In honor of Father’s Day: What I have learned from refugee fathers
I was born and raised in an area of Southeast Arkansas that was so small it couldn’t even be called a town.
Although this area will always hold a special place in my heart it is sorely lacking in diversity and led to me living a sheltered life, like not being exposed to many people from other cultures and backgrounds. Recognizing this as an issue that needed to be corrected in myself, and being a father of three who is trying to give my children the opportunities I missed out on as a child, when I heard there was a new organization being formed to help refugee families, our family started looking for a place to sign up.
A signup sheet, looking for people to be on a co-sponsor team for a refugee family, was hanging on the bulletin board at our church.
My wife and I signed up and we have been lucky to be associated with a team full of great people from multiple organizations. Our team not only consisted of members from our church but also from a local nonprofit with the mission of spreading compassion, members from a local Jewish temple, a local peace organization, and some students from the University of Arkansas. I think this diversity within our team has not only been good for helping to build new relationships within our community but it also has helped to make us a successful co-sponsor team by not having to rely solely on members from one organization to handle all the tasks for our new family.
Once our team was organized and trained we patiently waited to find out the details about our family. We finally got the word that our family had been identified and was coming, originally from the Congo.
We would be helping a father, mother, and son get settled in Northwest Arkansas in just a matter of weeks. It was an exciting and nerve-racking time.
During this same period, a couple of other refugee families had already arrived and started getting settled in. Luckily, also during this time our church was planning to have a potluck supper with the local Islamic Center that three of the new families were attending. I knew that one of these families was also from the Congo and thought this would be a good opportunity to meet people from the country our family would soon be arriving seeking refuge from, so I signed up to give this family a ride to the potluck.
I had already made acquaintance with the team leader for this family so I knew they spoke good English but as I said before I came from a less than diverse background so I had no idea what to expect. I tried calling the new family’s cell phone several times, to no avail, hoping to set up a time to pick them up for the potluck. Finally, the day before I decided to just take my oldest son over and show up at their apartment and work out the details face-to-face. Showing up unannounced at some newly arrived refugees’ door that I have never met was probably the scariest moment of my whole time working with refugees but that fear quickly vanished when the door opened and a smiling face greeted my son and me.
We had met our first refugee and he welcomed us and invited us into his apartment. I remember thinking that we were supposed to be the ones making them feel welcome here but they made us feel so welcome in their new home – it was amazing.
We were interrupting their supper for the night and instead of getting upset they kept offering us food and a place to join them at their table. We awkwardly and politely declined but we did take part in sitting down for a little bit of conversation. At the very beginning, I just came out as honest as I could and told them that our biggest concern was offending them since we didn’t know much about their culture or what to expect. They quickly rebutted and said that they were worried about offending us. With relief rushing over me, I laughed and told them not to worry because they wouldn’t offend us and we had a good laugh and thus a friendship was born.
Shortly after the family we were co-sponsoring arrived in Fayetteville my wife, kids, and myself took the other Congolese family over to meet our family. They did not know each other but their small apartment quickly filled up with the beautiful sounds of children’s laughter and native Swahili being spoken by four adults who had been restricted to using English to communicate if they wanted to talk to anyone outside their immediate family. They took a break from talking to each other and told us it felt like being home getting to talk to other people in Swahili.
The kids, on the other hand, didn’t let the language barrier slow them down. They were playing like they had been friends their whole lives. It brought a smile to my face knowing that the new kids in the community wouldn’t have any trouble making new friends here and knowing that my kids were getting an opportunity to become friends with kids who didn’t look or sound like them. And, they were excelling at that opportunity.
Since today is Father’s Day I feel like it would only be right to share a couple of moments that stick out in my memory of refugee fathers.
One of the biggest donations we received for the new families was bicycles. At one point, we had 14 bicycles for our new families and every family had at least one bike. The thing that really sticks out to me is whenever we dropped off a bicycle, the dads always wanted to make sure we got a bike for their children. Their focus was always on their kids before themselves. I even got to witness one of these dads teach his son how to ride a bike for the very first time.
Another time I will never forget is when we were attending another potluck supper at another church. I saw one of the Iraqi dads tell his kids to go stand in front of the American flag hanging on the wall so he could take a picture of them. They were not standing in front of the flag as tourists or visitors, but standing there with large smiles on their faces, showing the immense pride that they had in their new home.
The last memory is from a time I was taking one of the teenage refugees to his part-time job one morning. I knew that he had come here without his father in their family unit but we had never discussed it or why. For some reason that morning though, it came up and I asked where his dad was. He said something that I didn’t understand so he spoke it again this time in a translator app on his phone. When he hit the playback button and that phone spoke my heart sank, it said “missing”.
On Father’s Day, I am proud to be raising my children in a way where they get to learn about the world and meet others who at first glance, appear very different from themselves. Because what I have learned is that refugees are just like us, that refugee fathers have the same values as I do – they are simply looking for what is best for their families.
World Refugee Day June 20, 2017
Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.
In honor of World Refugee Day 2017, the Refugee Center Online is collecting stories of how refugees make our lives better.
The Refugee Center Online believes newcomers make our country a better place. Refugee resettlement is not just the moral or ethical thing to do – it benefits us and our communities as well. These stories from individuals around the country show how knowing, teaching, working with, and perhaps most importantly, being friends with, refugees have improved the lives of Americans.