My internship at Church World Service taught me many lessons. I have always been interested in working with people different from me. Taking a trip abroad in high school opened my eyes to other cultures. Growing up, my school district was always ethnically and religiously diverse. In turn, my friends were often people with much different backgrounds than me. In college, I became more interested in international studies and specifically wanted to work in the field of immigration and refugee resettlement.
I learned about the internship opportunity from a friend who previously volunteered for the organization. I kept it in the back of my mind until my senior year when I embarked on my refugee project for both my journalism class and the university’s newspaper. It turned into a weekly series of articles. I reached out to Church World Service for interviews. They were helpful and at the end of the interview, I gave myself a plug and inquired about internships. Soon, I was a Cuban/Haitian Resettlement intern my last semester of college.
I mainly worked with the clients that I could communicate with, the Cuban people. There were other times where I worked with Somali, Burmese, Nepali, Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese clients.
The Cuban clients I encountered were kind and always opened their homes to me. I spent the whole day with a Cuban couple who needed an advocate to assist them with going to the courthouse for paperwork. I drove them around all day, translated for them, and helped them with any questions about the process that they had. As we were waiting in line, a woman overheard them speaking Spanish and scolded them saying “you are in America now, you need to learn English.” I was horrified but I ignored the woman. I hoped they didn’t understand what she said. I would hate for that to be their welcome into the country. The clients were not inconveniencing her; they were simply speaking their native language near her.
When I dropped them off at their home, they gave me an open invitation to visit them at any time. They would help me improve my Spanish and I would help them with their English. I never took them up on their offer, but I always thought it was so kind for them to try to help me when they were out of their element.
A lot of the clients were kind and appreciative of the services we provided them. Often, I would walk clients down to the clothing bank so they could pick up weather appropriate clothing. A friend who was helping me walk with a group of 20 clients was joking around with the one Cuban guy. She held up a cheesy t-shirt proclaiming “number one dad”. He laughed and accepted the shirt. It was funnier when he actually brought it home with him. The same client offered us cookies and soda when we sat down with him for a 30 day home visit.
Home visits typically included much more than just a quick inspection of the apartment the clients were residing in. Clients always wanted to entertain and welcome the guests they had in their home. A Cuban woman turned to me and asked me if I was married. I told her no. She told me it wasn’t a problem because she would teach me how to make Cuban coffee so I can attract a Cuban man to marry. I just nervously laughed at her offer.
A type of comicon was in town and I had to explain to the clients what was going on. I didn’t have the specific Spanish vocabulary to explain it to them, so I called the cosplayers “characters”. The clients were very fascinated by it as we drove around the city. After my work was done at my internship, some days I took to myself to relax. I often walked around the city and ate the food I wanted to do or did some exploring on my own. Typically, I would run into clients doing the same and taking pictures in front of fountains to later post on Facebook.
While waiting in line at the Community Action Program, a client told me that she thought my hair and face was very beautiful. I found it humbling that this nervous woman who was implanted in another country was so willing to be kind and brighten my day. Another Cuban client held an umbrella over my head as the rain splattered on his jacket.
It is difficult adapting to a new culture especially when you have seen horrible human rights infractions in your home country. The Cuban people still loved Cuba. They praised it for being so beautiful and the place where their hearts remain. At the same time, they were eager to start their lives over in the US because of the Cuban government. They talked to me about their harrowing boat trip over and being separated from their families. Still, they are so thankful for the opportunity to live in the US. Some clients proudly wore American flag-clad shirts and vigorously paid attention in their ESL classes.
The interaction between different cultural groups was especially beautiful to see. Though neither group knew the other group’s native language, I witnessed Somali and Cuban families communicating. They mainly did so through hand gestures and pointing. When finding new clothing at the clothing bank, the one Cuban client “gifted” a Somali man a pair of brand new sneakers that were donated. The Somali man smiled in response and tapped the Cuban man on the shoulder.
Some days in the office, I was able to interact with other clients. A Sudanese family of 10 needed assistance at the clothing bank. The youngest girl was a pistol. She pranced around the church basement, modeling her new clothing for her audience. As we waited outside, she made funny faces in the mirror of a parked car.
With all this toxic, political rhetoric about Syrian refugees being resettled in the US, you think there would be little community support. That is incorrect. An increase of Syrian refugees is just starting to appear in the US. One of the few Syrian families resettled in the area received a warm welcome. The community came out in force and dropped off several bags of clothing, house supplies, and culturally appropriate food. In return, the Syrian family spent $20 on sugar in order to bake them thank you gifts. The story brought tears to my eyes and restored my faith in humanity.
A take away from my internship was: I need to help people the rest of my life. Working in refugee resettlement opened my eyes to possibility that I can handle this work. I was passionate about it and having this experience showed me what career I want to get into. Church World Service even hired some former refugees as employees. I enjoyed working in an environment where all the employees wanted to make a difference in the world and had like-minded ideologies.
Note: the featured image is a Bedouin tent in Morocco, not a tent in a refugee camp.