A few nights ago hubby and I went to a training with Spero Project, the refugee organization here in Oklahoma City. The training was called Restorative Relationships and focused on how our job is not to “save” the refugees but rather to become their neighbor. The discussion made me realize that I need to change my own perspective and reflect on the composition of a neighbor.
We moved to Oklahoma City just a year and half ago. The move was tough as we didn’t know anyone here. But in the midst of the challenges, there was our neighbor Lynda, who has showed me repetitively what being a neighbor really means. The night we moved in, she brought us dinner. When I was outside picking the pecans in our front yard, she came and joined me. She’s offered to watch Eleanor, asked if I needed anything from the grocery store, and we regularly meet for coffee. Lynda has never made me feel like she was “saving” me but rather that she has been in my shoes and knows that a little extra help would be nice. Personally, I feel like this kind of neighborliness is a dying art in the US. So often we don’t even know the names of our neighbors.
After watching the relationships within the refugee community, they also seem to get the meaning of neighbors. They watch out for each other’s kids, give each other rides to work, and always are ready to boil a pot of tea for a spur of the moment conversation. I think Spero has to do the Restorative Relationship training with us because in all honesty, the refugee community has a lot to teach us about being a neighbor. It is so often our tendency as Americans to walk in and try to fix things rather than to build relationships. We see an under-resourced community and forget that the community has so much to offer us as well.
Every year in Oklahoma City we get 165 new neighbors who are refugees from Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and several other countries. So as hubby and I get more involved with Spero, our hope is we can reach out to our new neighbors and make them feel as welcome as Lynda made me feel last year when we were new to town.
Have a great weekend and if you have a chance, try to meet your neighbors!
There is a sweet little girl I work with regularly whose family has recently come to the US from Myanmar. English has not been a breeze for her but she is working hard and it is coming along. Today her third grade homework was to read a story about a tiger and then continue the story and answer the questions. We had read the whole story but when it came to making up a sentence or two to finish it off, she was stuck.
“How do you say tiger in your language?” I asked. “Kya” she responded. “Well, write that,” I said. In her imperfect print she wrote out “In my language a tiger is called kya.” This started a conversation amongst the other kids on how to say tiger in other languages. All of the sudden I heard tiger in Arabic, Georgian, Russian, and Spanish. I even added in Italian for good measure.
Siberian Tiger – taken by National Geographic
I think this will now be a regular question I ask these little ones. It helps them connect with their home country, teaches the other children and me something new, and keeps them speaking their native tongues.
Want to know some other ways to say tiger? Check out Wiktionary’s list. I’ve included a few for practice.
A few weeks ago I played Four Square for the first time in probably 20 years. All the kids were done with their homework so we headed out to the playground. It started with just 4 of us but within 15 minutes we had 20 kids playing the game ranging from 5-years-old to 15. To me it was amazing that the older kids had no problem playing with the little ones. They even gave the smallest ones second chances so they wouldn’t have to get out so fast.
The only problem that came up during the game was waiting in line. No one wanted to wait their turn and if someone even stepped out of line to throw a candy wrapper away, their place was lost and they were forced to go to the end or fight to get their spot back. I never once had to referee the game but I ended up settling disputes about the line for the entire hour we played.
As I waited in line for an hour and half to vote last week, I had plenty of time to contemplate the cultural aspects of waiting in line. Behind me was a gentleman who continuously got out of line to talk on the phone, but the strangers around him let him back in each time. In Italy, I doubt that would have ever happen. In fact, from my experience, there would be no line. There would just be a herd of people who would eventually funnel their way into the door. It reminded me just how drastically different the concept of time and efficiency is my beloved Italy compared to my hometown of Oklahoma City.
Yep…this was my election line
I’m curious now if the problem of waiting in line for Four Square was an age issue or a cultural one. Are these kids who came to the US from Iraq, Myanmar, Honduras, and Sudan taking on the impatience of American culture or just being kids who want to hurry up and play the game? It’s a question that I believe I’ll have to ponder on for a while, but in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy another game of Four Square.
For the months of November and December, I decided to do a new series called Global Giving each Friday. For Americans these months are naturally a time we give. Many of us donate to the local food pantry to help stock for the holidays, donate coats for colder weather, or give to a favorite charity before the year-end. Whether you are Stateside or abroad, there are certainly hundreds if not thousands of great causes to give to no matter what time of year it is.
In the next eight weeks I’ll be doing research on global issues like hunger, clean water, healthcare, housing, children’s programs, and poverty and reporting on organizations I find, causes I personally give to, and hands-on ways to give on a global level.
As always, I’m taking recommendations. Whether you run a non-for-profit yourself or give consistently to one that you feel is worthy, please share!
I recently have started helping a young man from Iraq with algebra. Thankfully I’ve been studying for the GRE and I’m not too rusty. But after two and half hours and only 30 math problems into the 50 problem homework, I felt disenfranchised with American education and walked away heartbroken for this young man.
This 15-year-old boy came to the US having been out of school for over 5 years due to the war in Iraq. Knowing no English, he was still placed in a public high school only to fail his first year. Now having been here for a few years, his English is pretty incredible and his accent is almost non-existent. But when it comes to knowing words like denominator, quotient, or divisible, those are not in his repertoire. As one of many students in his class, the likelihood of getting individual help is pretty slim for him, and the chance that he’ll ever catch up on the five years of education he missed is grim at best.
