I didn’t want to do it. At 23, I was living in Colorado, working an unpaid internship as a social worker. To make ends meet, I’d work a 4:30 AM shift at Starbucks and spend nights seating tables at a nice restaurant in Cherry Creek. It felt like I was barely creeping by; I was grouchy, overwhelmed and tired.
So when my supervisor asked if I could help “assimilate” a family of recently arrived refugees, I politely declined. I had reached my limit.
But my supervisor persisted, and I didn’t have the heart to say no.
So suddenly, there I was, trekking four kids, two parents and one grandma throughout Denver. Taking them to the doctors so they could register for school, introducing crosswalks and coupons. And checking in a few times per month to ensure, basically, that nothing in the kitchen exploded.
I remember the entire family standing patiently outside my car, as I once spent 45 minutes struggling to buckle-in three car seats, mumbling to myself that this was the best birth control ever.
My refugee family was from Somalia, but the kids were born in a tent camp in Kenya. There were four girls, ages 10, 8, 6 and two. My attitude adjusted once I learned the eight-year-old needed a car seat. Life as refugees left the girls malnourished and stunted.
My once-resentful assignment became beautiful. Because I was seeing America with new eyes. A sterile medical office – how amazing! School. What an opportunity!
A friend and I took everyone to their first restaurant. But wasn’t just a dinner, it was the best chicken leg. Ever.
America is a place where you can take your kids to the doctor if they get sick. We drink clean water out of fountains. Women are allowed to talk in public. And we have grocery stores. With so many apples!
I got to watch four girls transform from scared to gleeful, with saucers as eyes. Who would roll with hysterics as they learned how to open their front door, shake hands and say, “Hello. How are yoooou?”
I remember one visit where Mohammad, the dad, passed me a neatly folded piece of paper. I opened it carefully to reveal a temporary drivers license. I looked up to this man, and could only see the slits of his eyes, his grin was so wide. He got a job as a truck driver for the night-shift at Walmart. A job! What a gift.
It’s been ten years since that mortifying day I sat huddled in the TV room of my sorority house. Watching in horror as four planes methodically crashed into our country. In a sense, I felt like a refugee that day. Terrified and lost. This was not a safe home anymore.
The time since 9.11 has not been easy. But it’s our response we should be proud of. We could have turned inward and reclusive, becoming xenophobic and hateful. We instead, as a Nation, gave more. Breaking records to help strangers in Haiti, Indonesia and New Orleans.
We do it because, despite all our struggles, our kids will never be born in a tent in the middle of an overcrowded refugee camp. Most of us will never know what it’s like to walk with our children for 35 days across a desert, praying for water and safety. But we can empathize.
We experienced a deep tragedy on 9.11. But we are determined to not become inclusive or bitter. No tragedy can rob us of our ability to love others.
Instead, we continue as a Country where a nervous Muslim family with a golden ticket arrives in snowy Colorado wearing flip-flops, and are greeted by volunteers from the Denver Rescue Mission, carrying smiles and donated boots and coats.
A used coat. How amazing!
We’re Americans. What a blessing.
Note: As most of you know, the drought/famine/insecurity in Somalia in now the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” and the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is now the largest in the world. If you want to help, I would recommend giving to Concern Worldwide. I’ve been with them in Africa and saw their heroic response to the earthquake in Haiti. They’re a large, 25-year-old organization, but you might not of heard of them. They have a reputation as being humble. And just getting the job done, without need for fanfare or credit. They’re an Irish organization. Knowing the FDNY’s Irish roots, their character and heroism doesn’t surprise me at all.
My refugee experience was coordinated by Lutheran Family Services, who do amazing work. You can also apply to volunteer with International Rescue Committee. I promise, you will be thrilled by crosswalks and chicken legs.
Side note, side note. There’s a ton of other great organizations I didn’t mention, so if anyone feels like it, list them in the comments section below. Thanks for reading.