By the time I started college, I’d lived in six different cities and towns. My tendency for transience followed me into adulthood. While I like to think that I’m pretty good at moving now, I didn’t always feel that way. When I was young and moving around the Midwest, adjusting to each new place was a challenge. It turns out that new places can be pretty unwelcoming at times.
My familiarity with the loneliness that comes from being new to a place is part of what drew me to working with refugees. While I don’t know what it feels like to live in fear of persecution, I do know what it’s like to try and make a home while feeling unnoticed at best and unwanted at worst.
In Carmel, Ind., St. Peter’s United Church of Christ is doing what it can to make sure refugees resettling to the area don’t feel so alone. The church partners with Exodus Refugee Immigration, an affiliate of CWS, to mentor newly arrived refugees. “It’s sort of a calling,” says Barb James, a volunteer from St. Peter’s. “It’s just so important to welcome people.”
The idea of welcome can be a tricky idea to pin down. What needs to happen for a person to feel at home? It turns out not a whole lot. In 2008, Alison Strang and Alistair Ager published an article in the Journal of Refugee Studies that partially answered this question. For refugees in the two English towns they looked at, they found that “small acts of friendship appeared to have a disproportionately positive impact on perceptions.” These small acts were sometimes nothing more than being “recognized and greeted by others in the neighborhood.” A smile and a hello helped people feel more at home.
Can it really be that easy? A smile and a hello? Barb James thinks so. “It’s critical. To have someone to call and joke with and to cheer you up – You need that.”
Jessica Kroymann, Volunteer Coordinator at Exodus agrees, “Resettlement can be a lonely experience. Mentoring helps address that.”
“It’s not easy,” continues Ms. James, referring to the difficulties refugees experience during resettlement. “So even when there are frustrations, I remember that they’re scared and lonely and frustrated too.” She quickly adds, “Volunteers are really important for mental health.”
Hana, one of the adult children in the family Ms. James is currently mentoring, thinks about how different their experience would have been without mentors. She mentions the challenges of public transportation and the family’s concern about negotiating their first experience of sub-zero temperatures. “We are lucky,” she says. “This would have been too hard alone.”
If you’re interested in volunteering with refugees resettling to your area, check the CWS affiliate and office list for an office near you.
Erika Iverson works for CWS’s Immigration and Refugee Program in New York City.