“I can finally live,” Elena Habersky recalled a refugee telling her.
Despite the language barrier and difficulties he was facing, he was overjoyed to be living safely in the U.S. and to be able to support his family without fear. Habersky remembers a lot of conversations with a similar theme.
The 2009 Dallas High School graduate spends a lot of time working with refugees of all nationalities and creeds — and not just in the U.S.
She has been visiting Arabic-speaking countries since she took an introductory course in the language during her freshman year at the University of Scranton.
Habersky, 26, took German in high school but could not continue her studies in college due to a scheduling conflict. Although she had no interest in taking Arabic at the time, she fell in love with it.
She became so passionate, that fresh out of her first year of college, Habersky took a trip to Amman, Jordan, by herself for an immersive summer course.
“I had been abroad previously, twice, but with groups of people. This was my first time going by myself, and going to the Middle East was a little daunting when I first landed,” she said. “But I really enjoyed it.”
This was when Habersky had her first experience with refugees.
“I knew they were there … it depends what year they came to Jordan and if they’re more integrated and have citizenship. … Some still lived in camps … I was interested in how they kept their culture alive, how they integrated into society but still kept their pride and heritage.
“That’s when I was first exposed to refugees and what that really means … that word is thrown around so much. There’s the legal definition, and then there’s the definition that people internalize, how they define themselves.”
Habersky then spent her entire junior year of college studying in Cairo — right after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and in the midst of controversial former president Mohamed Morsi’s election.
Despite the turmoil, Habersky said she never had any reason to feel unsafe in the country. She and her classmates were only discouraged from attending protests.
“The Syrian crisis was kind of becoming a major issue … when I was in Egypt is when people started whispering, ‘civil war,’ and that frightened people,” she said. “I became more aware regionally of what the population movements could be.”
Habersky’s affinity for philanthropy, she said, came from the University of Scranton, where she learned a lot about social justice. She had always been interested in it, but did not have the vocabulary to put it to work until her classes in Scranton.
After she graduated — the only student to graduate in both the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program and the University of Scranton Honors Program — she received the Fulbright fellowship which allowed her to move back to Amman. There, she taught conversational English at a private school and volunteered at Jesuit Refugee Services to teach beginner English to adult refugees.
She stayed there even after her fellowship was completed, she said, and ended up staying for three years after she was hired full time by the Collateral Repair Project, a grassroots organization that works with urban refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Habersky also became very close with the Darfuri community during her three years in Amman. Many of them were displaced from their homes in Sudan due to genocide.
“Hundreds of Darfuris were deported in December 2015, which was very difficult for me,” she said, adding this meant many of her students were sent back to an extremely violent area.
After she worked to stop the deportation of what she said was an overlooked group of refugees — and the deportations went through regardless — she set up a program with her colleagues at the Collateral Repair Project to continue English classes for them. She said the program had less of a strict schedule and was more community-based.
She felt it was successful, and the classes continued even after she left.
It is through experiences like this that Habersky found the importance of paying attention to the mental health of people in her line of work.
“I think what a lot of people don’t think about … is the mental health of the people working. We hear stories every day about issues that these people are having, and I don’t think the workers think that they have to take time for themselves.
“I don’t think that should be stigmatized. I see a lot of burnouts, people who decide that they can’t do it any more,” she explained, adding she took time for herself and her mental health by doing yoga. She offered it to the refugees in the program as well.
Habersky is currently shadowing a caseworker for the refugee resettlement program for Catholic Social Services in Scranton. She wanted to “better understand the refugee resettlement process in America and to meet the lovely refugee community” in Northeast Pennsylvania.
In about two weeks, she will be back in Egypt to continue working toward her master’s degree from The American University in Cairo.
Reach Toni Pennello at 570-991-6121 or on Twitter at @TLNews.