Mentoring a Refugee Family is a two-way street

Mentoring refugee
Bonnie and Maie

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Mentoring a refugee family is a two-way street

Mentoring a refugee family – a journey with new friends

Mentoring a refugee family was something I’d never thought about. I was retired from a demanding administrative job at the state’s children’s mental health bureau. With my newfound freedom, I’d taken up hiking and was finally able to do more traveling. My husband and I had just returned from a trip to Cuba when one of my hiking friends asked if I would sign up to bring dinner to a Cuban family who had just arrived in our town. I was happy to say yes, wanting to return the hospitality we’d received from generous and warm Cuban people we’d met on our trip. I chose to bring ropa vieja, a Cuban dish we’d enjoyed while traveling. The family was appreciative of the fact that dinner was a familiar dish from their country. I shared some of our experiences in Cuba with Adonis and Maie during that first visit. I think they saw me as someone who could understand something about where they came from. Shortly afterwards, my husband and I were asked to become mentors for this family, and we said yes.

A journey with new friends

For us, mentoring was about taking a journey with new friends. Having lived in the same city for 35 years, we knew many people and many resources. However, I think our job was to see our city and country in a new way, through the eyes of a family who did not know how things worked or where things were. Adonis and Maie arrived with their two-year-old daughter, and within a month, added a second daughter to their family. They needed maternal and child health care, housing, food, ways to connect with their new community and help navigating the confusing immigration system. We had to learn along with them how to access these resources.

Adonis and Maie were resourceful and independent when they could be. When they did ask for help, we knew they’d already tried to figure something out by themselves first. We had a new appreciation of how complicated, confusing, and frustrating some services and processes could be, even when they were intended to be helpful. They were also very appreciative of assistance and opportunities they received. Unfortunately, a number of mistakes were made with their paperwork, from the border agent putting the wrong amount of time on their entry paperwork, to the health officials who completed the wrong health form more than once. Sometimes even we could not figure out how to straighten out the mistakes.

What I hadn’t expected is how close we became with this family. One thing they missed from their culture was lots of socialization with friends and family. Once we understood this, we invited them for meals regularly. We quickly realized how much we enjoyed our visits with them. We told each other stories, laughed a lot, and became closer. Within a short while, they felt like a part of our family. They told us they missed their support network in Cuba, but they were building another network of friends and family in their new country.

Building a network of friends and family in a new country

I have become a champion for refugee resettlement in America, despite the challenges of the present political climate. We have so much to learn from people who come from a different culture. Our experience with this family has given us a different lens through which to understand and interpret our own culture. Once we were all taking a walk in our neighborhood where a large, imposing new house was under construction. Adonis asked me how many people would live in the house when it was finished. I said, “two.” He said, “In Cuba that house would have a hundred people living in it.”

Mentoring is definitely a two-way street. Over the past three years, we’ve made new friends through Adonis and Maie, people we’d never have had the pleasure of meeting. We’ve enjoyed watching their two daughters grow, learn to speak English, and explore the world. We’ve celebrated milestones and achievements with them, as they build their lives in America. Their caring and love for us was unexpected, but very welcome. We know they have become part of our lives forever.

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.

Refugees shaking hands

World Refugee Day June 20, 2017

Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.

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About Bonnie Adee

I am a retired administrator who enjoys traveling, land lives in Helena Montana. One of my hobbies is working with fused glass. I also enjoy hiking, attending and supporting live theater, and volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). My two adult children and husband have been very supportive of me mentoring a refugee family, and would say that their lives have been enriched also by developing their own relationships with this family.