Meet my sister-in-law, Cami. For years I have envied her natural beauty and quirky humor, her flawless scrapbooks and her killer homemade salsa. But only recently have I become aware that she is a world-class humanitarian...making a difference in the lives of people who need her most.
Here's her amazing story...
In October of last year, we packed up 20 backpacks with supplies and food, planning to distribute them among homeless people in downtown Phoenix. Then I read an article about some African refugees who had an apartment fire and lost everything.
We took the items to the resettlement agency and were shocked to find hundreds of refugees from around the world have been resettled here. We went to meet some of them and were hooked right away!
The kids are beautiful and charming and the adults appreciated some attention. The friends we met had only been here one month . They had very limited English, were lonely and obviously confused with our culture.
We started shopping garage sales for bicycles, clothing, shoes, and books. The first bike we delivered was to Sophonie, who was (and still is) our favorite refugee. When we gave him a nearly-new bike, you would've thought we had handed him the keys to a new Mercedes! He was thrilled and excited. It was an awesome feeling. Something so little meant so much to him.
2. What is the greatest need these people have? How can others help?
Initially, they really needed clothing and household goods because they were set up with only bare-minimum necessities.
A little background: The families we spend time with are from the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), who fled to neighboring Tanzania when the war came near their village. They spent 11 years in Mtabila Refugee Camp filled with thousands of other refugees. No electricity, no toilet, living in a very basic shelter packed with large families in one room and all sleeping on dirt floors. They applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
After many interviews and long waits, the families were resettled by The International Rescue Committee, a wonderful non-profit group operating all over the world (www.theirc.org).
With this group, the refugees receive a short orientation on our culture. Then they are given a job and have only 90 days to become self-sufficient.
Modern conveniences are a shock to these people. So, we familiarize them with light bulbs, screwdrivers, and thermostats. We focus strongly on friendship. We let them know they are welcome in America--that we are grateful they are safe now.
We also help them with English, take them to necessary appointments, explain public transportation and how to manage a bank account.
They really need patient friends who are willing to get down to basics with them.
3. How have you made this a family service project? What have your children learned from helping these people?
We committed to visit them regularly and we do not treat them as a charity case. We knew early on that we had made lifetime friends and we are very grateful.
My 11-year-old son, was pretty touched the first time we met them. He was nearly in tears after we took them some groceries and saw them dividing it up among the men and sharing it all. He thought it was amazing that REAL LIVE AFRICANS were living here in Phoenix!
My daughter was 3 and so, of course, she wanted all the girls (who were mostly dressed in boy clothes) to have pretty princess dresses and cute shoes. We cleaned out her closet and drawers, took books and toys and let her share them.
Our kids are now very aware that we are so lucky and that not everyone enjoys the luxuries we take for granted. My son commented, on his own, that he didn’t really need 3 skateboards, and then took one to his new friend, Elia. Now he teaches him skateboard tricks when we visit!
My husband, Ryan, teaches the men a lot. They ask him about his job, his car, and our home. They see him as an example of success in America and ask for his advice. Their drive and ambition inspire us so much.
4. What has been your most interesting experience? Any humorous stories?
Oh boy, there are many!
It’s interesting hearing them share their stories about life in Africa and the camps. When a family tells you their child died of a fever in the camp, or that their mother was killed in the war, it is so shocking. And yet, unfortunately, it is all too common for them.
There are a lot of funny moments, too. My trip with a refugee woman to her first ever OB/GYN appointment offered many uncomfortable moments as I tried to prepare her for the doctor and the process... but I won’t go into that!
The refugees think our “white man” hair is strange. They like to touch our heads and feel our hair.
Ryan had the funniest experience yet. He was loading our friends into the car, when a young Somalian boy stopped him. He asked Ryan why the Congolese family was in our car. Ryan said, "They are our friends and they are coming to our house." The boy told Ryan to be careful, then slowly walked away, motioning Ryan toward him.
Ryan followed and the boy warned, “Those people are from Congo. They speak Swahili. They EAT people. Be very careful!”. Ryan could hardly contain himself.
To this day, no one has tried to eat us!
