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Refugees find ways to hide themselves, surrounded by new culture

By Lubna Zeidan
Special to the American-Statesman
Lubna Zeidan is the refugee program director at Interfaith Action of Central Texas.

“Disguise yourself with the familiar”  is one of the guidelines of the Druze faith I belong to. The idea is to take on the familiar habits and activities of the prominent social group around you and conceal yourself within. It always seemed a bit hypocritical to me until I thought about the reasons.  

Druze are a minority faith community found in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. There is a  main belief in God and a basic aim of doing good in this world, but the rest is secret. There are no places designated for worship or faith related holidays. We do celebrate Adha  along with  Muslims, the  majority social group in the area the Druze live in. Disguising within the familiar. 

I have been working with refugees for 20 years at Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT). It was among the refugees that I saw some of the justifications for the Druze’s version of hiding in plain sight.

One of our clients was a Mandaean, a minority Christian sect from Iran where they were persecuted for their faith. The family had an adult son with special needs who was named a typically Muslim name unlike other members of the family. It occurred to me later that it was an attempt to disguise him with a familiar Muslim name and thus keep him safe. 

When some of the refugees coming from Nepal arrived in the US, there was a rush from some of them to convert to Christianity. For those of us who promote interfaith freedom, we applauded their bravery. It was only much later that we realized that many of those clients were told back home that it would be expected that they converted to Christianity, since  Americans were mostly Christians. They believed if they did not convert they would not be helped in their new life here. In converting they did not act out of freedom but rather an expectation of continued subjugation.  

It would be flippant to view these actions as hypocritical or transactional. Such a view comes from a lack of understanding of the lives of oppressed populations, and from our own privileged and always safe lives. It is important that we learn more about the intricacies of the definitions of important concepts and learn how other communities define them. With the world getting more connected, we need to learn what others hear when we speak.    

Those of us who work with newcomers, especially refugees, understand that various definitions go beyond the obvious words, and we do not expect full understanding of our culture and our concepts from the first generation of the families we meet. It is the younger generation who will  become fully bi-cultural. They are the ropes that tie the family to our cultural harbor. 

Teens especially become the natural interpreters for their parents because they learn the language first. This of course is juxtaposed against the insecurities and desire to fit in that sensitive teens face in this new environment. They spend their lives performing on two stages — explaining this new culture to their parents in ways that they can understand and not fear; and also explaining the parents’ points of view to this new judgmental community while filtering out what might be seen as odd or embarrassing.  This is quite a burden for a young person to carry.  

Because youth are the malleable and flexible elements in society, the iACT Youth Council was created. Through it, young people between 14 and 24, American born or not, refugees, immigrants or not, can work with each other and with newly arrived refugees learning about iACT’s mission of openness, interfaith understanding, and acceptance.

The more they learn about others, the more receptive and accepting they would be to the differences among all of us. Bigotry comes from a hardening of negative opinions over time — so it mostly exists in us adults. Perhaps if we catch enough young people before that hardening takes place, the future will be kinder to those who don’t quite fit our expectations.  

Openness and acceptance can be learned especially by younger people. With enough openness in the future, it might not be necessary for those fearing oppression to conceal themselves within the familiar. 

Lubna Zeidan is a Druze and lived most of her life in Lebanon and is the co-director of the refugee program at iACT. Doing Good Together is provided by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.

iACT’s Hope Awards celebration and fundraiser

Inspiring A New Generation: Building Hope Together with Dr. Eboo Patel, honoring Dr. Guner Arslan, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, and Shalom Austin

6:30 p.m. April 26

The Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 Congress Ave.

Bit.ly/hopeawards22, interfaithtexas.org, 512-386-9145 x320