On World Refugee Day - June 20, 2019, at Hellgate High School, in Missoula, Montana, 435 youth came together for a summer service-learning opportunity directed by TSOS Refugees.
Hundreds of youth assembled at the High School to attend six break-out sessions designed to build awareness of refugees, learn how to advocate for newcomers, and participate in service for the 350 refugee families who were recently resettled in the Missoula area. Under the direction of the IRC (International Rescue Committee), over 150 supply kits were assembled to welcome refugees in the area, and plastic mats were woven to be sent to refugee organizations helping refugees forced to live in tents under bridges, and other outdoor situations around the world.
The break-out sessions included:
- “Breaking Bread” - pancakes from 8 countries
- How to ask about someone’s story - becoming a friend
- Our roots in refugees
- Languages - overcoming communication barriers (ESL tricks)
- Presenting three qualities of a good friend from refugee story cards
- Learning how to honor and respect global religions
- How to become an “Ally”
Of all the activities, “Breaking Bread” was the most impactful. As we tasted and spoke of the many different and delicious ways pancakes appeared throughout the world, the youth seemed to appreciate the joy of trying new variations of an old favorite. In building the analogy from bread to people, we graduated to the traditions of hospitality associated with “breaking bread” with friends, strangers, and sometimes even enemies as an opportunity to listen to one another’s stories and build friendships over shared meals.
We heard from the youth, over and over, their determination to invite newcomers to share a meal, to sit with newcomers at lunch, and to listen carefully to the stories that make people unique, diverse contributors to the community.
Representatives from the IRC tearfully greeted the brigade of youth who came hauling welcome kits to fill the shelves with necessities for newly resettled refugees. More importantly, each of those youth seemed ready to seek out people different from themselves with the goal of listening to a new friend’s story.
World Refugee Day - Service Learning Opportunity
Holidays are an important time to include newcomers. Newcomers are often aching for the traditions and holiday magic they knew at home - and the connections with family and friends. The Garcias* came from a strong family and community that knew generous and giving holiday traditions. I knew, when I met our new friends from Venezuela, the rich bond we would have; this was a kindred spirit family. Even though we have been bad at communicating (Google Translate is such a false hope), it was easy to find connections that helped us love each other.
Just as citizens in Europe and the U.K. have heroically supported displaced Ukrainians by opening up their homes or securing other housing, assisting with school enrollments, employment needs, and language learning, Americans now have the opportunity via the Welcome.us Sponsor Circles program to directly help newly arrived Ukrainians. The United States has committed to welcoming 100,000 Ukrainians temporarily for a period of two-years and the ability to apply for employment authorization in the U.S. as long as they have a U.S.-based sponsor to petition for them.
In these “Back to School” days, it is important to note that education is a vital step in self-actuation. Helping schools recognize best practices in supporting ESL is the basis of building communities full of strong and capable citizens with skills that will provide societal dividends.