The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU students gather around a bucket of markers to write an encouraging note to put in “Welcome to the Shelter” kits at event in mid-April on SMU’s campus.
Dallas homeless recovery center, The Bridge, is a home
Morgan Shiver, Contributor • June 20, 2024

Community helps refugees transition into society

When Abraham Amleke left his home country of Eritrea in 1984, Dallas was the last place he expected to call his future home.

“I left for political reasons, just leave it at that,” Amleke, who prefers to go by his more casual nickname, Abe, said.

Before Abe was able to seek asylum in Dallas, he was a refugee in Sudan for two years. Abe’s wife remained in Eritrea until they were reunited in Sudan a year later. During this time, the couple had their first child.

Many years have past since Abe first began his journey to seek asylum in the United States. Abe feels that it is now the appropriate time for his youngest child to visit Eritrea for the first time.

“I’m taking my youngest son back this summer,” he said excitedly. However, he admitted, “I might be arrested when I go back.”

Abe’s story is not unlike those of many refugees and asylum seekers who come to the U.S. each year. Both refugees and asylees are unable to return to their home countries due to persecution or fear of persecution regarding political opinion, race, religion, nationality or membership in a certain social group.

One key difference distinguishes a refugee from an asylee—refugees typically apply for consideration for resettlement while they are still outside the U.S. while asylees are physically present within the U.S. borders during their time of application.

After spending one year of continued presence in the U.S., refugees and asylees are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident status.

Since 1980, the U.S. has invited 1.8 million refugees to gain asylum through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.

Once in the U.S., refugees and asylees are placed in the resettlement program, which has allowed between 70,000 and 91,000 refugees to enter the country throughout the past decade. In 2010 alone, over 73,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. through the resettlement program.

In Abe’s case, when he arrived in Sudan, he was considered an asylum seeker. However, when he came to the U.S. he was considered a refugee because his application process began prior to his arrival.

Applying for refugee status is not a simple process. After submitting his application and a long waiting period, Abe recalled a process of three interviews before he was selected to come to the states.

After arriving in the U.S., a refugee receives a medical examination and cultural orientation before being met at the airport by a staff member from a local refugee resettlement agency, who then takes him or her to a prepared apartment.

Through the resettlement program, refugees are able to work closely with agencies that help manage their case while assisting them with finding a job and learning English.

Upon Abe’s arrival in Dallas, he was mentored by the Catholic Charities of Dallas, along with his cousin, who had previously relocated to the U.S. However, unlike other refugees, Abe’s adjustment to American society did not include the challenge of a language barrier.

“It was not really difficult for me,” Abe, who studied English in Eretria until the sixth grade, said. “The reason is, I grew up in a very western society.”

People like Aisha Pittman are one of the reasons refugees are able to smoothly transition to life in the United States. Pittman, volunteer coordinator for the Dallas branch of the International Rescue Committee, said her experiences with refugees began even before her career with the IRC.

The IRC helps refugees survive and rebuild their lives through lifesaving care and assistance.

“My stepmother and her family came to the U.S. as refugees during the Vietnam War,” she recalled. Stories from her father introduced her to a new culture and group of people that she had not previously been aware of.

“I feel like with that knowledge comes responsibility, so I knew I had to get involved with this community,” Pittman said.

Vickery Meadows is a neighborhood apartment complex that is home to many immigrants and refugees in the Dallas area. Andrea Fernandez is the volunteer coordinator for Southern Methodist University’s involvement with Vickery Meadows.

“I fell in love with the community and the stories of the refugees,” Fernandez said.

In the Vickery Meadows community, many of the children, from Africa specifically, tend to have more trouble adjusting to life in the U.S.

According to Fernandez, many of the residents of Vickery Meadows simply need someone to help them practice their English skills.

“Instead of going to lunch with just your friends, all it would take would be going to lunch with someone who needs help to learn the language,” she said.

Dorothy Shain, a senior human rights minor, volunteered at Vickery Meadows twice a week last spring.


“I especially loved talking to one little 8-year-old girl from India because I had just gotten back from there,” Shain said. “We bonded over our love for curry and Indian food.”

Like Shain, students at SMU are taking the initiative to raise refugee awareness both on and off campus.

Sitting in the “Living Village” last April, Leslie Hurley looked around at her fellow “refugees” who would leave their own living situations at night to sleep on the ground in the middle of SMU’s campus.

The initiative was promoted by the Hunt Institute’s Engineering and Humanity week, and around 20 SMU engineering students took part in the building of a mock refugee camp.

“I learned that in a refugee camp, the comfort in life is not the thing you sleep on, but rather the community you are surrounded with,” Sophomore Leslie Hurley, who was a freshman at the time, said.

“Whatever experiences you are going through, everyone else is also, and to have that togetherness and sympathy is much more comforting than a bed,” she said. “For us, it was beginning to study for finals, for real refugees I suspect it’s the stress of not knowing where to go or what will come next.”

The Hunt initiative and Vickery Meadows involvement are two key aspects that have helped fuel the introduction of the first human rights major in the South and the fifth in the nation. The undergraduate degree will officially begin in spring of 2012 and will include two interdisciplinary tracks: one on gender and human rights, and the other on public policy and human rights. The human rights program is the fastest growing of all SMU programs to date.

Human rights majors will be required to participate in service learning and complete SMU’s Spring Civil Rights Pilgrimage Across the Deep South.

“With the proliferation of media surrounding human rights abuses and the growth of the desire for more ethically-minded businesses, a knowledge of human rights is fundamental for any education,” Michael Dearman, sophomore human rights minor, said.

“The major is just one more step in making Southern Methodist University a leader in the field of human rights,” Dearman said.

Closely abiding by the motto of the Embrey Human Rights Program, “There is no such thing as a lesser
person,” Abraham Amleke was able to successfully meld into the melting pot of society in the U.S. Now a citizen, Abe thinks he has done a good job adjusting to the American culture.

“I am always on time because time is something that I have found is very important in this country,” he points out. He jokes that his family is never on time and that they do not understand that they are no longer in Eretria.

“They need to understand we are in the U.S,” Abe said.

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