The Structures We Inhabit (And Bump Up Against)

The idea of structure has always fascinated me. I wanted to be an architect when I was younger, but my definition of structure has become far more fluid as I’ve grown older. My interests have diversified to the scaffolding of a narrative, the foundation of a support system, and the sinews of cultures and societies.

My childhood was a series of structures placed one after the other. I transitioned from a Montessori preschool into a public school and then a liberal arts college. Each promoted varying degrees of freedom within their respective systems, but they built tidy little structures that I could easily place myself—my actions, my passions, my aspirations, my literal self—in.

Moreover, I’ve always found peace in little rules and routines that soothe the anxiety I feel about the lack of control I have over my life. My peers and I came of age in a tumultuous time: 9/11 and the ensuing violence were nebulous clouds that our five-year-old selves felt, but didn’t understand. Our parents lost jobs in the recession as we began middle school. The first time I cast a ballot was in the melodramatic 2016 presidential campaign. At the very least, though, the rules I’d made and the structures I’d found myself in were stable.

Post-college life has thus thrown me for a loop. The structures I now inhabit still feel stubbornly foreign to me. From workplace culture to rental agreements, I’ve walked into doorframes and slammed my head on staircases that I didn’t realize were there (I’m speaking both metaphorically and literally here).

And in the midst of my personal stumblings into my “Freshman Year of Life,” as a coworker aptly called it one day, I have lived alongside the stark realization that the refugees I am lucky enough to serve during my time as a Newman’s Own Foundation Fellow with RefugePoint, have much more serious relationships with the structures they have fled or are now trapped in.

Political violence; discrimination against their beliefs, sexualities, or gender identities; and natural disasters force individuals from their own comfortable structures into the turmoil of statelessness. Those 70.8 million forcibly displaced people—25.9 million of whom are refugees—do not have the stability of a job or living situation. What few structures they do inhabit take the form of refugee camps, detention centers, and legal systems that often deny them the right to work, move, heal, or learn. Moreover, the spaces refugees inhabit (or exist outside of) are often hostile, overwhelmed, and dehumanizing.

RefugePoint began because it sought to disentangle those structural issues. Our collaboration with UNHCR on resettlement work fills gaps and seeks out the vulnerable individuals that humanitarian systems often leave behind. Our programs in Nairobi, Kenya find those same individuals and provide the holistic, humanizing support they need to become self-sufficient. These processes are not linear ones. Our clients “graduate” from our services or resettle in other countries, but their paths are not so simple. They weave in and among structures, sometimes falling back in the face of health, environmental, and political shocks. Yet they continue to get back up.

Each step forward is a new beginning. Whether this means receiving medical treatment for a chronic illness, grants to rebuild their businesses, or counselling, the refugees RefugePoint serves build a bit more of the structure they need to live a life of safety, dignity, and hope.

Their experiences are a stark reminder that the world—life—is not a series of transitions from one neatly-built structure to the next. No life story is perfectly linear, nor does it move smoothly. And there are always people who are willing to support you. My cohort through the Newman’s Own Foundation Fellowship has become another family, and the Fellowship itself has built a sense of community and a space for learning that provides the most wonderful chance to obtain a new perspective.

So, as I start to feel overwhelmed with the new decisions, pressures, and expectations that arrive with the Freshman Year of Life, taking a moment to reflect on the work I’m doing is a crucial reminder to be grateful for not only what I have, but what I can do to help others have the new beginnings I’ve been so lucky to encounter.

The structures I’ve inhabited or constructed for myself have served unique and important purposes that have brought me to where I am today. They have been my homes, my routines, my communities, and my education. But what I have discovered is that it is only by recognizing these structures and being willing to look outside them—to dream of a world working to upend and undo systems of oppression and pain—that we can build new ones.

By Taylor Hazan – 2019-2020 NOF Fellow at RefugePoint, Cambridge, MA.