Setting the record straight on what it's really like to host a refugee family.

Last October, in response to the worldwide refugee crisis and general encouragement from my church, my family and I signed on as volunteers with the Refugee Services of Texas. We were assigned to furnish an apartment for a refugee family of four, pick them up at the airport, bring them to their new home, provide them their first meal, and stay in contact with them.

These are 10 things I learned from the experience so far.


1. Helping people is rarely glamorous.

It’s very easy to imagine a romanticized meeting at the airport, something you’d see in a movie. The family walks out into the reception area. They see us holding our "Welcome to Texas!" sign and smile brightly. We shake hands. Then embrace. Everyone’s eyes are misty.

But the truth is they trudged through the security doors. They were tired, hungry, and confused. They were concerned about their little boys wandering off and didn’t know where their luggage would be. Their English is about as good as my Arabic. Which is to say, not. Our drive to their apartment was mostly silent due to the language barrier, jet lag, and the general awkwardness of being in a car with complete strangers.

2. Helping people is rarely convenient.

It’s nice to be helpful. Charitable. Magnanimous, even. It’s another thing to give up a couple of perfectly good weekends to spend sweating in an apartment where the air conditioning hasn’t been turned on, assembling book shelves and bed frames with Allen wrenches and hex keys.

It’s not the Peace Corps, but it’s also not writing a check to charity and getting a feel-good bumper sticker in return.

3. Most Americans can’t begin imagine what most refugees have been through.

A Syrian family waits after being escorted into the harbor by the Greek Coastguard, who found them drifting offshore in June 2015. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

The family we were assigned to help was coming from Syria. Actually, they were coming from a Jordanian refugee camp, where they’d been living for two years. Two years. In a tent.

Originally, they're from Homs, Syria. I’d never heard of this city, so I googled it. Homs is a 4,000-year-old city that until recently had a population of more than half a million and was a major industrial center. In 2011, it became a stronghold of the opposition forces in the country’s civil war. Homs was under siege for three years. It has since been almost completely destroyed, with thousands dead. The population is a third of what it was a decade ago. This is the equivalent of Austin, Memphis, Baltimore, or Charlotte being reduced to rubble, the population decimated by our own military.

I found myself asking, "Where would you go? Where could you take your children?"

4. Most Americans are incredibly generous.

The Refugee Service of Texas gave us a list of what this family would need upon arrival. It included everything from mattresses and chairs to cleaning supplies and deodorant. My wife created a registry at Walmart, and we posted it on Facebook. Within a day, 80% of the items were purchased by generous friends from across the United States and even a handful from overseas. By the end of the week, everything had been purchased, and friends were asking if they could continue to make donations in other ways. Most are good people who want to help. They just need to know how.

Our front room, loaded with donations from generous friends around the world. Photo via Greg Christensen.

5. Most Americans don’t know the difference between refugees and immigrants.

In our current political climate, refugees and immigrants are frequently confused or lumped together for expediency. More often, both are simply labeled "foreigners." And not in a good way.

Here’s a simple truth to keep in mind: Immigrants come to this country of their own accord hoping to make a better life for themselves. Refugees flee from their homelands to any country that will take them because their lives are in danger for religious or political reasons. An immigrant hopes to move into your home. A refugee shows up on your doorstep bleeding.

6. Technology is amazing.

Although the wife and mother of the family is fairly conversant in English, her husband and I communicate with Google Translate. I type in an English sentence, the app renders it in Arabic, and I show him my screen. He types in something in Arabic, it’s rendered in English, and he shows his screen to me. It’s very "Star Trek."

7. This is about their kids.

The father, admittedly, would return to Syria if he could. It’s his home. It’s his culture. His people. But he knows his family has nothing to return to, and he knows his children can thrive in the United States. He’s willing to make that sacrifice for them.

8. This is about my kids.

My children helped assemble furniture in their apartment. They were there when the family arrived bleary-eyed and hungry at the airport. My kids have seen their gratitude and sensed their anxiety. Most importantly, my kids know what it’s like to extend a hand to another human being in need.

