Canoeing, Fat Cats, and Courage: A Book Club’s Mentoring Experience

Becky and her refugee friends canoeing at the Palisades

Becky and her refugee friends canoeing at the Palisades

Most book clubs read books, discuss them, and leave it at that.

But one book club here in Sioux Falls read a book together—Little Bee by Chris Cleave—and decided to do something about it.

The group of friends—Maria, Julie, Ali, Becky, Lizzy, Kim—professional women, many with young families, called the Refugee & Immigration Center and wanted to mentor a refugee family. In June 2012, they met their new friends: a Bhutanese-Nepali family with four girls. All four had lived their entire lives in a refugee camp in Nepal. The oldest was 19.

“I have enjoyed so many different aspects of our mentoring experience it is hard to narrow it down,” Becky says.

And they have experienced a lot together. Since June, they’ve canoed and hiked around at the Palisades together. They go shopping together. They share meals—including some that are quite spicy. Their children take swimming lessons together and name their dolls after each other. They’ve thrown so many birthday parties that, at one point, the book club worried that everyone was getting sick of cake but was too nice to say anything.

“My favorite moment was watching the family go down a waterslide for the first time,” says Julie. “They were freaking out—in a good way.”

“I just enjoyed hanging out at their place, with people coming and going,” Ali says. “As a culture [in the U.S.], we don’t take enough time for people.”

Mentors are encouraged to visit families once a week, so the group aspect of the book club afforded them flexibility, as they could visit together or separately. They also appreciated the program’s approach:

“When I worked as a social worker, there were times I’d feel helpless to actually help people,” Maria says. “But there’s so much freedom with this program. I loved feeling like we could just be friends with the family and help with the needs we saw.”

But the relationship wasn’t all fun and games. During the mentorship, one of the refugee family members was diagnosed with cancer.

“In Nepal, she would have likely died. Here, she has a chance. She’s trusting of the doctors and genuinely thankful for medical care,” Julie explains, and the book club agreed that they felt humbled by her gratefulness and courage.

In a written report, Becky describes more of what she’s learned from the experience:

“I have learned that in Nepal everything is available at a ‘bargain’ and that it took great skill to be good at bargaining. I have learned that cats are nowhere near as fat as mine is in Nepal. I have learned that education in Nepal at times used corporal punishment and that the 6-year-old used to cry when she had to go to school in Nepal and that here she will cry because she can’t go to school on the weekends.”

Now that the group has completed their six month commitment to learning from and mentoring this family, they’ve decided to keep the friendship going.

“We’ve bonded as a book club and we love this family,” Maria says. “We aren’t ready to start another mentorship, but we can help get the word out to others about how great refugee mentoring is.”

If your book club/friend group/church group would like to mentor a refugee family together, please call 731-2000 or sign up on our Web site.

Post by Amy S.Z.

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