This semester I have been involved in the International Cultural Leadership Project. It brings together American and international students, mostly those from the SKEMA French business school. We do various activities together, from social and cultural events, to discussions and lectures, to volunteering around the community.
I participated in a semester-long project called the “Welcome Home Refugee Project.” It is funded by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). Here is a description of the project, taken from their website:
“The Welcome Home Project is an opportunity for community members and groups to welcome newly-arrived refugees to their new home. Volunteers secure furniture and household goods and then set up a home for newly arriving refugees. From the moment the family arrives in the US, their new home is ready and waiting for them! Since 2008, groups in the Triangle area have shared this experience as a way to make a positive impact in the community and in the lives of newly-arrived refugees.”
The USCRI also offers help to refugees, such as language classes and job recommendations.
As for us students, we were given a budget to buy all the items needed to set up the apartment for the family. Here is the flyer for the program, including the shopping days.
The first day, we went shopping for the bedrooms and bathrooms. The way the program works is that we do not know which family we are getting. We set up the apartment, and they send over whichever family is ready when we are. Keeping this in mind, we were not sure what to expect. We were told that there would be at least two parents and two children (ranging from baby to teenager). It was difficult to guess what the family would like. We were told, “Don’t buy anything you wouldn’t buy for yourself.” With a conservative budget, this was difficult. We also all had different tastes when it came to decor. We went to K-Mart, Big Lots, a furniture warehouse, and a small furniture shop in Cameron Village. One issue that arose was that we were all coming from different viewpoints of what we should buy for the family. I, for example, was thinking about my family when they first came to the United States. They were poor, living on food stamps, in humble and simple living conditions. I look back at those times as happy and simple, and I was happy with the minimum. I saw the family as the same. Too much “stuff” or unnecessary luxuries would not make them feel at home, in my opinion. I did not want to buy too many decorations because the family should have a chance to add their own as time goes on. Other group members, on the other hand, did not agree with me. One small issue that shows this disagreement was over how many pillows to buy for the beds. Some group members wanted to buy two for each child, and four for the parents. I thought that it would be unnecessary and maybe even confusing to have that many pillows. From my point of view, if these people have been sleeping in refugee camps, probably in tents, too much “luxury” would cause mixed emotions. Or, if they are pragmatic, they would simply think that having that many pillows was unnecessary, and a waste. A lot of my apprehension was geared towards making sure that we did not impose our Western values on them, or be the cliché, “well-meaning Americans” who assumed that others want to live how we do. This could also be interpreted as me being stingy, and thinking that they do not deserve all of the “luxuries” that we have. Obviously this was not the case, but I understand how others would think that.
Another cultural sensitivity to keep in mind was the matter of personal/bathroom products. We bought razors for the female(s), but in many cultures, it is not customary for women to shave. This objection, in addition to many other, was met with the same general reply, “This is America. They’re gonna learn to do things how we do them.” Obviously, this is an insensitive remark. Unfortunately, it is also a true one. They will have to assimilate and learn our ways if they want to succeed here. From observing my family and other internationals abroad, I have noticed that they view assimilating as both a goal and a challenge. In fact, they will compete with one another to prove that one is more assimilated than the other. Language proficiency is an example of this. It appears that, in the eagerness of refugees and expatriates to assimilate, they tend to abandon their own culture in order to adopt their host culture. Either that, or they reject their host culture and create a world of their own (Chinatowns, for example). Ideally, it is best to blend the two cultures and be able to honor both of them. It is the most culturally sensitive thing to do, but also the most difficult.
Here is a picture of the group on the first shopping day:
The second day, we went shopping for the living room. We started at the flea market, but we could not buy most of the items because the vendors only accepted cash. Our organization/charity rules required that we used a card, so unfortunately we could not buy much there. Then we went to Target, where we bought most of the items that we needed. My main insistence was that we get a nice, big throw blanket for the couch. That sort of thing is really important to my family, so I was glad to contribute one to theirs. The family can gather on the couch and watch a movie, comfortable in their cozy blanket.
Here is a picture of us as the flea market. We bought pillows that had the NCSU logo, and one that said, “Bless your heart.” This was an attempt to share our Southern/local culture with them.
The third day, we went shopping for the kitchen and the dining room. Myself and a French student were labeled the, “kitchen table experts.” We insisted on getting a table we found at K-Mart, but unfortunately it was out of stock. We ended up getting a different kind of table at Target, which we didn’t particularly like. It was difficult to buy furniture when we did not know the size of the apartment. We also had to keep in mind all of the things that the family would use to cook. We predicted, for example, that they would probably come from a place where they eat a lot of rice.
He is a a picture of us on the third shopping day. We are standing in front of the storage unit where we kept all of the items that we bought. Throwing up Wolfpack signs, of course!
This is the storage unit, filled with all of the items we bought.
After all the shopping, we had to wait a while because of the government shut-down. The US was not accepting refugees for some time, so we had to wait a couple of weeks. Finally, we received word that a family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo would be coming. It would be the parents, plus three children (one of which was a toddler). That meant we also had to buy a crib and other baby items, but luckily we still had money left over. We arranged a day to move into and set up the apartment, and things went very well. I particularly enjoyed staying in the apartment to set things up while the others carried the items inside. Arranging the items and personalizing the rooms was very fun.
We started in the kids’ room, where I did most of my work.
Then the master bedroom. We put the crib in there so the baby would be close to the parents.
Here is the dining room area. I actually warmed up to the table and chairs we got, I think it looks great!
Here is the kitchen, complete with red towels (Go State!).
Here is the kids’ bathroom.
Most importantly, the living room. Here is a picture of all of us in it when we were done moving in.
Here are more pictures of the living room.
After we were done setting up the apartment, the next step was to go shopping for food to stock their kitchen, and to leave a warm meal waiting in the oven for them when they arrived. One of the students had direct knowledge of the local cuisine, so they prepared a culturally appropriate dish.
Here is a picture of the meal.
The final step was to meet the family! Unfortunately I was not able to meet them because I was out of town, but other group members were able to. The family was from the DRC, but they had spent the better part of the last decade in central Nigeria. I was told that the family spoke French, and two members spoke English as well.
Here are heart-warming pictures of the family, and the group members meeting them. They were very happy to be in America, and they loved their apartment. We all wished them the best of luck starting their new lives here. Fortunately their apartment complex was full of refugees, and when we were moving in, we met another family from that part of Africa who was looking forward to making new friends!
Here is the family.
Here are the group members with the family.
And here are the group members with the children!
All-in-all, this was a great experience. I would highly recommend this to anyone. I learned to see the world from the point of view of people who have been living in hardship, and who are eager to start fresh. I also gained a new appreciation for my own country. The fact that the United States welcomes in deserving people like this, and that charities take care of them, is so generous and selfless. I am so glad that I was able to make an impact on the lives of others. I wish the family well, and hope to stay in touch!