What I Know Now: Lessons Gleaned from My Daughter, an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor from Eritrea By Russanne Bucci

2022 development learning minor refugee russanne bucci Jan 10, 2022

I had always planned on being a mom but having my own biological children didn’t work out.  After losing my younger brother and passing into middle age, I felt an urgency to fulfill certain of my life’s dreams. When I learned about children living on their own in refugee camps (Unaccompanied Refugee Minors/URMs), I had an internal sense that this was the right time and the right route to parenting for me.

I contacted an agency that placed refugees in foster care, and though they were 90 miles away, we began the licensing and training process. After I was fully licensed, the agency alerted the U.S. Department of State, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) that they had an available home for a refugee girl from anywhere in the world. Then the ORR contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which is tasked with identifying children living in the camps at highest risk, interviewing them, conducting an in-country orientation, and readying them for immigration to a host country.

Not long after, while at a wedding in Detroit, I got a call that a 17-year-old Muslim Eritrean girl who had lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for six years, was identified as a match for me. The person at the agency

provided more biographical information about her and said that I had 24 hours to decide to move forward. Her name was Jimca and according to the interviewer from the UN Refugee Agency, she had attended school until the 5th grade, had good reading, writing and speaking skills in English and wanted to be a doctor. There were no physical or mental health problems reported. I called back within 16 hours, said “yes,” and began painting the guest room.

On September 6th, 2015, I waited at the airport baggage claim with a social worker from the agency, an interpreter who spoke Tigrinya (the official language of Eritrea), and my translated “Welcome” sign. A flight attendant escorted a tiny bright-eyed girl with a million-dollar smile. “Hello, my name is Jimca. Nice to meet you” she said with enthusiasm. (I soon discovered that was the only English phrase she knew!)

Knowing that came from a very communal culture, we attended and hosted many social gatherings and she became more alive and joyful in a group. She enjoyed birthday celebrations and I enjoyed listening to her practice the birthday song before a party. I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on her face after she asked whether she could eat cake when it wasn’t someone’s birthday. “Yes!” I said, “Certainly, yes.”

Perhaps my fondest memories are from when we attended Family Night at the local mosque. In a complete role reversal, Jimca became the caretaker and the teacher and I the learner. She arranged my hijab, led me through the prayers and identified various items on the food table. She demonstrated her competence in this familiar setting after months of being coached and corrected in her new country. We were both able to relax.

A few months after her arrival I learned that just before departing the camp, Jimca had been seriously assaulted. This was on top of her separation from family and home country.  At the time I hadn’t studied what long-term or repeated trauma does to the brain or how people with trauma get triggered; but I later discovered that these can lead people to struggle with mood swings, relationships and learning. And, I was told that for refugee youth there tend to be many “layers of trauma” from experiences in the child’s home, during flight, and in the camp, some sustained for long periods and resulting in intense and possible lifelong emotional challenges.

I wanted to learn all I could about how to recognize and heal from trauma through resilience.  According to an expert (Nixon, C (2018) Training:Trauma and Resilience), “Resilience is using research-based strategies to move kids who have trauma from surviving to thriving.” I realized that supporting Jimca’s healing was the most important thing I could do for her. I strengthened my meditation and gratitude practice so that I could be more self-aware and present when I was with her. I attempted to avoid triggering her by having a calm voice and a “safe face.” I suspended the list of educational and life-enhancing experiences I had charted for her and instead focused on becoming a better listener, observing and mentioning positive things about her, showing compassion, and finding more ways to connect.

Today at age 24, Jimca has a good home, and a job in a nursing facility where she is respected and appreciated. She is thriving. She says the thing that she appreciates most about her immigration to the United States is “meeting new people and having a job so she can take care of herself and take care of her family.”

When we’re together, our favorite pastimes are watching movies and traveling. About a year ago we went on a road trip at a moment when both of us were dealing with personal disappointments. She wisely spent the 6-hour ride playing YouTube videos about healing and self-love.

Jimca started out completely dependent on me and I was devoted to helping her.  Today our relationship is much more balanced. We help each other.