When I was in the second grade, my mother and I moved from an older, established neighborhood to a dusty suburban development of new constructions. We chose the model home we wanted, and were able to choose the finishes. I selected a window seat for my bedroom. The house, of course, was immaculate for our move-in. We were the only people to have ever lived in it. It smelled new for years. Yet when I perched on my window seat and looks out onto our cul de sac of shiny new homes, I also noticed a dearth of greenery. For at least a year, no grass was planted as it would just become trampled by the ongoing construction. The trees that did go in were tiny, spindly things with few leaves. It was my first lesson in the psychological effects of nature. I missed it.
That was 1995. More than twenty years later, I have moved back to my hometown and I often drive past old haunts. One of my first stops after moving back to this city was the home I left for college, the home that had been so shiny and new. I had lived there ten years by the time college came around. There was grass by 2005, but the trees were still pretty pathetic. But now, another thirteen years have passed. And now, there are trees.
My mother told me in 1995 that one day, the trees in our neighborhood would be as tall as the ones we left at the first home I had ever known. I couldn't imagine those dusty streets edged in green grass, or the bright new homes shaded by leaves. And yet.
For much of my professional life, I have worked with my clients briefly and at the beginning of a journey. In my first job out of graduate school, I worked in refugee resettlement. Together, my clients and I navigated the immigration process. We did seemingly rote but hugely important tasks together like applying for Social Security cards, enrolling children in school, applying for SNAP and Medicaid benefits. My last “official” interaction with them occurred on their 90th day upon which I complete a home visit where I ensured that their apartments are still safe, that they have been referred to the appropriate next steps, and we sign some papers. As you might imagine, most refugees are not completely self-sufficient after three months in a new country. And a lot of times, it feels like the past three months of intensive case management and frantic late night phone calls and endlessly trying to pin down interpreters did not amount to much.
But then I would look around.
At the resettlement office, half of our staff was made up of people who came to the US as refugees. Five, ten, twenty years later they were fluent in English, held degrees, and do important work for their communities. Their children do not know the same terror and deprivation that they fled. And I remember those new little trees and how discouraging they sometimes looked. And how, twenty years later, they are lush. They've made it through blazing hot summers and blistering cold winters. And now, they anchor everything around them.
I didn't plant any of those trees in 1995. And the clients I have been honored to work with in my career could have been assigned to any other case manager and been just fine. They overcame trauma to grow in ways that I'm not sure I could. I watched them begin to lay down their roots and start over. And because of the refugees I knew as friends and coworkers who were further along in their journeys, I knew that great things were coming.
Often, social workers do not get the opportunity to take that scenic drive twenty years down the road. Im fact, our Code of Ethics forbids it in most cases. We lay awake at night worrying about what more we could have done for our clients, and at some point, usually too soon, we have to say goodbye, and hope for the best. We hope that if we haven't helped, dear God, that at least we didn't hurt. We take solace in knowing that we are all like those trees, if only just a couple people prop us up and give us extra water when we're new.