A Lifelong Journey of Learning
As compassionate people who want to make a difference, we are often anxious to jump in and “do something,” to take immediate action. While it’s great to be motivated to act, it’s also important to remember that the best “action step” is one that prepares our own hearts and minds to partner with individuals and families in ways that are dignity giving and inclusive.
The most important step for all of us in engaging with people who are resettling in the U.S. is to dedicate ourselves to learning so that we can shift from “us/them” thinking to “we’re all us.”
If you were going to get on a plane and relocate in a new country, you would probably spend weeks or months preparing yourself to engage in ways that are responsive to cultural, historical, and linguistic considerations.
Similarly, in order to “become a community” by partnering with people who are trauma survivors from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, we need to be willing to humble ourselves and place ourselves permanently in a posture of learning.
In fact, choosing to become learners is, in itself, a dignity giving action that serves to reduce the power imbalance between those who are familiar with the language and culture of America and those for whom everything is new.
There are many ways to interact with those who are resettling in our towns and neighborhoods. However, because good intentions don’t always equal good impact, the first interaction must happen IN each of us.
As we open ourselves to learning about the challenges and barriers experienced during the refugee journey, we must also open ourselves to learning ways of thinking, being, and responding that allow us to meet those challenges with justice, compassion, and humility.
Begin the Journey
Here are some ideas to begin your learning journey.
Attend or host a RISE workshop at your church. These workshops are designed to give you information and strengthen skill sets for creating inclusive friendships and communities.
Research what is meant by “unconscious bias” or “implicit bias”. Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html to take the online implicit bias tests. Be honest with yourself and notice what negative stereotypes you hold. Pay attention to how media perpetuates stereotypes and subtle biases.
Consider reading “Assimilate or Go Home,” by D.L. Mayfield.
Read up on trauma, its effects, and how people recover and heal.
Learn which groups are resettling in your area. Research the history and culture of these groups so that you have an understanding of their values and the strengths they have to contribute to the community. These websites can help:
Find out what is already being done in your community through resettlement agencies and other organizations. It’s important to know which needs are being met in which ways.
Be willing to focus on building relationships that are long term, dignity giving, and inclusive. This may not appear to be as rewarding as being in a “helper” position, but remember the goal is not to make ourselves feel good by being someone’s hero, rather to create a community in which everyone belongs and contributes.
Focus on building mutual, dignity giving, long term friendships
Give the gift of time.
We often think of people on the refugee journey in terms of their material poverty or helplessness. This leads us to immediately start trying to meet those needs with material solutions. While many refugee families have experienced material losses, remember their greatest loss is of home, family, friends, dignity, identity, belonging, and purpose. These losses take time to heal, and recovery happens best within the context of loving relationships. Be patient as trust is built over time.
Give and receive hospitality.
Hospitality means more than inviting someone into your home. It means welcoming people into your presence and life, and then allowing them to do the same for you.
If you visit friends in their home, be aware of cultural considerations and take time to learn important protocols. For example, many people practice a protocol of removing shoes at the door before, or just after, entering the home. There are often greeting protocols influenced by gender and age. Be prepared to accept and enjoy whatever food or drink is offered to you, because in many cultures, eating and drinking with someone in their home is an invaluable way to show acceptance and build trust.
If you invite friends into your home, greet them warmly at the door when they arrive and walk them out when they are leaving. Some people will not assume that they can sit down unless you offer them a chair. Be aware of possible cultural or religious dietary restrictions. Many people are not used to pets inside the home, and some are very uncomfortable having contact with pets, especially dogs, for religious or other reasons. If you aren’t sure how your guests feel about pets, it’s best not to have animals in the house while your guests are present.
Be a learner.
In dignity giving friendships, everyone teaches, and everyone learns. Allow your friend to contribute to your life by teaching you new skills, sharing their knowledge and wisdom with you, giving you language lessons, receiving you in their home, sharing their tremendous courage with you, or praying for you.
Walk side by side.
When we view people as needy or helpless, we often think in terms of doing things for them. When we view people through the lens of their strengths, resiliency, and resourcefulness, we can think in terms of walking with them, as they walk with us. People who are newcomers want to make a valued contribution. It can be meaningful to find ways that you and your friends can serve your community together.
Lead by example. Our children, especially, need to see us living out our commitments to making our homes, communities, and churches places where everyone is welcome.
Use the information you’re learning and your deepened understanding to help debunk fear-based myths perpetuated in the media. Remember to extend dignity and compassion in all conversations, even when others disagree with you.
Set an example of living from a place of fearless compassion rather than fear.
If you choose to volunteer with an established organization, remember that the goal is always to develop relationships that are mutual, dignity giving, and long term. Avoid seeing yourself as the “helper” or “rescuer.” Instead look at volunteering as an opportunity to build a relationship in which all parties learn from and are encouraged by each others talents and strengths.
Local resettlement agencies often accept volunteers to help with various tasks, including preparing apartments for new arrivals. Check with each individual agency to find out what their volunteer needs are.
Some local elementary schools specialize in programs for recently arrived families or students who are English language learners and may accept volunteers.
Adult language learning centers often accept volunteers for classroom assistance or tutoring.
Some places have community gardening and will allow you to share your garden space with a family who loves to grow things, but don’t have their own space to grow a garden.
Some local libraries or other community organizations sponsor conversation groups so people can practice their newly acquired English skills in a relaxed environment.
Giving financially or materially
On a global level
Check out organizations that are working on the ground in conflict zones and other areas where people are displaced. You can donate funds to support these organizations and sign up for their newsletters, so you can receive updates on their work.
There are many organizations doing great work around the world. Here are a few.
Preemptive Love Coalition www.preemptivelove.org
International Rescue Committee www.rescue.org
Doctors Without Borders www.doctorswithoutborders.org
Refugees International www.refugeesinternational.org
American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera) www.anera.org
UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency www.unhcr.org
On a local level
If you wish to donate locally, it’s best to do so through a resettlement agency or other reliable organizations rather than giving directly.
Direct giving of material goods, money, or services is often not dignity giving and can create dependency which can’t be sustained. It can cause problems between families within a community by creating feelings of favoritism and inhibits mutual relationships by setting up the giver in a “helper” or “rescuer” role.
Many local resettlement agencies accept donated items of clothing, furniture, and other items needed to set up a home. You can find out on their websites or by phone which items are currently needed and where to deliver them.
If you own a business, consider offering employment or volunteer opportunities through your local resettlement agencies. Finding employment is one of the biggest challenges and stressors for those who are resettling. Even volunteer opportunities can be helpful for practicing English skills and gaining valuable experience for resumes.