January 5, 2018

Learning to say "Welcome"

Written by  Jenni Wagler

Over the past seven years, I've met inspiring, resilient, kind, hilarious, hospitable, hard-working friends who all have one thing in common: they've come to North America as refugees. 

I was living in Ontario, Canada, when I first came to the realization that refugees lived in my own city. A close high school friend told me about a local nonprofit organization, Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support, that was helping refugees resettle in our community. I learned that I could help by joining a weekly conversation circle, where newly arrived refugees and immigrants could practice their English conversational skills in a non-threatening environment.

When my mom and I started volunteering together at a conversation circle, we both fell in love with it. We sat around tables drinking tea and coffee and chatting about current events, Canadian culture, politics, holidays, and what was happening in our community on the weekend. I started to learn about refugee claimants, and the civil war in El Salvador, and which weird aspects of Canadian culture confused people from other countries. I heard stories of fear, loss, grief, and confusion.

I think I was hooked by the stories I heard in that circle of friends, and I've been drawn to the field of refugee resettlement ever since.  

A few years later, I began volunteering at Welcome Home Refugee Housing, which is a Christian refugee housing community in the same city. I attended the weekly Bible study and played my guitar for the worship time, and we studied the Gospel of John together. As I developed friendships there, my family also became involved in these relationships. We brought a Thanksgiving meal to the housing community one year, and invited some of these friends over to our house for parties on Labor Day and Christmas. We enjoyed this opportunity to share our social connections and material blessings.  

Now that I live in Pennsylvania, I have been involved with Church World Service (CWS) in Lancaster for about a year now. As a volunteer family mentor, I am paired with a refugee family. I visit them about twice a month to see how they're doing and to spend time together.

These visits are simple and casual. The kids tell me about school, and I sometimes help them with their homework. Their mother and I have formed a sweet friendship that doesn't require speaking perfect English. One of the children mentioned how the family used to have a cat in their former home in the Middle East, so I recently took my two kittens along on a visit. The kids were delighted, and told me that I need to bring them along every time I come to visit! At the end of my time with this family, I usually leave their home with a joyful heart -- and, thanks to their hospitality, a full stomach.

For me, volunteering with a refugee family has meant facing some discomfort, and not just when one of the little girls tries to comb my curly hair! Language barriers, for instance, can be awkward -- but not impassable. The family that I visit isn't fluent in English, but over time, we've learned to communicate. Their English has improved a lot in the last year, and I love telling them that I've noticed that. And I'm definitely not fluent in Arabic, but I've learned a few words by now. Yalla and habibi ("Hurry up" and "My dear") are the Arabic words that make me smile.

I've also learned to open up my heart to give and receive. Time, energy, language, stories, and food are just some of the things that are shared in these interactions. While regular visits with this family require me to give some of these things, I have found that I receive encouragement, joy, and surprises in return.

Through globalization and the refugee crisis, the people of the world are coming to us. As we follow God's leading in our changing world, we may be led to participate in new connections with people from many nations. As someone who enjoys traveling and supporting overseas missionaries, I love having the opportunity to meet new people who have traveled here from other places and support them in getting resettled in a new home.

Jenni Wagler went to Cambodia on a GO! assignment with EMM in 2014, where she taught conversational English and lived in the women's university dormitory in Phnom Penh. She lives in Holtwood, Pa., and serves on staff at Meadows of Hope, a residential discipleship ministry for troubled teen girls.
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