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From Strangers to Neighbors: Working with Refugees

August 21, AD2017 10 Comments

poverty, children, neighbor

Diana (pronounce Dee-ahna) sat in the passenger seat as I was driving. Her three kids were in the back seat looking out the windows quietly. Diana was equally quiet as we had only met the day before, and it was only by chance that I was asked to give her and her family a ride home. Suddenly she turned to me. “This and thatthis is for close and that is for far. Is that correct?” She made the statement slowly, pronouncing the words as clearly as possible.

My English teacher genes bubbled up in glee. “Yes! You use this for something that is close to you, and that for something that is far. Same with these and those. Can you give an example?”

This is my hand. That is the stoplight.”

“Awesome!”

These are my kids. Those are the trees.”

“Yep!”

“I want to learn grammar. I want to teach my people to speak English better.”

I looked at her and smiled. She was a very attractive young lady in her late twenties. She smiled, and her freckled face blushed to match her rose-colored cotton hijab. “I want to go to university. When my daughter goes to kindergarten, I want to go to school also.”

She turned and looked straight ahead as we came to a stop. I realized that Diana resembled most of the young Syrian refugee women I had met. They were fair-skinned, wore modern jeans or leggings under their long, flowing tunics, and Converse tennis shoes were a favorite. Their hijabs were light and colorful and frequently sequined by hand. Only the elderly mothers or grandmothers continued to wear the heavy black apparel. The few Catholic refugees dressed in western apparel. I began to think that I was learning more from the strangers than they were from me. I was part of a group of volunteers assisting with US Together, the refugee settlement program in Toledo and other cities nearby.

Strangers Among Us

It all began with a homily given nearly two years ago.

Our pastor, Fr. Bill Rose of Toledo Christ the King, had given a homily at our weekly all-school Mass about the terrible plight of Syrian refugees. He talked about how many people had been killed and persecuted. He told the students that it was our job to help in whatever way we could. They were our neighbors (cf. Luke 10:29-37).

As was our practice after every Mass, we discussed Father’s homily. Our 7th graders were sensitive, caring, and energetic. They asked what they could do. We looked up the local refugee agency, US Together, and asked how we could help. By the following week, the 7th grade had organized a food and supply drive for newly settled refugees. Each family would receive a laundry basket full of starter goods: olive oil, rice, laundry soap, towels, flour, sugar, spices, and more. The kids collected enough items for 20 baskets.

We kept in touch with US Together over the next 18 months and continued to provide help where we could. Then, in the spring of this year, coordinator Corinne Dehabey asked if we could organize a special summer camp just for women and children. She said that the men get jobs and get out into the community, where they learn English and the customs of our society. The children go to school. The women, however, stay at home with their younger children and have little opportunity to join the community or learn about anything beyond their four walls.

With the help of various Christ the King parishioners and generous support from community groups and institutions around Toledo, we came up with a schedule following Corrine’s timeline. We would meet on Monday, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at various locations around the city. There would be Art Museum tours and lessons, swim lessons for the kids, a tour of local orchards, a visit to Lake Erie and the docks, a concert at the Zoo, pottery workshops, field trips at the Botanic Gardens, and an in-service at the Library. They would practice driving directions, fill out forms, shop at various locations, visit coffee shops, and see, many for the first time, the inside of a Catholic cathedral and a Jewish synagogue.

From Strangers to Neighbors

Corinne wanted them to see how pluralistic and diverse American society is, to practice their English, and, most of all, to see the possibilities for themselves. Not only did we all look different and dress in a wide range of ways here, we were accustomed to talking to one another much more freely and openly. And while many of the women had gone to school, most had no opportunity to go to university or pursue a dream of their own, as they spent the past two or three years in a refugee settlement in Jordan or Turkey.

As the weeks went by, they changed from a bloc of refugees to individual women with expanding opportunities, unique personalities, and a new-found ability to stand on their own. As we enter week 4, the women now easily ask questions about music, food, schools, neighborhoods, and, most of all, what words to use. We know each other’s names, our talents, our children, and our dreams.

And while they bring their culture with them, whether they are Muslim or Catholic, they are seeing the new person they can become, in this new place, in their new home. They will add their individual gifts to our community in due time.

I Was a Stranger …

It all started with a homily and a group of kids who took their Catholic faith seriously enough to do something about it. They welcomed strangers (cf. Matthew 25:35) and set an example for all of us to do the same.

Meanwhile, I hope that Diana will go to school and teach English. She has invited me over to tea at her home and said that she will show me how she braids her long hair each morning and practices her English words. I am looking forward to it.

See stories published about this in the Toledo Blade and Catholic New Agency.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Cindy and her husband Jim were blessed to have five kids in four years (2 sets of twins), and are looking forward to grandchild number 3. Her love for reading and writing grew into the publication of several children's books (under the name C. M. Millen), poems, short stories, and a short book about the Natural Law. She enjoys growing things in her garden, knitting, the teaching (and learning) from the students at Christ the King School in Toledo, Ohio, and attending Mass there with marvelous parishioners and priests. She also writes for Catholic Mom.

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