have a special guest post by Daina
when Daina Jurika-Owen, Ph.D., came to the U.S., her first job was at a refugee
resettlement agency in Abilene, Texas. Throughout her tenure, she learned to
navigate the complicated waters of the refugee process while meeting people
with unique and uplifting stories of survival.
In her book, Ten Cultures,
Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories, Daina guides us through
their journeys and draws us into the world of refugees and resettlement staff,
describing the passion and energy needed to help these courageous storytellers
resettle in the US and the challenges they faced.
Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee
Life Stories, winner of the 2018 IPPY Silver Award, features refugee
storytellers from a broad swath of cultures—Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Cuba, Iraq,
Bhutan, and more—who reveal their compelling, sometimes humorous, often
bittersweet tales of resettlement in West Texas. Through their life stories,
refugees share their powerful experiences about the long, hard road they took to
get to the US. She says, “Their story worlds offer a deeper understanding of
humanitarian causes, cultural diversity, and the complex issues faced in a
variety of ways.” Each chapter contains a hand-drawn map of the respective
country to serve as the entry point to each culture and life story, along with
photos as representations of each ethnic group.
on all the valuable lessons I’ve learned from refugees while working on my book
Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories, I realize they are
totally different depending on which “hat” I choose to put on or which identity
I assume. “Me” as “a professional resettlement worker turned writer/interviewer”
learned something quite different from what I learned as “a simple human being.”
let’s get done with “business identity” first. The main lesson here—in several disguises—was
- Never assume. Do not assume
that refugees who speak fluent English know everything about American
culture and social norms. It took me a while to figure this out, but after
an English-speaking family from Kenya had decorated their sofa cushions
with table mats and a young Liberian man did not show up for his first day
of work simply because it was raining, I learned my first lessons.
- Assumptions followed me when
I started interviewing refugees, as well. I took for granted that all
refugees hated living in a refugee camp until I interviewed Issa, one of
my Liberian storytellers, who stated openly that she liked her life in the
refugee camp just fine. It did not matter to Issa that her bed was made of
dirt and covered with straw. She could still enjoy her life in the camp
and various activities—Friday evening dance parties and sports events
where she was a cheerleader—and had good friends and neighbors and fellow
students in the camp school. I had neglected to notice the impact of human
- I also assumed that those same refugees
who had happily shared their life stories with me while I was employed at
the resettlement agency would want to tell those stories for my storybook.
I was wrong. When I started my book project and called my refugee friends to
invite them for interviews, many of them were not interested. I realized
that refugees had shared stories with me because they had a reason:
getting my attention as a refugee worker, looking for a special treatment.
Their stories were meant for me as a social worker and not anyone else.
lessons were “personal lessons,” ones that touch all of us as human beings:
- The one I enjoyed most is this: everything tastes
better with a dash of humor. If
you can learn to laugh about your own mistakes and take your mishaps with
a smile, you will be alright. Or even better—laugh, if you can! My
Burundian storyteller Patrick has mastered this and makes us laugh with
him as he tells about his mishaps during his first year in the US. So,
when I feel too important, I remind myself about Patrick.
- Another lesson, a more serious one: learn to forgive. We all—or almost
all—have one or two people in our lives who we cannot easily forgive. They
were mean, hurt you, made you cry, shorted you of the deserved promotion
at work, stole your boyfriend or girlfriend… We struggle with the notion
of forgiveness. Rwandese storyteller Herman brings forgiveness to a
different level, reflecting on his ability to forgive the people who
killed his mother and siblings during the Rwandan genocide. In his case,
he cannot hate all Hutus just because some Hutu extremists killed Tutsis—people
from Herman’s ethnic group.
- And the final lesson: we are all human. “Oh, what’s new in that?” you’d say. But we
forget about it so often that this reminder is quite in place. We often
focus on our differences—different languages, traditional garbs of
different colors, strange customs and traditions—but what we forget is
that under all these differences, we all are human, storytellers and
interviewers, case workers and newly arrived refugees, writers and
readers. And we all want to live in peace, experience love and happiness,
and follow our dreams. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying ethnic food,
but that should not divide us.
find more about resettlement work and refugees and their lives in my book Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life
Stories (Amaya Books, 2018). I am sure each one of us has a lesson to
learn, although it may be a different one.
am a former refugee resettlement professional and an academically trained
folklorist. Originally from Riga, Latvia, I live in Abilene, Texas, and am a
freelance writer, translator and refugee advocate. My nonfiction book, Ten
Cultures, Twenty Lives: Refugee Life Stories is
available on Amazon and at my own website.
In April 2018, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives:
Refugee Life Stories was recognized with a silver medal in 2018 IPPY
have authored several publications on culture, folklore, and proverbs and
published a cultural cookbook.
diversity and hearing different languages in my office every day. My dream is
to live through a hurricane season in Belize rainforests and collect people’s
Thank you for sharing part of the story with us today, Daina.