Over the last several years we have been so blown away by the power of relationship that happens in the midst of our person-based programs that are a partnership between Refugee Care Collective, our incredible volunteer team, and the hard-working agencies that are responsible for the resettlement process in our city.
Our three distinct focuses often overlap, but that doesn’t mean we’re not finding the unique joy and hope each one of them mutually bring to participants – whether on the mentor or mentee side of the equation. We actually probably need a better word than, “mentor.” That word often communicates a one-sidedness to the relationship. What we so much more often find in relationships birthed out of these places we’re in is something much more beautiful and mutual. This is our heartbeat: to grow in community and be present with our newest neighbors, together.
In our English Language Learning program, this looks like gathering around the table or opening up Zoom together. It looks like digging into stacks of papers and pictures, vocabulary words and common phrases, and practicing over and over again. It looks like sticky notes all over the kitchen to remind the English speaker how to say something in their new friend’s language and reminds our newest community member how to say refrigerator in their growing list of words in English. It looks like gathering in the backyard at a six foot distance to listen to poetry and then practice writing poems in each other’s language. One new friend, recently arriving in Portland from a predominantly Russian speaking country, wrote an essay in English that went like this:
Freezer is cold and sunny on this wonderful day. Are you sleeping, dear friend? Wake up, beauty, please open your eyes. Your name is North Star, please show me. I remember the sound of sweeping snow and the yellow moon in the sky between the clouds, and you are sad. Now look out the window. Below the blue clouds, the mountains are beautiful. Sparkling snow under the sun and flakes down. The forest is getting dark, green Christmas trees under the snow, and the river sparkles under the ice. In the morning we glide along a snowy path with friends on a wild horse. We are going to visit wild fields, a green forest and a frozen lake. I love the shining white winter.
We absolutely love all of it. The words, the significance, the tangible product birthed out of new relationships and learning after arriving through resettlement. What a gift to be a witness to this!
In our Youth Mentorship program, growing together and being committed to presence with our new neighbors might look like figuring out the complexity that is high school education. For one of our mentors, this meant showing up night after night to tutor a student that had missed out on years of formal education as we often think of it in the United States. Entering into the midst of sophomore year with developing English skills wasn’t impossible, but it certainly wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Tutoring turned to school meetings, which turned into some big questions for the mentor in this relationship, as they wondered why the parents didn’t have a chance to be more involved. The mentor realized they had a chance to push for the school to hire an interpreter while bringing the dad of this young person to the next conference to hear for himself the growth his child was experiencing.
The night of the parent/teacher conference, with the child, parent, interpreter, and mentor present, the teacher had the opportunity to tell the single parent who was raising multiple kids in a brand-new-to-him country, that his daughter was getting all A’s and B’s in her classes. And further, that because of his resilience, determination, grit, his deep love for his child and partnership with incredible community members befriending and learning alongside his family, that all of the sacrifice on his part, was worth it.
Family mentorship, our longest relational program, has been a space we’ve seen presence exemplified time and time again over the years. Presence together in this space might mean sitting around a table drinking tea, or rallying communities to find couches and rugs to make things feel more like the home our new neighbors have dreamed of. It might mean helping make appointments and grocery shopping, while laughing through the aisles together. It might mean, like it did for one of our volunteers, calling your new-to-the-country friend every day, week after week, during your commute into work so you can practice interview questions, in order to support your friend in getting the job that will be a means to getting a car that signifies an independence that had never before felt possible.
We live for these moments. Moments that might be as mundane as anything else, but moments that remind us of the beauty and power of welcoming new friends home and choosing to walk alongside them, even as we welcome them to walking alongside us.