February is always such a mixed up month for me. It’s a happy month – Valentine’s Day, our anniversary, my mother’s birthday…and it’s a sad month, especially so this year as we had a death in the family which fell on the anniversary of my brother’s death; always a sad and contemplative time for our family.
However this year, I also had a bit more of the happy to balance out the sad. Tim and I will be having another “empty nester adventure” at the end of the month, and when we return I will meet “my” refugee family!
You may recall that I signed up to volunteer with World Relief a couple of months ago, to help with a refugee family. I’ve been through my training and was just waiting to be matched with a family.
I learned quite a lot about refugees and the resettlement process in my training. I learned the difference between immigrants and refugees. Immigrants choose to leave their homes because of education, economics, or to join other family members. Refugees, however, are forced to leave their homes because of persecution related to race, religion, politics, nationality, or social class. Refugees are not here to better their lives, they are here to survive.
There are 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. 70,000 refugees are resettled in the United States annually. Remember, these are refugees – not immigrants.
So, I found out about my family yesterday. I received permission to share some information, as long as it is very general and not specific. This is to protect the family’s privacy of course, but also because they are seeking asylum in this country because they have been persecuted. They may have family members still at risk in their homeland.
My family is from Afghanistan. They are a young couple with a 4 1/2 year little girl and a 6 month old baby boy. I know that the father speaks English (thank goodness). And that is basically all I know thus far. I am assuming they will be arriving with very little. World Relief sets them up in an apartment with very basic necessities – one towel per person, for example (no extras). Basic kitchen supplies. In the beginning, they will be very busy with orientation meetings, doctor appointments and immunizations, school enrollments, the parents will be taking English as a second Language classes, going to job interviews, etc. I will be meeting with them once a week to help them with any issues they may be having in adjusting to a new country and culture – to explain things to them, and help them become familiar with new and strange devices and experiences. I will help them to grocery shop and show them how to read the labels and compare prices. I will help them become familiar with Jacksonville’s bus system, since they will be reliant upon it. I’ll help them find their local library and help them get a library card and show them how to find books and use the computers (because they will most likely not have one of their own.)
My volunteer title is friendship partner, and I think it’s an apt one. Mostly, I’m to be a support to them. A friend. They will have a caseworker who will be assisting them with job hunting, etc. My job is more of a helpmate. If they are frustrated with figuring out the microwave, I’ll help them. American stores can be overwhelming for foreigners – I can help explain what some of the strange items are. I’m just there to help them. Their lives have been in turmoil and they’ve been uprooted and are now in a strange and unfamiliar land, far from their families and friends and everything they’ve ever known. Everything is strange and unfamiliar and frustrating.
My heart breaks for these families.
I wish I could do more.
But please, think about about what life is like for them. Think about your life. Now imagine being a young family with two small children (which is stressful in itself), and being uprooted and placed in a new land where everything is unfamiliar and you know no one. Imagine living in a tiny 2 bedroom apartment. You have one set of sheets per bed. One towel per person. Minimal kitchen supplies – basically a pot, a frying pan, a few plates, cups, some cutlery. You have a baby…but certainly no luxuries like a diaper genie or a baby bouncer.
I’m trying to gather a few small things to welcome my family when I meet them. A few little toys for the children. Perhaps a rice cooker for the parents. Definitely a few extra towels.