9. The refugee crisis is real.

A refugee family walks through a field toward the Greek-Macedonia border. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

Today, we tend to equate refugees with Syria because of the civil war — because we’re told ISIS will exploit the refugee camps. But leave theory and politics aside for a second, and consider the fact that there are persecuted Christians in the Democratic Republic of Congo currently seeking refuge. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees from countries nowhere near the seven listed on the president’s current travel ban. While many refugees come from Afghanistan and Somalia, there are also refugees from places like Vietnam, Eritrea, and China who are tired, poor, and yearning to breathe free.

10. Fear and ignorance breed apathy and inaction.

After posting updates on Facebook about our refugee family, I’ve received comments about the need for our country to be safe, for our borders to be secure. I don’t argue that, but these are stock answers. I’ve perceived a swelling refugee villainization birthed from understandings that are over-simplistic at best and ignorant of facts at worst.

When we can rationalize not helping others because of a platitude, it gives us permission to do nothing. When we hastily claim we are for safety, we should ask ourselves if we aren’t really saying we are in favor of not leaving our comfort zones and doing the hard work of being useful.

Refugees are human beings. Treating them as such is a necessity.

Syrian refugees have their portrait taken in the basement of a community center in Hamburg, Germany, where they are living. Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images.

When we took the family to their new apartment, they had friends waiting for them. They were other families they’d known from the Jordanian refugee camp where they’d spent the past two years. They were former denizens of a crippled and shattered city. The women kissed each other. The men kissed hugged each other before kneeling to hug the kids. We got to see their children literally jump for joy.

We didn’t understand their language, but we understood a little better what it meant for people to have hope.

This story first appeared on Medium and is reprinted here with permission.

More

The great thing about American democracy is the separation of powers. The federal government has rights, states have rights, counties have rights, cities have rights, and we, as people, have rights, too.

Heck, even animals have some rights in the good ol' U S of A.

The president of the United States is not a king or a dictator so a team of U.S. mayors, led by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, are asking to go over his head to negotiate directly at next month's UN climate change conference in Santiago, Chile.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Facebook / Amanda Williams

It can take time to feel comfortable in a new home, especially if you think there are scary monsters lurking about, which is why six-year-old Hayden Williams had trouble sleeping in his new room.

Hayden used to share a room with his 15-year-old sister, but when the Eldridge, Iowa family moved, each kid got their very own. While his sister was excited for the change, Hayden was having a hard time adjusting to the new arrangement.

"My little man has been having severe anxiety since we moved into the new house…I've tried everything under the sun to get him to sleep in his own room. Nothing is helping," his mom, Amanda Williams, wrote on Facebook.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Courtesy of Capital One

It was around Christmas 2018 and Jean Simpkins, 79, was looking out the window of her new three-bedroom apartment. Eleven floors above Washington, D.C., the grandmother of two gazed out at the lights of the city and became overwhelmed with gratitude. "The only thing I could say," Simpkins remembers, "was 'Thank you, Father.'"

Almost a year later, Simpkins still can't help but look at the apartment as a miracle — one she desperately needed. Fifteen years ago, when her grandson was born, she became his primary caregiver. Six years later, when her granddaughter was four, Simpkins was awarded full custody of her, too. She's spent the time since trying to give her grandchildren the life she knows they deserve, which has been difficult on a fixed income. On top of that, Simpkins worried that the neighborhood the family resided in wasn't the best influence on her kids. Something had to change.

Then she learned about Plaza West, a new development created by Mission First housing that would reserve 50 of its apartments specifically for families in which a grandparent or other older adult was raising children who were related to them. The waiting list, Simpkins says, was daunting. There are a great deal of grandfamilies in the D.C. area and she was sure it might be years before she got the call. But soon after applying, she was offered a choice between a two-bedroom and a three-bedroom apartment. She accepted the latter, sight unseen. She knew that each of her grandchildren needed space of their own.

Keep Reading Show less
Future Edge
True
Capital One
via Pixabay

Ninjas are black-clad assassins that date back to the days of feudal Japan. They are skillful, secretive fighters who have mastered the element of surprise, espionage, and clandestine tactics.

Ninjas weren't held to the Bushido code like the samurai, so they could be mercenaries who did the lord's dirty deeds without worrying about their honor. A ninja's most important power is the ability to be stealth and sneak into castles or homes to take their targets by surprise.

Keep Reading Show less
popular