5. How have you worked through cultural and language differences?
The language is tough. Swahili is hard to understand, but we are learning basic words and phrases. Their English improves every time we see them and we are so impressed. Many of them speak numerous languages and are very intelligent. Also, there is a language hotline I can call with a translator for doctor appointments, or other times I really need it.
One cultural difference, our friends explained that in Africa, you never refer to someone by name, only their relation. (So, I would not be “Cami”, I would be the “wife of Ryan”, or “sister of Brad”.) They explained this is taken so seriously, that the police would come if you referred to someone by name! We suddenly understood why they had been so hesitant to give us their names when were first collecting information.
Another difference is their culture is very open and inviting to all people. Children commonly come and go from different families’ apartments and everyone cares for each other, like a big family unit. (Very unlike America where many people have never met their neighbors!)
To be honest though, it seems to me, that we are more alike than different. The mothers love their children. The fathers want success for their families. The children laugh and giggle and play just like my kids do. We are really all the same-- just with different backgrounds, environments, culture, skin color and opportunities.
6. Has this service changed your political views? How does it make you feel about being an American citizen?
I’m so much more aware.
I’m grateful to have become more educated and very focused on the plight of the poor, the victims of war and rape, the millions of orphans due to AIDS, war and poverty. There are so many people on our planet without a voice and without a chance to escape their situation. You and I could have begun life in their circumstances, but we didn’t. We are comfortable and safe/ But as far as I can tell, we haven’t done anything to deserve that luxury other than being born on American soil.
I realize now just how self-centered and ridiculous our culture is. I despise much of the media simply because I have to search high and low to find information about The Congo, Africa, and refugees. Yet there’s no lack of breaking news about celebrity drama.
I didn’t realize how sheltered I was from things happening RIGHT NOW in the world. Specifically, the war in DRC, where more people have been killed than any other war since the Holocaust, but which is unknown to most of the world. The Congolese have been forsaken by everyone.
I am very aware now that we were ALL created as brothers and sisters of this world – no one bigger or better than the next. I love this quote by Virginia Woolf, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world”.
I know that we are very blessed in America, and are therefore given the responsibility and opportunity to help those less fortunate, wherever they may be in this world.
Also, I've learned true gratitude. Until now, I’d never really stopped to be grateful for basics like clean water, plenty of food, medical care, education, choices and opportunity. It’s really quite amazing to watch someone experience these things for the first time.
7. As others read this and are inspired to help, how would you encourage them to find and help refugees in their own communities?
Refugees are being resettled in many large cities across the U.S. and in Europe. The first step is becoming aware of refugees in your community. Be open and kind to them. They have suffered beyond imagination and just need a smile and encouragement.
My husband and I both volunteer for The IRC as well as a small local agency. We’ve been told that many Iraqi families are going to be resettled soon. They have been displaced by the war--hiding in Jordan and Syria, where they are not welcome and cannot stay.
We also have a lot of Burmese refugees due to unrest in Myanmar (you may have heard about the mistreatment of the Myanmar junta towards the Burmese peasants after the recent cyclone). The Burmese families in Phoenix had been in refugee camps for 31 years (No, that is not a typo!) before coming here. Thirty-one years is my entire lifespan and I cannot comprehend the difficulties they face here in America.
I would say it’s most important to have compassion and understanding.
If you are interested in helping refugees, google “refugee resettlement” in your local area. Also, I recommend http://www.theirc.org/ and check “where we work” for your local area. Some groups have a mentoring program in which you can be matched with a family. It’s an incredible opportunity!
P.S. A quick update on Sophonie, who received his first bike last year... He recently passed his driver's permit exam with flying colors and we have been giving him driving lessons. At 26 years old, he had never been behind the wheel of a car.
This last weekend, Sophonie paid $2,500 cash for his first car and we couldn’t be more proud. It’s a long, hard road for him and his family, but we feel like we’re witnessing a miracle.
Thanks, Cami! YOU are a miracle-maker. Love you!
Cami & Ryan are in the process of adopting a Congolese child and have just started a blog to document it all, check it out here.
To see Sophonie and his wife singing a “song about Jesus and peace”, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhXqnlBILzk. )