KindWorks, Welcoming New Legal Refugee Neighbors Project
This was my greeting as I entered the apartment complex in Riverdale, MD. The sign had not been put up by KindWorks, but instead by the apartment complex itself -- a TRUE welcome for its new residents. Immediately, I smiled and knew it was going to be an honor to be part of this project. Four days earlier, the S.O.S. came out online from KindWorks announcing that a family of 8 from Afghanistan was soon coming to Maryland and that their unfurnished apartment needed to be transformed into a home within a few days! A sign up sheet called for everything big and small and in bulk for this large family. It called for 2 sets of bunk beds, 3 other beds, 7 bedding sets, multiple dressers and rugs, dining tables, dinnerware, pots, pans, light bulbs, toiletries, and all of the other pieces of a home. Within hours, the sign up sheet filled up, including the option to set up the actual apartment. This last request called to me -- meaningful hands-on work. How often would I get this kind of opportunity? I was ready to go!
When set up day arrived, I got there early and was lucky to claim the kitchen as my domain. Here, I was out of the way of the movers and able to put my old Don't Think Twice skills to work. I arranged cabinets with dishes, pots, glasses, and Afghan spices and filled drawers with cutlery and kitchen tools. I even got to put a few finishing decorative touches into the space (I love making things look pretty!). I worked alongside great people, some of whom brought their children so that they could see how their donations were being used. Everything settled quickly into this 3 bedroom apartment thanks to so many good-hearted men and women who wanted very much to make this a real home. Though the actual family had not yet arrived from Afghanistan, their cousins who lived in the complex and other members of the Afghan community assembled in the apartment as we unpacked. They offered their help, their company, and their input. They were beautiful, their children were beautiful, and their presence gave us context for our work. The family expressed their gratitude, their excitement to see family they hadn't seen in over 3 years, and shared stories of their immigration experience.
The highlight of the day for me, however, came at the end when it was time for me to leave. Alexa, the woman supervising the move, asked if anyone would help the family's cousin get home. She had 2 young children with her and was taking some of the duplicate kitchenware back to her apartment - it was a load that required extra hands. A fellow volunteer and I offered to help. In the heat, we walked to the other end of the complex making conversation along the way. She told us her story of leaving her parents, in-laws, cousins, and friends in Afghanistan 3.5 years ago when the Taliban made their lives miserable. She spoke about the effects of the war and the dangers of living in Afghanistan. Over and over again, she expressed her gratitude for our help and for giving her such nice things. (KindWorks had not been involved in her move-in and she did not has as much as her cousins were getting though she did not complain.) Once we arrived at her apartment, she invited us in for juice. At first, we declined as not to put her out but when she asked a second time, we didn't want to offend and accepted her generous offer. Never had I envisioned that I would get this 1:1 cultural opportunity. How lucky am I? As we sipped the cold mango juice served from a bright silver tray, she continued to tell us her story. Her husband had been in the army and worked with the Americans before they were offered passage to the U.S. She expressed her excitement to receive family here, but clearly still longed for her own parents and siblings who remain in harm's way. Our hostess was most gracious, kind, and generous.
A Bit of Background: KindWorks gets referrals from various re-settlement agencies and helps families stretch their allowance by furnishing their apartment through donations instead of having it reduced by the agency's purchases. I am told that the quality and quantity of donations have increased since KindWorks started and that the apartments are getting better and better each time. This one really looked like a home by the time all was done!
My Takeaways: (1) Welcoming legal refugees and asylum grantees into our country and communities is one of the most patriotic things we can do as Americans. (2) By the time these families arrive in the U.S., they are exhausted, afraid, and have been through experiences most of us cannot imagine. By turning a place into a home and including important things from their culture, like spices and tea pots in this instance, can make a new family feel welcome and invested in the U.S. right away. Let these tired and brave parents help their children adjust to their new world, not worry about setting up a proper home. (3) There are opportunities to learn in everything we do. I learned about a new culture and about aspects of the refugee process I didn't know before. What started as a hands-on physical project turned into work that changed my mind, heart, and soul.