Love a good party? Always looking for a reason to celebrate, or for a good laugh? Then volunteering with World Relief might be your thing! Just ask Claudia. She’s been volunteering with World Relief for 3 years and has been part of weddings and births, moving parties, religious celebrations, and welcoming new refugee families into the community. “I’m pretty sure I have entertained a lot of refugees with my attempts to learn words and phrases in their languages,” she laughs. Though there have been many opportunities for her to celebrate with refugees, she has also helped them through the difficult parts of cultural transitions, like filling out the reams of paperwork for which Americans are known. She has helped people with housing, legal and medical paperwork, paying bills, making budgets, and starting savings plans. She quickly mentions to me that the cost of apartments are going up, and off the top of her head, rattles off current rate increases at various apartment complexes in the Tri-Cities, and expresses her concern for the affected families. Although Claudia started off mentoring a Columbian refugee family, she has since mentored Burmese and Somalis, too, and now contributes her time helping the Affiliate Director at World Relief with clerical and bookkeeping tasks.
“I had been praying about a way to volunteer that would be meaningful. One night, at a church meeting, a World Relief staff person stood up to speak about refugees in the Tri- Cities and as soon as she stood up, I knew that’s what I was supposed to do. I didn’t really have many cross cultural experiences to draw from, other than a time in the 1970’s when I was part of a church that helped host a Vietnamese family, or when I worked with a literacy project in California. But I’ve always been one to look out for the less-fortunate. Even in high school, I remember that I always seemed to have more than my friends did and I wanted to give to them. I’ve had refugees over to my home for visits and when they see my extra guest bedrooms they ask who lives there. They are just guest rooms, for visiting family. Many refugees have gone through so much tragedy, and have suffered a lot of trauma just to get here. When they tell you the story of how their government stole their land and killed their family, or when they tell you how they used to live, cooking, cleaning and sleeping all in a shack that is the size of my dining room, it reminds me again how fortunate I am. I am blessed with more than I need.”
Even while we sit and chat about her volunteer experiences, Claudia fields a phone call from a Somali friend who is updating her on a family that just came back from the doctor. Claudia had been out of town all day, and had been wondering how the family was doing. She points to a wooden floral craft hanging above the archway into her dining area and says, “A Colombian refugee painted that. She can do amazing craftwork, and I think she even did some crafts for the President’s wife! She is so talented.” As Claudia and I chat a few minutes to update each other on the news of various refugee friends, including a Somali single mother who recently moved out of town, she says “Guess what? She’s working again as a housekeeper, but she’s also going to college, and so is her son!”
“I’ve learned a lot from the refugees, about myself and about how our cultures are so different. One time recently, I was upset at a landlord about a situation in a young Burmese couple’s apartment and I wanted to march over to that office and get it resolved. My Burmese friend, who is much more gentle and kind than I, stopped me and said, ‘no, I’ll take care of it. It’s ok. I can do it. “
I used to actually be nervous when I first started mentoring and would go visit refugees in their home. I would watch my purse. Now I know they would never do anything to harm me, or to take advantage of me. Once I mentioned to my Somali friends that I had a headache, and after that, each Somali kept taking turns checking on me to see if I was ok. I’m accepted by them and they appreciate me and the help I can give them. They often confide in me about problems or questions they have about American culture. I’ve had many very personal conversations with them, and they sometimes seem much more open than we are in our culture.”
When I asked Claudia about some memorable experiences mentoring new refugees, she described her relationship with many of the younger Somalis, who often call her their mother, or “Mama Claudia.” This arrangement worked out just fine until one day, the Somali woman that Claudia had known the longest made sure to lay claim to Claudia by pointing out to the others, “Claudia is my mama.” As it turns out, they have all found a way to share Claudia, and they often refer to her as their American mother, or in some cases, a grandmother to the new babies. Many of these Somalis have lost their own mothers or will never see them again due to travel restrictions, illness and the financial cost of traveling. Claudia gladly takes on the title as their American mother, and wears it well. She gets out her camera to show me recent pictures of her grandchildren. “I have 3 now, 2 Somalis and a Burmese on the way! It’s so funny to go out in public and have these Somali people call me their mama. When I help them with appointments, the receptionist will ask what my relationship is to the group of Somalis standing there with me. We stop, look at each other, and just smile. I usually end up saying, ‘well, I’m their American mother.’ No one really asks questions after that. Sometimes people might think I do too much or may not really understand how I can work with people who don’t speak much English yet. I’m not trying to blow my own horn. Of course, I’d like to see more people involved, but this is just what I do.”