A Summer of Apparent Accidents

Friday, Oct 2, 2020
by Regina Lankenau '21

“Reflect on the apparent accidents in your life that have had significant positive consequences.” This was one of the three contemplative prompts offered to us on Week Two of our Faith-Based Internship with the Office of Religious Life. 

Every week, seven interns and I convened over Zoom, led by Katherine Clifton, Coordinator of the Religion & Forced Migration Initiative, to share and discuss our personal reflections. We were invited to approach these prompts not as “questions to be answered” with neat conclusions but rather, as opportunities “to think a little differently and reconsider how [we] see the world.” 

In a summer marked by tumult and grief, those one-hour debriefings offered an important space for the kind of self-discovery not easily prioritized in the frenetic blur of student life at Princeton. Given the physical confinement imposed by the pandemic, I had found it difficult to imagine how the next three months could be meaningful or transformative.

Yet, there we were: pursuing real, meaningful human connection albeit via faulty internet connection. Discussing compassion and the responsibilities we owe to our communities; digging up joy from the humdrum of a life suddenly limited to the four walls of a home. 

... 

Pre-pandemic, my role as a Refugee and Resettlement Office intern for Catholic Charities Community Services, Archdiocese of New York, would have looked like accompanying clients to appointments around the city and helping them navigate American services.

Regina Lankenau '21 working at her desk in Spring, Texas

Regina Lankenau '21 working at her desk in Spring, TX

This summer, however, my internship looked more like sitting at my desk in my parent’s home in Spring, Texas, conducting one-on-one calls with clients to help them craft and update their resume. It also meant putting my French and Spanish skills to good use, and listening to clients express themselves in the comfort of their own linguistic home. 

My favorite moments of the summer internship were the happy “accidents,” the unplanned interactions with clients who had impressive stories to tell. During a call with one particular client, we spent the first fifteen minutes gushing about the joys of learning languages; with fluid ease, he switched between French, Dutch, Spanish, and English, not once losing his comedic, tongue-in-cheek streak. 

After working on his professional resume for the better part of an hour, he asked if we could also update his artistic resume. It wasn’t until I was typing in his most recent acting experiences that he revealed his storied career as a Venezuelan cinema icon. With an unassuming chuckle, he then shared details with me about his latest stint working closely with Ozuna and Romeo Santos--two reggaeton and bachata artists very well-known in the Latin music world. Of course, it took all my professionalism to not openly fangirl then and there. He assured me he had fangirled in the moment as well. 

This is just one of dozens of stories I had the honor to hear in a summer dedicated to listening to refugees’ narratives. Though of course, not all stories were so easy to hear.

... 

In our work conducting interviews with forced migrants for the The Oral History Project on Religion and Resettlement, the other interns and I navigated the difficult question of facilitating personal connection and creating a sacred space for storytelling via the distant and impersonal virtual space. It was not a simple task, but certainly a very rewarding one. In an “accidental” turn of events, I found that Zoom, in many ways, could sometimes be more intimate than meeting at a common area to converse. 

While interviewing family members from El Salvador about their experiences as forced migrants, some people showed me items, souvenirs of their home country, that held significant emotional value for them. Others, such as a Venezuelan migrant I interviewed, told me that just being in their own room, in their own home, allowed them to be more open and vulnerable with me. 

The hardest part was when narrators, overwhelmed by the memories they were describing, cried. It was easy to feel frustrated by my powerlessness--my inability to reach out and touch their hand in understanding. Nonetheless, every narrator seemed up to the task of meeting me in the middle to contribute to this project. I was astonished by the sheer openness with which so many people shared their personal stories of faith, resilience, and resettlement. 

… 

“Reflect on the apparent accidents in your life that have had significant positive consequences.”

When I contemplated that prompt on one of my many (many) meandering walks around my neighbourhood, reflecting on the chance circumstances of my life that have left me with positive consequences, my own immigration history immediately came to mind. 

Though I was born in Monterrey, Mexico, moving has long been an indelible part of my life. My family arrived in the U.S. in 2010, after spending the five years prior in Europe, and applied for permanent residency as soon as we could. In the middle of my junior year of high school, we received a letter: our Green Card application had been denied. We were to leave the country or be branded as illegal. The result of a clerical error, an apparent “accident,” that fateful decision took me and my family to Mexico City, where I experienced some of the most transformative, happiest years of my life and was able to rediscover my own culture. 

Although my story does not compare to many of the circumstances endured by the people who shared their own experiences with me this past summer, I found that in many of those stories, the only real constant was an honest determination to make the most of unjust circumstances and an uncertain future.

It is a lesson that we could all use today, more than ever, and something that has stayed with me long after my internship was over.