It’s Monday afternoon and I just finished sorting and tagging all of the Easter baskets we collected for refugee families in Pittsburgh. We have 34 baskets in all, enough to fill my dining room table and overflow onto the chairs and floor. For a project that I never expected to amount to much, this has been a remarkable success.
As many of you know, the Refugee Committee at St. Paul’s got its start last year with the goal of hosting a refugee family in Pittsburgh. But even as we imagined standing in the airport waiting to shower a newly-arrived family with welcome and support, we came to understand that our vision of embracing a single family was not truly an effective way to address the international refugee crisis.
Thanks to the energy of our group and the dedication of Rebecca Johnson, program supervisor for refugee resettlement at NAMSC (the Northern Area Multi-Service Center), the St. Paul’s Refugee Committee re-invented itself. We now have a multi-pronged approach that will touch many different families.
In one of our most exciting initiatives, the Refugee Committee is helping parishioners and neighborhood friends teach life skills to newly arrived refugee families through one-on-one connections.
Marles Streitmatter met her family a few weeks ago.
"My family (a husband, a wife and two little boys — almost 5 and 3) is pretty great; they are very fortunate to have escaped to Jordan in 2012. They arrived in Pittsburgh last summer. They have a car and live in a nice neighborhood close to shopping and an elementary school. Although their apartment leaves something to be desired, they have made it home. They have most everything they need in the apartment, and the wife tempts me with yummy snacks and tea on every visit. Our first meeting was aided by a Pitt college student who speaks Arabic; I probably wouldn't have made it through without her. However, since then, I have met with the family three more times, and we are working on communicating with very broken English. It is very difficult when nothing transfers… using a completely different alphabet. However, the husband has English/Arabic translation on his cell phone, so when things get too complicated, we use the phone to communicate.
I have picked up the paperwork for their oldest son to start at the nearby elementary school in September. We filled out the paperwork, and I will be taking it to get him enrolled in the school. The United States is so much more complicated than Jordan with 'too much paper' according to the husband. He does not know how to write a check, so I have written several for him and he signs them. We are working on a system for storing important papers and have had some issues with car insurance to figure out. They want to learn, and their little boy desperately wants to go to school. Every meeting gets better!"
Ginny Barnicoat has also connected with a family:
“I’m not sure whose life has felt the greater impact: mine, or the refugee family I have volunteered to assist. The family is from the Congo and they have been living in Pittsburgh for less than three months.
When I visit, the matriarch quietly sits peeling potatoes while I talk to her son and daughter who are probably in their mid-twenties. A third daughter sits in a chair. She has some disabilities. I learned that her issues are a result of abuse in the name of genocide at the hands of soldiers. Three young children, ages 1-4 sit at my feet with big, curious eyes. There are no toys in the apartment. On my first visit, I was accompanied by Pacifique, an interpreter, who came to the US as a refugee himself ten years ago. I also brought eight pages of English/Kinyarwanda translated phrases found on Wikipedia.
At first, I felt stifled in the small, dark room (I believe they try to save electricity wherever possible) and we had awkward conversations with Pacifique as a go-between. I suggested we walk to a playground I had noticed while parking my car. The children’s squeals of delight reminded me that people everywhere are very much the same. We all began to laugh and relax. The young man and I started to trade English and Kinyarwanda terms for the things around us. He was much better at this game than I, and was clearly eager to learn English. One of the phrases on my internet generated papers was “are you happy?” which I asked him. He smiled and answered “Yes! Good!” With the interpreter’s help I asked him what is the biggest difference between their old life and this new life in Pittsburgh. He was quiet for a moment then spoke to Pacifique who translated, “We feel safe here.”
While we pushed the children in the swings, I imagined how frightened I would be in their shoes — new country, new language, few friends, and only three months of financial support until they have to be self-sufficient. But to them, when compared to what they have already lived through, this life feels safe and good. I look forward to my next visit with this strong family. The matriarch has invited me to share a meal with them. It feels like an important step towards mutual friendship and understanding.”
In addition to teaching life skills, some volunteers have undergone additional training to teach English to newly arrived families. Heather Wechter is a neighborhood friend of St. Paul’s who became involved through our Refugee Committee and was recently connected with a Syrian family.
“The family is extremely warm and everyone has a great sense of humor. The most awkward experience I have had is in turning down their generosity. They always want to feed me or give me extremely strong turkish coffee (did I mention it is extremely strong?). They have very little in the way of material things.
One of the biggest challenges I have is getting them to change their refugee mindset. It is my guess that the behaviors that they have are what has helped them to survive and arrive in the United States.
They do not really go outside very much and it is difficult to get them to go out to explore Pittsburgh. I think it can be hard for them to go out as they do not like to be vulnerable and worry that they will not be able to communicate for themselves. We are continuing to work on this.
My initial response to the family housing and situation was panicked worry for them. However… I have learned to appreciate that this family is going to thrive because they beat the odds to get here.”
Another neighbor, Chrissy Gargani, also participated in the ESL training and was paired with an Iraqi family. She was shocked by the heart-wrenching losses the family had experienced in the war.
“In Iraq, my student was a successful midwife in a modern hospital in Baghdad. As a young woman, she won the regional chess championship. They lived in a comfortable apartment. When conflict began and US soldiers arrived, her eldest son became friendly with them and at some point was able to warn them of hidden explosives. Because he saved Americans… the family members were considered traitors. [She lost her husband and two children to the violence.] They were forced to leave for Turkey.
They live in an older apartment block among other, mostly Nepalese, immigrants. Their 2 bedroom apartment is very crowded but clean…. variety of blankets neatly arranged over mismatched and ripped furniture. Lots of pictures, photos, and plastic flowers cheer up their tiny space. They have no lamps so it gets pretty dark.
Despite what they've been through, they are like every other family I know, albeit much larger. She is Facetiming her daughters and grandkids in Iraq several times a day. She is focused on her kids’ success in school. The kids scuffle with each other and with the other kids in the apartment complex. She worries.
She wants the same thing as everyone else.... to raise her kids in a safe environment and be happy and healthy.”
All of which brings me back to the Easter baskets. Many of us don’t have time to commit to engaging directly with refugee families on a regular basis, so the Refugee Committee hopes to offer a steady stream of other ways to help. It was Rebecca Johnson from NAMS who first suggested Easter baskets.
“These families are not yet plugged into our cultural traditions,” she said. “Easter is a Christian holiday, but Easter baskets are ubiquitous and a fun way to teach families, especially children, about our American customs,” she explained. Even when families are familiar with Easter baskets they may not have much disposable income. “Budgets are very tight,” she said.
The Easter basket drive was modeled after a Christmas Angel Tree idea, in which the religious background of the recipient child doesn’t matter and those who are able to give have just enough information to make a personalized gift.
The overflowing baskets are a testament to our congregation’s generosity and welcoming spirit. Most moving to me as I collected the baskets, though, were the stories I heard from you. So much thought was put into these gifts. You reflected on what had mattered to you as a child and as a young parent. You considered the value of simple things — a toothbrush, a sippy cup, a bottle of nail polish, a box of crayons — in a new way. And you contemplated what it would be like to walk around Pittsburgh in the shoes of a newly-arrived refugee.
Even more importantly — because education is a key step in the journey towards tolerance — the Easter baskets started conversations. Our children wondered, “What is a refugee?” “Where is Syria?” “What must it feel like to leave everything behind?” and “What would I need most if I had to start over?”
Rebecca and her colleagues at NAMSC are thrilled to have such a generous collection of baskets to take to the families they serve, and this week thirty-four recently-arrived refugee children will get to share in our Easter joy.