This year will mark my 25th year working with refugees. I often get asked how I got in to this. As with so many things in life, I didn’t dream up this path from the beginning.
In my early 20s I was so desperate to travel. It was my unrequited passion. It took me years to save up enough money just to move within the US which first took me to Los Angeles. While living in Cleveland, I decided if I couldn’t travel to experience different cultures I would volunteer with foreigners living in my area. I became a volunteer TESOL instructor with new migrants. My first experience was with a family of Hmong refugees. From that moment on I was hooked. I didn’t really even know what a refugee was at the time. I taught English to the grannies. They were so cheerful and dedicated and generous. One Thanksgiving they must have made me 100 spring rolls to share with my family. When we had challenges communicating, which was rare, the kids age 5 and 7 would translate with their perfect English. It was a cheerful loving family in spite of the years of hardship they endured.
When I moved to San Francisco, I volunteered with Refugee Transitions. Even though I was a full time working mom I was able to get placed with a family that enabled me to take my son after work one night a week. He played with my student’s little girls. By then I was creating the type of income that was affording me far more travel, including a move to London for 3 years. When I returned to San Francisco, I began volunteering with the International Rescue Committee. An extended family of Meskhetian Turks changed the course of everything for me. They remain very dear to my heart to this day and I enjoy hearing stories of their lives, careers and families over the years. My family soon became their extended family. What a great example to bring to America. One of my happiest moments was when the father obtained his drivers license or when the mother shared her photo album of her life and family while in exile. You wouldn’t believe the amazing food they so generously prepared for me. I always felt like I was benefiting far more than they were from the experience.
With a move to Los Angeles, I carried on with the International Rescue Committee now with an ambition to relocate back to London to get a Masters in Refugee Studies. It seemed important that I have a more richer understanding of the refugee experience if I was to carry-on working with them. London is now my home and I continue to make time to volunteer with refugees, and I now have an inspiring extended family of refugees I continue to support.
I’m grateful for that first opportunity in Cleveland. It introduced me to a population outside my immediate circles and I’m a far better person with a richer life because of it. What mystery is unfolding on your path of life?
If you are interested in volunteering with refugees, do let me know. Whether you are located in the UK or states I can connect you with the opportunities.