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!
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.
Yesterday was my first day tutoring through Spero Project. Each day varies so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. In the end we had over 25 kids from at least 6 different countries and I definitely learned a lot on the job! Here are my lessons learned so far:
1. Not being able to speak the language is really tough when you just want the grown-up to help you make Power Ranger cuffs.
2. A roll of tape, markers, and a stack of paper can keep kids occupied for a minimum of three hours.
3. Explaining how to do mathematical estimation is not easy, but when you see the spark in the child’s eye because she gets it, it is definitely worth all the effort.
4. Every kid is obsessed with using the computers.
5. To little ones, attention and love and much more important than language barriers and cultural differences.
6. It’s hard to work in an apartment complex at dinner time with all the delicious smells from around the world and not get hungry.
7. All of the hand games I played as a kid are still popular.
8. And finally, I’m pretty lucky to be able to hang out with such a great group of kids through an incredible organization.
When we moved to OKC, I knew I had to get involved. I’m too social of a person to sit at home all day. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading a good book and writing this blog, but a whole day without talking to someone is a long day for me. Taking the advice of my friend who did a guest post for me on volunteering with the refugee community, I started researching different organizations in Oklahoma City that assist refugees. And that’s when I found Spero Project. The Spero Project is a local non-profit organization that partners with local churches to serve under-resources communities. Their programming extends to single mothers, children in the foster care system, and families who are refugees in OKC.
I will be serving in their Learning Center where children from the refugee community can come and get help with homework, English, and just play. Adults can also come work on English and study for the TOEFL, their GED, or the citizenship exam. I had my first training on Tuesday and will have my first hours in the Learning Center this evening. Most of the children that I’ll be working with come from either Iraq or Myanmar. While I feel ready to help with fractions, I realized that I am not very familiar with the Iraqi or Burmese cultures. I know I will learn a lot while I’m with the kids, but I thought it might be good to know some basic etiquette to get me started.
Burmese Basic Etiquette:
- As a female, a smile or nod is the most appropriate ways to greet men.
- Never touch a person’s hair, head or cheek, even if you consider it as a friendly gesture.
- The upper part is considered sacred while lower part is considered inferior to the upper part, even considered dirty. Never mix the things you use for your upper part with that of the lower part.
- Do not use your feet to point at anything or anyone.
- Don’t cough, sneeze or blow your nose in the dining table.
- Present gifts (even a business card) with both hands.
Iraqi Basic Etiquette:
- The most common greeting is the handshake coupled with eye contact and a smile.
- Use your right hand to make contact with others and to eat.
- Do not point with a finger but rather with the entire hand.
- Always keep your word. Do not make a promise or guarantee unless you can keep it. If you want to show a commitment to something but do not want to make caste iron assurances then employ terms such as “I will do my best,” or “We will see.”
- Do not make the thumbs up or “ok” sign. They are considered obscene.
- Present gifts (even a business card) with both hands.