Anytime I have the opportunity, I tell people about the Welcome to America project and what a unique, family-friendly volunteer opportunity they offer through their “deliveries.” I have been spending time with refugees in Arizona for more than 10 years–as a volunteer, a sponsor, a teacher and a friend–and these have been some of the richest experiences of my life. I have been privileged to visit and work on six continents but have never learned or grown as much as I have through relationships with foreign-born people in my own city! What a treasure.
A few weeks ago, some friends and I went on a Saturday-morning delivery with WTAP. I had only done this once before and was excited to go again, though I didn’t look forward to saying “goodbye” after delivering the items. One thing I have learned over and over in the past 10 years is that even beyond the physical furnishings and comforts, what newly arrived refugees really need and crave are trusted friends who will walk with them through those difficult, often lonely first several months.
After we put the final touches on the last apartment that Saturday–trying to hang wall art perfectly, unwrapping a new lamp shade, carefully placing a clothes dresser in the parents’ bedroom–we chatted with the Iraqi family and smiled, shook hands, said goodbye and began to walk out to our cars. In each of these deliveries, to me, there is always a sense that both the refugee families and the delivery volunteers would like to know more about each other, but the scene is just a little rushed or the awkwardness of communicating in two different languages becomes too much.
Wasan (the mother) and her two boys followed us out and stood there watching as we said goodbye to each other, piled back into our cars and drove away. I thought about how isolating it is to be in their shoes: newcomers in a strange land, kept inside their small apartment by the brutal summer heat, interested but unable to explore their new home without a trusted friend to show them how.
I had to find some friends for this family. Of course, the family would decide whether or not to keep these friends, but at least they could have some options and could receive more welcomes from more of their new neighbors. To get the family’s phone number, I contacted WTAP who gave me the name of the family’s resettlement agency. Since I already had a good relationship with the staff at the agency, they gave me the phone number, and we were off and running.
Martha and Mark are two very dear friends of mine who love to serve others and show hospitality. Martha sprung into action and invited the family over for dinner. The evening was filled with a lot of laughter, hugs, hand motions when we couldn’t understand each other, and full, satisfied bellies thanks to Martha’s good cooking. We lingered over the dinner table and took our time getting to know each other. Two weeks later, we met again at Martha and Mark’s home, this time feasting on fragrant, fresh Iraqi food prepared by Wasan and Naseer, her husband.
I will continue to encourage people of all ages to volunteer with WTAP and extend a warm welcome to our new neighbors from all over the world. I also encourage volunteers to go a step further and reach out to the people you meet during the delivery–open your home and invite someone new over for a meal! It takes very little effort but can go a long way in helping people make the difficult transition to life in America.