Our Year with a Refugee Family

by Teresa Sherwood

Just nine months ago, our Refugee Welcoming Team met the “Sanye”* family. This family of nine is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo but had lived for 20 years in a refugee camp in Rwanda. They arrived at DFW late in the night in the midst of an April thunderstorm. Strangers met them at the airport and drove through the storm in a strange city, to a strange apartment that would become their new home. When they walked through the door of that apartment, they found the blessing that the members of First Methodist Mansfield had prepared for them: freshly made beds for everyone, bathrooms filled with towels and soap and shampoo, a warm living room, a kitchen stocked with foods they were familiar with, a crock pot filled with a warm Congolese stew, backpacks ready for the school-aged children to take to their first day of class, a stuffed animal for a 5-year-old girl.

I met them for the first time the following morning, at the Social Security office. They were easy to pick out in the crowd; all nine in their best clothes. Only the oldest of the children, 24-year-old Patrick spoke English, and that on a very limited basis. But it quickly became obvious that Patrick was responsible for helping the entire family, including his parents, navigate the complicated refugee arrival system. A social worker walked him through a stack of papers, and each person met with a Social Security representative. As I watched the process, I kept wondering how much they had slept in the last two days.

A few hours later we were back at the apartment and I was surprised to see how much had been done in the few hours they had lived there. A large pot filled with a great smelling pasta was being kept warm on the stove. Over the next hour, I answered the following questions:

  • The refrigerator is not to be turned off and on; it always remains on.
  • The freezer is so cold that it makes the food hard and it must be thawed before using. We placed the package of frozen fish in cold water and it was ready to pan fry by the time I left. (But frozen was still a weird concept).
  • The shampoo is for cleaning your hair and the conditioner is to make it soft. (Realized we didn’t need conditioner).
  • The microwave is complicated and we will talk about it at a later time. (Realized we didn’t need a microwave).
  • All of the items in this cabinet are different kinds of cleaning products. (Realized we had brought too many cleaning products, creating unnecessary confusion).

As I left that day, Patrick was cooking fish, his 17-year-old sister was outside with the young boys playing with the soccer ball we had brought for them, 5-year-old Ketia was singing and dancing, Mom was smiling broadly and hugging me, and Dad was sitting in the corner looking shell shocked.

We continued to check in on the family from time to time, bringing books and playing games with the kids, practicing English with Mom, showing them how to report apartment problems, answering Patrick’s questions, bringing a computer for the family, having a Coke float party (mixing Coke and ice cream was not initially seen as a good idea).
So, nine months later, this is how our new friends are doing in their new home:

  • Mom, Dad, and all 3 of the older children have jobs. Their work schedules have to be juggled so that the younger children are never at home alone. They also had to get jobs that could be reached on the bus line or with the one car they share, and jobs that accommodate their limited but growing English skills.
  • They were financially self-sufficient within 4 months (one of the requirements of the refugee program).
  • The three middle boys are in school and doing very well.
  • Five-year-old Ketia is still singing and dancing. She can use a computer to find You-Tube videos of her favorite Rwandan praise singers, allowing her to put on a concert for us when we visit.
  • The family has paid the US government back all of the money for their airfare (another requirement of the refugee program).
  • They have bought a used car.
  • They have other Rwandan and Congolese friends in the area who have helped them assimilate.

I was back for a visit recently, where we had a chance to talk with the help of a fluent translator. These are some of the things we learned when we were able to share in the words we each know:

  • During this entire time, the family has not understood who we were.They assumed we worked with Refugee Services, but could not understand the difference between us and the caseworkers. I told them that we were friends from church who just wanted to make them feel welcome and help them adjust to their new home. We had provided all the things in their apartment, prayed for them, and tried to help them adjust to America. When I shared this, Dad (who had never spoken or even smiled much), leaned toward me with tears in his eyes and said through the translator, “I am humbled that you remembered my family. Thank you.”
  • We have worried about Patrick because he has seemed to carry the burden of his family’s care and he often seemed sad. I shared this and asked if he was happy. He said that he is happy that his family is doing well, but he is disappointed with his work. When he lived in the refugee camp, he had worked as a nurse. In America, he works in a warehouse. He has a deep desire to have a job providing care for people, but he realizes that his English must improve before he can make the next steps toward that goal.

Communication is a wonderful thing; we misunderstand so much when we are not able to communicate clearly and from the heart.

Our Welcoming Team has had many discussions as we tried to assess how things were going in our relationship with this family. As I reflected on our most recent discussion, this is one lesson I took away from this experience:

We learned the importance of simplicity. So many of the “things” that we thought would be nice to have, were in fact overload in an already overwhelming environment. In the end, the things that mattered most were smiles, and hugs, and listening, and Coke floats.

Pray for all people who must make a new life, whatever that may be. May God give them companions on the journey, Good Samaritans who offer hope and renew their spirits.

*Name changed