Do You Know Your Neighbor?

Joya Colon-Berezin and Sarah Ivory | February 24, 2014

Participants of “The Exchange” event in Greensboro, N.C., get to know each other over food, music and fun. Photo: Todd Drake

Participants of “The Exchange” event in Greensboro, N.C., get to know each other over food, music and fun. Photo: Todd Drake

Mother Teresa once said: “I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor?”

In saying this, she takes a biblical axiom – ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself’ – and emphasizes that concern for one’s neighbor is rooted in something deeper: relationship.

The CWS Immigration & Refugee Program is in the business of fostering relationships. This year alone the program will welcome approximately 7,000 refugees. Each newcomer will be resettled by a local office and community across the United States. These communities are engaged in creative ways of bringing together, and building relationships between, native-born Americans and diverse refugee newcomers.

This week the CWS resettlement affiliate in Greensboro, N.C., in partnership with other local non-profits, collaborated on one such event called The Exchange. It is meant to be a fun, interactive space for younger adults representing Greensboro’s diverse community. They come together around food, music and fellowship.

During Valentine’s week, The Exchange celebrated the theme of love. It brought together more than 60 guests from at least 10 different countries of origin. In one room, pairs made portrait drawings of one another; illustrating “how they saw one another” and “what made them beautiful.” In another room, stood a “New Friend” photo booth and a “Friend Me” station where new friends could connect via Facebook.

And the most popular activity?  A “Be the DJ” stand where guests played YouTube music videos and danced together with their new friends. Some were teaching their native-born friends how to do the Ethiopian shoulder shimmy, and others were teaching their foreign-born friends how to line dance.

Among the guests was a refugee from Eritrea who had been welcomed by CWS last September. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury in his home country due to a bullet wound to the head. It left him without sight in one eye and caused daily suffering from migraines. He also experienced a deep personality shift that caused him to be overwhelmed with agitation and anger. Since arriving in the U.S. he has had a very difficult transition; going in and out of medical specialists with little improvement.

At The Exchange this man wasn’t thinking of himself as a person unfairly disabled by war. He wasn’t thinking about the doctors that agitate him, or about the medicine that gives him terrible side effects. He was able to pull up a favorite music video from home and feel, if only for a couple hours, like his old self again. That night he danced, and sang, in the middle of a crowd, with a huge smile across his face. It was the first time staff in Greensboro had seen him smile or laugh since they met him nearly six months ago.

When we make space for knowing our neighbors, the results can be not only transformative, but nearly miraculous.

Joya Colon-Berezin, Ecumenical Relations Coordinator, Immigration and Refugee Program, and Sarah Ivory, CWS Greensboro Director