Imagine packing your whole life up in a few bags, leaving the place you’ve always called home for what you know will be forever, and completely starting over in a new country. You don’t know the language, culture, systems, or where to even start rebuilding your life. Throw in caring for a family, likely with very little money.
For many people this is hard to imagine beyond a heartbreaking news headline or dramatic movie plot, but it’s the actual, lived reality for many immigrants and refugees. I know because it’s what my mother went through to find a better life — not just for herself, but for me — when she resettled in Colorado as a refugee from Eritrea.
I learned at a young age that most migrant families don’t simply up and leave their native country — abandoning livelihoods, bidding farewell to loved ones, and even risking their lives — for a mere change of scenery. Instead, many come to a point where the dangers of staying at home outweigh all the challenges — known and unknown — of pursuing a new life elsewhere. My mother had to escape her home country because of a war she was born into and forced to fight in starting as an adolescent. After years of compulsory military service, she fled first to neighboring Sudan and eventually made it halfway across the world to the United States as a refugee and soon-to-be mother.
She arrived in the U.S. seven months pregnant with me and, when I was born, we began our journey navigating our new country together. Growing up, I witnessed her struggle with different systems as she did her best to manage our daily lives as a single, hardworking mom. Tasks that are already complex for native born Americans, like paying taxes, finding healthcare, and enrolling your child in preschool, are unnecessarily difficult for new Americans. With no other options for guidance, I was my mom’s de facto cultural navigator, interpreter and translator, medical advocate, union rep, application filer, and all-around guide through the multiplicity of cultural phenomena and bureaucratic systems we encountered.
Juggling various support roles like this is a responsibility that commonly falls on the shoulders of the children of immigrants and refugees. Many of us first take this on at a very early age and carry more and more of that burden as we grow older. This is no fault of our parents, who are doing everything they can and have sacrificed so much, but it comes with considerable pressure. We know all too well that our family’s access to basic resources may depend on our ability to correctly fill out complicated documents, apply patience and nuanced communication skills during hours on the phone, efficiently comb through cumbersome websites, and carry out many other tasks that are just too much for a child.
Now being nearly 30 years old, I am better able to serve as a resource for my mother, other family, and my extended Eritrean community, but even as a college graduate and advocacy professional I am still limited in my capacity. That’s why I’m excited about the prospect of the creation of The Colorado Office of New Americans (ONA) through a bill (HB21-1150) under consideration in the state legislature. This office will offer desperately-needed support by centralizing and coordinating many resources and tools that help immigrant and refugee families integrate smoothly to become productive, thriving members of American society.
Such an office is an innovative idea, but we wouldn’t be inventing or even reinventing the wheel. Included as a recommendation in the recent report issued by the New American Integration Initiative launched in Colorado in 2019, other states such as Virginia, Ohio, New York, Michigan, and New Jersey are already successfully using the ONA model. In a place where 10% of our neighbors are immigrants and refugees who are striving to contribute to our shared economy and cultural vibrancy every day, this office will ultimately serve all Coloradans.
I’m immensely proud of my mother’s history and all she has achieved, and I’m so glad to have been born and raised in this beautiful state. But I also believe that if an ONA existed when my mother first arrived here, my family would have much more quickly and easily integrated and I would have been able to better concentrate on the normal childhood “work” of learning while enjoying more of the formative carefree aspects of being a child.
The legislature must act now to take the important, overdue step of passing HB21-1150 to create an ONA so that Colorado’s newest neighbors can have the support they need and deserve to acclimate, integrate, and contribute while their children can focus solely on the boundless opportunities and limitless potential of being American kids.
Mathew Mengesha is a Policy Advocate for Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning based in Denver, a nonprofit working to build brighter futures for individuals and foster more inclusive organizations.