They come from Eritrea, Thailand, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan – mostly Afghanistan. None of the countries in which my faltering but growing Spanish would be useful. And no, Duolingo doesn’t offer Pashto lessons – I checked. I wish I could at least say hello.
It’s my third day volunteering at the refugee center. Today I’m a little braver when it comes to trying to pronounce their musical, unfamiliar names on the sign-in sheet, to call out who is next. They come for help to find a job, sign up for English classes or sewing lessons, pick up free sanitary pads or diapers (once a month) or condoms (unlimited, no questions asked), decipher letters from government bureaus, print out a form, or FAX documentation for Medicaid or food assistance.
Men with dark curly hair arrive together, usually with one of the bunch speaking some English, sometimes bringing a wide-eyed child who clings close to their daddy. Women wear jeans or hijab, sometimes pushing a stroller, sometimes with a gaggle of well-behaved children. One veiled woman has all ten fingertips dyed red up to the first knuckle. I wonder what that means but I love it, whatever it is. Wordlessly she hands me a laminated card with her name and address so I can look her up in the system and fetch her monthly allotment of diapers. I discover that you can tell from her eyes when a woman is smiling, even from behind a veil.
An Afghan woman with dead eyes and brittle hair hands me her paper. The deadline was three weeks ago. Her English is pretty good, but when she gets stuck for words, her olive-skinned daughter, maybe seven years old, translates for her. The daughter seems somehow oblivious to the weight of her responsibility, telling me about her day at school with the same sparkle as when she translates for her mother. Occasionally the little girl gets serious when she translates “missed the deadline because I was in the hospital on the deadline date.” The mother turns to me and whispers “breast cancer.” I wish no little girl ever had to know the words “documentation deadline,” and especially not “mom’s diagnosis.”
I write down the mom’s statement, using whiteout liberally as the situation becomes clearer through her halting English and her daughter’s translation, as they try to make me understand. We all look relieved when I finally get it right. I watch the mom’s face brighten a bit as we connect, woman to woman. The mom signs the statement; I FAX it with the documentation she has brought. She gives me a smile and takes her daughter’s hand as the little girl bounces out of the office.
These resettled refugees are largely former US government employees from Afghanistan. These men supported our military operations, serving as translators and contractors. In exchange, they were promised refugee status in the USA, since it’s no longer safe for them to remain in their home country, being considered traitors by some. These are legal refugees, carefully vetted in an application process that often takes several (dangerous) years while they wait in Afghanistan for approval. And now they are here. It’s simply America making good on our promise.
I think about these women, children, and men: what they have seen, what they have fled, what they carry in their hearts. I want our community to be a welcoming place for them to heal, to grow, to become, to contribute their God-given talents to the world, just like all of us.
Two generations ago, this skipping little girl could have been my grandmother, translating for her Swedish-speaking mother who was trying to make her way in Galveston (the Texas equivalent of Ellis Island).
Two millennia ago, this refugee family could have been the family of the infant Jesus Himself, fleeing persecution in His homeland, seeking safety in the far-off country of Egypt. Seldom do I have the blessed opportunity to live so directly the Savior’s words, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). I feel it when I am with these beloved children of God; this is holy work.
Relief Society General President Camille N. Johnson said, “When we serve our families and our neighbors, we are part of a global cause. As followers of Jesus Christ, we strive to embrace His two great commandments: to love God and our neighbor. With the generous support of Church members and friends, we embrace the opportunity to do the things that He would do if He were here.”
At the entrance to the refugee center, a sign is stuck in a pot in front of the white wrought-iron gate. In Arabic, Spanish, and English, the sign reads, “No matter where you are from, we are glad you’re our neighbor.”
When I look at that refugee child translator and her mom, I see divine daughters of God, my eternal sisters, made in the image of Heavenly Parents, just like me. Looking into their eyes feels like a reflection of eternity.