My friendship with a refugee gave me the gift of recognizing how lucky I am

Hosting a refugee

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Lives Forever Changed

Hosting a refugee has broadened my world and enriched my soul. I am forever different and beyond grateful for the experience.

Having recently retired from full-time work to part-time work, I had time to reflect on how I genuinely want to spend these next years of my life … I enjoy lots of activities: riding my bike, spending time with my dog at the beach or in the mountains, seeing movies and plays, socializing with friends. That’s all wonderful but I felt a deeper need. I wanted my time to be more meaningful on a core level. I was searching for a volunteer opportunity.

Hosting a refugee

Simultaneous to my search, there were significant changes happening in our country. I felt helpless in the face of the rising hatred; I wanted to contribute in a tangible way. I live an ordinary life but a lucky one. I live in an ordinary house – small by US standards but large by global standards. I have a guest bedroom but rarely do I have overnight guests. I decided to offer this room to someone in need.

I had an acquaintance that was hosting a refugee on a temporary basis, and I was intrigued and asked her lots of questions. I filled out an application, talked with a volunteer coordinator at Catholic Charities, and in very little time I had a refugee living in my home. It happened so quickly!

It’s been a wonder and a joy to know Shabnam and to gain an understanding of another culture on a level not available to a tourist visiting other countries. In particular, I appreciate learning and understanding Middle Eastern culture, as I have not visited there.

Shabnam, who is originally from Iran by way of Turkey, began staying at my home January 30 of this year. My original offer to host a refugee included the possibility of a long-term stay (if it were the right fit for both of us). It’s the right fit! When Shabnam walked into my house, we immediately connected. Energetically we are very similar.  Of course, Shabnam would like to find her own apartment, but for now we are having a good time. Her mother and I are of the same generation, and while Shabnam and I have developed a lovely friendship, I am very much teaching and directing her.  Shortly after Shabnam arrived. I said to a friend, “You think you are offering a room, but in fact, you are helping to build a life.”

I enjoy it and she is very grateful. Much of what I do is not expected of me as a host. However, I saw a need and filled it. She wants to learn all she can as fast as she can and I am happy to help. I find it very rewarding to watch her learn. I help her with the basics of our culture: grocery stores, where to shop and not; debit cards and ATMs; transit use; money matters and understanding finances in America; general customs, slang and sayings.

When Shabnam first arrived, I included her in everything I did: breakfast with friends, movies, plays, dinner gatherings at my house and elsewhere. She met many of my friends, and they love her and reached out to her. I could see that she began to feel a sense of community. I could also see it’s painful to leave your family, your culture, your language, your belongings and start completely new.  The first few weeks were amazing and exhausting. Exhausting for me because while Shabnam knew some English, I was explaining a lot of words. Exhausting for her because she was trying to learn so much. She is excited to learn and I am delighted to teach her a word and hear her use it the next day!

There have been and continue to be many gifts I reap from sharing my home with Shabnam. It’s gift to simply recognize how lucky I am with my life and the freedoms I have living in America.

I love her stories: she brings her culture, family and experiences with her, and listening to her is fascinating. She has the eyes of a child: much of what is an everyday sight for me is new and exciting to her. Her appreciation and awe informs my feeling in the moment and I see with a fresh perspective; her excitement and joy is infectious.

Shabnam started taking English classes and she has met some friends. I have met a few of her friends and I really enjoy that opportunity. Meeting people from different countries that have chosen or fled to America to make a new home is an honor.

We have hosted dinners at our home and it seems as if five different languages are spoken. I find it exhilarating; prior to Shabnam staying with me I had never had that experience in my home. It’s fascinating. It’s expansive.

When I listen to people’s stories, I recognize the loss and heartache of leaving so much behind. It’s very moving and fascinating to hear of their many and different experiences.

At the same time I see there is a great deal of hope for what might be – many wishes for the future and opportunities that lie ahead. There is hope for what is possible.

Last year I traveled outside the United States a lot and this year I feel as if I brought some of the world to me. It is enriching beyond anything I had imagined. I am so glad I made the call to volunteer.

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.

About Jeri Jenkins
Jeri recently retired from full-time work to part-time work. Jeri enjoys lots of activities: riding her bike, spending time with my dog at the beach or in the mountains, seeing movies and plays, socializing with friends.