My friend Cathy and I have been neighbors and co-workers for over three years. Her daughter Becca, a first year at UVA, is adored by my children and has been given Awesome Babysitter status two years in a row. Cathy and her family are all the things neighbors should be: kind, considerate, and helpful, but recently I’ve learned their “neighborhood” extends far beyond my own. Cathy’s work with the refugee organization International Neighbors is admirable and endearing, but also entirely rewarding as you’ll discover below. Her unexpected friendship with the Afghan family she supports is a lovely picture of hope in an often dark world, and offers lessons of gratitude for all of us. Welcome, Cathy, to the blog!
Tell us about International Neighbors and your role there?
International Neighbors is a volunteer-run organization that was started by a former teacher who saw a need to better support Charlottesville’s refugee population. Her vision was that we would work as a community to help our neighbors settle into life in our town. They offer a variety of support systems to help these new residents find a path to be self-sufficient. The International Refugee Committee is the organization that helps refugees safely find places to live here in Charlottesville. International Neighbors helps these new residents not just survive once here, but thrive in our community. They have many different roles for volunteers. Our family signed up to be matched with a family as a “family friend.” Our commitment is to spend time with them twice a month for six months to a year.
What are you doing on a regular basis to support Rahimullah and his family?
We were matched with a family from Afghanistan with four young children. The father is the only English speaker. Although we thought we would just take them to some playgrounds and practice English with the children a few times a month, we soon found ourselves wanting to not only do those kinds of activities but also support them in many other ways. We established a friendship very easily and began checking in with each other several times a week. We have been able to help them with basic needs: finding them a window AC unit, used car seats, and a cell phone. I have helped them navigate the organization of bills, online applications, and paperwork from school. We have let them know about holidays and days off of school. I explained that they may hear fireworks on July 4 and was aware that this might cause them stress after living in a war-torn country. My husband helped Rahimullah search for and obtain a job through some community organizations. We had no idea about the services and programs in our community so we learned as we went.
It has been very stressful for them, especially Rahimullah, to move here. I can’t quite imagine leaving all of my family and friends with only a few suitcases to start a new life. Rahimullah did not find a job right away and the stress of being the sole head of household (he formerly lived in a home with extended family and his father ran the household) has been hard for him. He is a proud man and it has been hard for him to ask for help.
Like any friendship, we are there for them when they need support but we also have fun with them. They often invite us to eat with them and always serve us tea each time we stop by. One of our most recent fun activities was introducing them to Halloween. We invited them to come to our neighborhood to experience Trick or Treating. I asked friends for used costumes and their kids had so much fun trying on different options. We started at our home handing out candy so they could see what happens at each house and then we headed out to Trick or Treat. The kids were so excited and amazed by the whole evening.
What is one thing you’ve done for this family on a very practical level?
As a teacher and mom, I am very comfortable in schools. I went with them to their school’s Open House in August as three of the children visited their new classrooms. I helped explain things like the bus, lunch routines, take-home folders, and emergency forms. They have great teachers and a lot of support from their school; I act as a liaison between the parents and the teachers. With the children just learning English, sometimes they are not able to ask their teachers questions during school. I look through their backpacks regularly and explain which papers need to be returned to school and which things can stay at home. The kids love to show off all that they are learning and doing in school. Their English is taking off!
In this season of Thanksgiving, how does your work with a refugee family cultivate gratitude in your own life?
I don’t even know where to begin to explain how grateful I am for this new friendship. It has reminded me of our many comforts as a native speaking American that I often take for granted. I am so thankful to live in a safe environment where I am allowed to worship, vote, and speak out without fear. We have a network of friends that not only support us when needed but also have helped support our new friends with everything from car seats, sewing machines, bathing suits, gift cards, used clothing and household items. Although I have been overwhelmed at times by how much they need to learn and endure, I am so grateful for all that I have received because of this friendship. They have taught me about courage, hospitality, faithfulness, and optimism. I have been taken out of my comfort zone many times and gained patience and perspective.
How can people get involved in a similar way?
There are so many ways to get involved with International Neighbors. You do not have to make a huge time commitment like we have! Check out their website to see all the ways that you can be a great neighbor to these families, either with your time or your resources.