If someone had asked me what I thought would be the most influential experience of my freshman year I probably would have said something about living in a dorm or being completely independent for the first time. Never would I have imagined that a class would be so instrumental in how my character would develop. Most people imagine large lecture halls and a droning teacher when they think of college classes; however, UNIV 190 is the opposite of that perception. The small class fostered discussion and understanding of topics that are too often ignored, and it is universally understood that the majority of the learning would occur outside of the classroom. Through the lessons taught in service work and class, I have come to understand that people change who we are, and that life experiences are only influential because of the people involved in them.
I often reflect upon the first time my partner, Emily, and I met our refugee. The kindness of her smile was unparalleled by any other person I have met. I was beyond nervous; for I knew little about Congolese culture, and was terrified I would say or do something that would offend this young woman. Only four years my senior, my refugee had already lived a life that many Americans would have trouble relating to. Nevertheless, I decided to try and familiarize myself with her. At first this was difficult because though her English was exceptional for only having lived in the United States for three months, it was hard to converse. After a few very awkward and broken conversations, I found that it was easier for Emily, Julia, and I to communicate with gestures as well as words. After assisting with some homework and saying goodbye, the three of us left with the promise to return the following week.
As our weekly visits continued, I came to find that you don’t always need language to build a relationship with someone. Aspects of character that often go unnoticed were highlighted in this young woman’s behavior partially because of the fact that we couldn’t always have conversations. For example, one weekend our refugee was sick and had been for a few weeks. Nonetheless, she managed to make us an entire meal without once asking for our help. I like to think that she was thanking us for assisting in her job search and ESL homework, but instead of merely saying thank you she made an elaborate, and delicious, meal.
I fear that too many people shy away from working with refugees for they fear the cultural differences and the language barrier are obstacles that are too great to overcome. If only these people were to spend a few hours with a refugee family they would see that their beliefs are dramatically misconstrued, and the lack of language can actually be essential in building a relationship. The biggest challenge that refugees face is their adjustment to the American lifestyle and culture. I for one was terrified to begin working with refugees, and had it not been a requirement for this class I doubt I ever would have. This is the problem that needs to be fixed, for without cultural brokers and people to help them become assimilated these valuable men and women may be lost in this new country. We can’t just expect people to come to America and know how to live an American life when they have never even been exposed to it. We need to realize that it is our duty to help them.
In the two and a half months that I have been working with refugees I have come to understand something very important. They are not only tough and resilient people that are eager to learn, but they are kind and accepting as well. They are warm and express gratitude in ways that remind you that you can make a difference. As my life in Chicago continues, I hope to continue to work with refugee families. I want to help them become oriented and comfortable in their new home. However, I understand that I am but one person, and the more that are willing to help the more good can be done. I hope to expand refugee outreach on the Loyola campus, as well as raise awareness in the community. I hope to dispel all misconceptions and show people the reason that there is no greater good than to change lives. I had previously mentioned that this experience made me realize that the people in our lives create us far more than the actual experiences. I know this to be true because one woman was able to make me overcome my fears and show me that the greatest reward is to see the positive effect that you have on another’s life.