15 years ago today, still reeling from the loss of her brother-in-law in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Carolyn Manning was drawn to a powerful image of a young refugee family on the front page of a local newspaper. This mother, father, and four children, with a fifth on the way, sat together in a noticeably barren and unwelcoming apartment.
Carolyn would come to find out that the young family had fled Afghanistan after also suffering at the hands of the same terrorist organization that had brought down the Twin Towers, killing her brother-in-law. She yearned to connect with this family who uniquely shared in her family’s suffering. This image and Carolyn’s subsequent actions were seeds of compassion that grew into the Welcome to America Project.
Check out this video about how the Welcome to America Project got started.
Photo credit to Rick D'Elia of D'Elia Photographic
Two Sundays ago The Welcome to America Project held a fundraiser celebrating the rich culture of Burundi. Delicious food and inspiring stories filled the evening. One highlight of the night was the performance of a drumming group called the Komezakaranga (which means heritage). The syncopation of the powerful drums sounded like heartbeats as the troop members sang, danced, and pounded on their instruments. The drummers gracefully balanced their drums, which are made of hollowed tree trunks and painted like the Burundi flag, on their heads- which is quite a talent! The Komezakaranga drummers aim to spread a piece of Burundi wherever they perform in order to keep their culture alive. To find out more about these amazing drummers, visit komezakaranga.com.
Adopt-a-Family is an annual event hosted by the Welcome to America Project. It aims to bring American families together with their new refugee neighbors. Participants can share their favorite holiday traditions, bring gifts or treats, and talk about life in their respective countries. This year’s event was held on December 15th. The following is one volunteer family’s experience.
On Saturday, while it was wet and cold outside, my husband and our two teenaged boys went to visit a family of seven that fled Iraq and arrived in Phoenix only four months ago. We approached their modest home in North Phoenix just as the translator arrived, and emptied our car of the gifts that we had brought in hopes of bringing some comfort to this new family in their new home.
Immediately, we were ushered into the family’s living room where the grandmother and mother asked if they could bring us a warm drink. Shortly, coffee, tea and a plethora of home baked goods – including some Iraqi specialties – arrived in beautiful glass cups and on silver platters.
While we were nibbling on the goodies, the children came in to say hello. We mentioned that most of the packages were for them and that, if it was OK with the parents, they were welcome to open the presents. The two older girls dragged the boxes into their room and a few minutes later came out with big grins on their faces and kind words of thanks. They even helped the younger twins open their gifts – one of which was a noisy toy that was happily enjoyed for the rest of our visit!
The family had escaped Iraq due to safety concerns during and after the war. Thankfully, they had family already here in Phoenix and have been able to adjust quickly. The two older girls are thriving in school and the younger ones seem quite well adjusted. We talked about the differences between Iraq and America, and found that we had many interests in common despite the distance between the country in which we were raised.
For our family, reaching out to a neighbor, sitting and having coffee and tea, watching children open presents, and knowing that our small tokens made someone feel welcome in our country, helped us to celebrate the holiday season for what it truly is – a time to remember that Love came into the world to show us how to live with one another. We are grateful to Julia, Ophelia and The Welcome to America Project for giving us a chance to live our commitment to love and care for our neighbors.
– The Thomas Family
Submitted by Peter Tlale
Volunteering with The Welcome to America Project really impacted my life in a progressive way. It made me think of how privileged I am to be residing in a country with less violent behaviors compared to other countries globally. One aspect that opened my eyes was the fact that a person does not have to be rich in order to make a difference in other people’s lives; it just takes effort, sacrifice, and putting another person’s needs before your own.
It is really heartbreaking because refugees do not ask for their country to be affected by so much political instability and unending problems. They are robbed of ever seeing their family members again and some do not have the desire to go back to their country. These refugees are on the verge of breaking but still must seek employment and learn a new language, which is why I think it is up to us to make the adjustment easier.
This situation makes me think of difficult questions. What if it was me who was told to shut down my business or else my family would die? Would I have survived this traumatic experience? What can I do to help refugees as they flock to my country?
I also got to see the real face of American people, their humanitarian spirit towards others. Engaging yourself in community activities shapes a society. As an individual it inspires you to do more and give back to the community because there is always someone who is crying for help. Let us unite and be responsible citizens.
“Laughter has no foreign accent” Paul Lowney
While I have always loved this quote, these words took on a new meaning two weeks ago on a delivery to a family from Bhutan. The father greeted us eagerly in the parking lot and cheerfully welcomed us (the volunteers) into his home. After the furniture was arranged just right, all twenty of us huddled together in the living room to hear about the family’s journey.
The father spoke some English but most of the communication came from contagious smiles, glistening eyes, and joyful laughs. Any small moment of silence was broken by a rich laugh from the father that seemed to say just about everything. It was not a laugh of humor, although there were many of those as well. It was almost as if he possessed so much joy on the inside that it overflowed as laughter; laughter that expressed his relief to finally be safe with his family, laughter that showed his gratefulness, and laughter that revealed his excitement for a new life in the United States.
The delivery with this family was something special. I discovered the power of a laugh and the connection that it brings between people of any language.
Comfort: a condition of feeling pleasure and ease.
This is something all humans seek. However, I have recently discovered that when we glorify comfort, it can lead to an apathetic and static lifestyle. Seeking comfort above all else separates us from reality and keeps us from venturing outside ourselves to gain perspective.
Refugees are people whose lives are far from comfortable. They have endured the pain of losing family members. They have traveled hundreds of miles to a foreign land not knowing a single soul. They have faced persecution and been forced to leave their homes. Yet through all of this, the refugees I have met exhibit immense joy and strength. Their suffering has led to personal growth, which can only be brought upon by difficulties.
So let’s get uncomfortable.
The notion is not to be uncomfortable merely for the sake of being uncomfortable, but for a greater cause. It could be for freedom, for a dream, for family, or for faith. Whatever it may be, don’t be afraid to step outside of ease and experience life.
I will end with a simple yet inspiring quote by author Isabel Allende. “Comfort is overrated. There is nothing wrong with a little pain.”