arrived in the U.S. in May, and have five kids with ages ranging from 1 to 17. When they arrived, they spoke only their native language of Amharic, “so, there will be a lot of charades,” Sally joked.
Their first step will be to meet their mentees. The family will host their mentors at a dinner of traditional foods in their new home to get to know one another.
“Lucy has been going through her books and picking out ones that she wants to read to the kids,” Sally said as she smiled fondly at her daughter.
Refugee families like the one Sally will soon mentor undergo dangerous journeys to escape their home countries. What they’re fleeing is so terrible that they’re willing to put themselves and their families at risk in the hope that things can get better.
But, if they do manage to get to safety, they face a whole new set of challenges. If they are allowed to enter, they must learn a new language, culture, and set of rules with no one to help them.
And, with many countries around the world limiting the number of immigrants they will accept each year, gaining admittance to a new country can be almost as daunting as escaping their old one.