I’m far from saying that I know the best solution for this boy, but I feel he is being done an injustice. I am ever so grateful that my country has become a safe harbor for him and his family. But while he is protected from the bombings and shells, the effects from the war are still ever-present in his life as struggles to do 9th grade math with a 4th grade education.
Say a prayer for me, dear friends, that I will remember the rules for graphing a line, solving for x, and completing the quadratic equation. And most of all that I will have the ability to explain them in a way he can understand.
I have to say that working with the children in the refugee community has been quite a learning experience. It’s funny what comes from their mouths and just how innocent they are.
Before I started volunteering, I did my research on Burmese and Iraqi customs. Don’t touch their heads. Don’t point with my feet. Don’t give the thumbs up sign. I was reminded this week that just as I am learning their cultures, these kids are learning ours.
As I was playing with a group of children at the playground this week, an interesting topic came up. The middle finger. All the sudden one of the little girls runs up to me and says, “I can’t use my middle finger, right?” Before I could even answer, several of the little girls are pointing their middle fingers in the air and saying, “You can’t do this, but you can do this.” And then they quickly switch to their pointer finger. From there a whole conversation ensued about why we don’t use the middle finger in America. Thinking back on the conversation, I’m sure it became a topic of our discussion because one of these little ones unknowingly gave “the bird”. I can imagine one of these little girls raising their own middle finger to read a book or scratch their face, and being met with discomfort, discipline, or distraught behavior by their fellow American peers or teachers. If I were in their shoes, I’m sure I would make the same mistakes. If I went to Iraq, could I stop giving a thumbs up? If I was in Myanmar, could I ensure that I never touch a child’s head? I highly doubt I could. I just hope and pray that I can give the patience and guidance to these little ones, just as I would need if I were learning the customs of their home countries.
Did you ever see the movie the Little Princess? If not, I’ll give you a brief synopsis. The movie centers on an English girl who is being brought up in India when her single father is called to war. He brings her back to the UK and puts her in a boarding school with no expenses spared. But when the British army believes him dead, everything is taken away from the girl and she is forced to become a maid in the school. Despite all that happens, she believes in her dreams and her father’s words that she is princess.
Every Thursday afternoon I’ve been volunteering with Spero Project and helping with the children in our local refugee community. Thursdays seem to be the day where they don’t have much homework so in general, we just play. Yesterday I put out a stack of paper, crayons, tape, and ribbon and just let the kids create what they wanted. There was everything from t-shirts, to paper finger claws, to purses. But what struck me the most were the crowns. With little girls from Malaysia, Turkey, and Myanmar, every single one of them wanted to make a crown to wear. Every one of them wanted to be a princess. As I watched them play, it reminded me of the movie. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak, all girls are princesses.
After learning about World Refugee Day, which was held on June 20th, I realized that volunteering with the refugee community would be a great way to be global from home. However, I am far from an expert on the topic so I asked my good friend, Becky, to do my first ever guest blog. Becky currently works with refugees in San Diego and she offers great ways to get involved and help refugees get resettled as they transition to life in their new home. If you live outside the San Diego area, be sure to visit the agency directory at Refugee Works to find where you can donate your time and talents.
Guest Blog by Becky Morines:
After interning at a refugee resettlement agency here in San Diego during my junior year at Point Loma Nazarene University, I was instantly attracted to the refugee population in San Diego. Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their own countries due to persecution, people whose own homes have become a place of fear and danger, and people who have seen political upheaval, instability, war, terror, and in some cases have experienced kidnappings, torture, and had loved ones murdered. After having my eyes opened to this population, I focused the majority of my academic research on the process to come to the United States for a refugee and the challenges faced during the assimilation process in the United States. I now work as the Employment Coordinator in the refugee resettlement department at Jewish Family Service of San Diego. Most of the refugees that we work with are from Iraq and Burma; however our agency is open to refugees and asylum seekers from all across the globe.
As the Employment Coordinator, my job is to act as the bridge between the refugee and the employer. I assist our clients prepare a resume, complete job applications, mock interviewing, and go out with them to look and apply for jobs. The refugees arriving in San Diego have English skills from proficiency to none at all. Some have never held a job, yet many hold Bachelor’s and Master degrees from their home country and have attained incredible professional experience. It is very humbling to be able to help with the job application and interview process that seems so normal to Americans, however extremely abnormal for those who have traveled thousands of miles to get here. I am inspired by every encounter simply based on their experience, courage, and strength. I am also encouraged by the incredible team that has dedicated their work to the refugee community in San Diego. There are new arrivals coming every month that need help adjusting to this new country and new people.
There are various satisfying ways to volunteer in the San Diego area. The refugee resettlement department has several different opportunities to volunteer that include administrative support, employment scouting, furniture delivery, and translation in a variety of languages. At Jewish Family Service, we have a Friendly-Match program that matches a mentor with a refugee family. By joining this program you would be able to build a lasting relationship with a family with hands on experience. These volunteers can assist the family grocery shopping, going to the bank, practicing English, or even just going to the beach! Lastly we need Employment Mentors who familiarize newly arrived refugees with the job search and application processes in the United States using a hands-on approach. Mentors play an integral role in helping refugees to become self-sufficient by providing them with the education and support necessary to secure employment.
If you enjoy traveling and working with people from different backgrounds, there are incredible opportunities right in your own backyard. You can also visit our website or contact me at for additional information.