Over the course of the past election cycle, I was taken aback at the backlash against refugees. I also realized I didn’t personally know any refugees. I decided that if this was an important issue I was going to care about, I needed to better understand and know the refugee community.
My family, if polled, would likely say I have never met a cause I didn’t support. I fell into working at a nonprofit in my early 20’s. I was unsettled and without a career path when a mentor suggested I would make a good fundraiser and offered me a job. I took her advice and flourished. I spent most of my career in a variety of nonprofit roles but took a sharp turn this past fall when I decided that I wanted to work directly with refugees.
I started with a fairly basic understanding of refugees being people who were forced to flee their homes and their countries because of persecution or danger to their lives. As a researcher, I like learning and knowing about issues, and so I started reading about the plight of refugees around the world. I started asking around where I live about how I could get involved with a refugee agency. I didn’t know exactly where this road would take me, but I kept pressing forward.
Around Thanksgiving, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that he was working on a project with AirBnB and The State Department to put together a series of dinners where people could invite a refugee family into their home for Thanksgiving. I signed up — eagerly — and awaited further instruction.
[pullquote]Madeleine Albright once said, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.”[/pullquote]
The call I received from a local refugee resettlement agency is a moment that changed my life. I was matched with a Syrian family consisting of a mom, dad and three children. They happened to live in my neighborhood, not very far away from my house, on a street I know well. I readily invited them over to dinner.
In the weeks after the dinner, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to do more. Madeleine Albright once said a quote that resonates: “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” I started volunteering with the local resettlement agency that had previously matched me with the family. I kept showing up at their front office, ready to do whatever tasks they had for me. After a month, the director and I sat down together and he asked me if I wanted to work there part-time. It was actually the perfect situation for me, and I said yes.
My job is a range of responsibilities focused on the first 90 days of a refugee’s arrival in Pittsburgh, called the “resettlement phase.” Most recently I have been on airport pickup duty for the refugee resettlement agency I work at in Pittsburgh,. Most arrivals are late at night, the last flights in for the night. I drive 40 minutes out to the airport in the dark, nervous and excited to greet a new family. They come off the airplane, having traveled for days, leaving everything they know in search of a better life. I drive them to their new apartments, modestly furnished but put together with care by a team member and myself. We make the beds and stock the shelves and get the apartments ready to become homes. The first months are never easy — there is so much to get accustomed to, and it’s hard being a stranger in a strange land.
This past weekend, I had an idea for community event I called Valentine’s Day For Good. The idea was to bring people together from different backgrounds into one space to build community. I like the idea of being a good neighbor and what that implies. I wanted a chance for people to craft something with their hands and make valentines for refugees, immigrants and children in need. It was a huge success. Over 300 people — from all walks of life — came together to welcome refugees as new Pittsburghers.
One of my favorite children’s books is The Polar Express. If you remember the story, it’s about children who hear a train coming and, as they get older, the sound of the train is softer and softer until they don’t hear it at all. They stop believing in magic. For me, the magic is the feeling that I’m put on this earth to help people. It might sound clichéd, but I believe I can do it — and I am doing it, I believe that we are all immigrants, and we are all in need of a warm welcome.