September 13th – September 21st is National Welcoming Week hosted by Welcoming America, an organization working to promote mutual respect and cooperation between foreign-born and U.S.-born Americans. To celebrate we are sharing a story of welcoming refugees!
So I must tell you that this is my first blog post. EVER. Normally Kadie, one of our ESL Instructors, shares amazing stories from the classroom and students each week. However, for Welcoming Week, she asked me to share my story of welcoming refugees.
To start, I’ll introduce myself. I am Kristyne, the Volunteer Coordinator at the LSS Center for New Americans. Some of you may know me from the CFNA Facebook page—I’m the one posting pictures and asking you to like and share everything! I am relatively new to LSS and refugee resettlement. I started in April and have learned SO much in the last 5 months. It has really been wonderful!
My work mostly consists of working with the Sioux Falls community to invite volunteers to help in our ESL classrooms or to mentor a new refugee family. Sometimes, I don’t get to meet as many of our refugee clients as one of our caseworkers or teachers do. So when I had the opportunity to go to the airport to pick up a new family, I jumped at the chance!
On the day of their arrival Deborah, one of our caseworkers, had let me know a little about the family in order to prepare me. The family coming was a family of 8 coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo and they were set to arrive at 10 pm that night. The parents spoke a little English so we would be able to communicate somewhat with them when they got off the plane. She also showed me some of the supplies that she had gotten for them—some toothpaste and brushes, diapers, and a culturally appropriate meal—to help ease them through their first night in a new country.
A family reunion at the airport!
So at 9:30 it was go time! …Or not. Their flight had been delayed almost 45 minutes and when they did arrive, they were exhausted. Usually, by the time a refugee arrives in Sioux Falls, they have spent the last 20 hours or so either on a plane or in an airport waiting for a plane. So trying to navigate their way out of the terminal and airport, while exhausted, was not easy. However, this is when the welcoming nature of Sioux Falls showed itself. Before we even had a chance to get to them, other members of the crowd came forward and tried to help them. The crowd gave directions on how to get downstairs, where to go to find bags, and one even asked if they needed a taxi called to pick them up! It was wonderful to see that Midwest hospitality!
We did eventually make it to them and introduced ourselves. Then we went to the escalator. For those of you who have been to the Sioux Falls airport, you can understand that the escalator-that-isn’t-really-an-escalator was a difficult concept to teach. To them, it appeared to be one of the airport security checks, so they started placing their carry-ons and coats on the track before we could explain that it was just a fast way to get downstairs. They looked quite skeptical as we showed them how to step on and step off. Once we had conquered the escalator, we got their 2 small suitcases and made our way to the car. We helped them get in and get buckled (with a short explanation that all babies must be in car seats and not in laps.) Then we were on our way.
When we got to the motel, we got them checked in and showed them the rooms. We showed them how to use the shower and bathroom, the small refrigerator, the air conditioner, the TV and even the phone. The kids were most interested in the cartoons that were on the TV. The adults also had a 5 minute lesson on how to use the keycards, with the important topic of “never leave the room without your key!”
It was nearly midnight before we said our goodbyes. We were all pretty tired by that time. However, as they sat on the beds, the father looked at Deborah and me and said in a quiet voice, “We are very happy now. We are very tired but we are very happy. We thank God that we are here now and that you helped us.” I was so touched hearing this that all I could say was, “Well we’re happy you are here, too!”
When I left that night, though I was tired, I felt truly wonderful and it made me appreciate the work we do here even more. I am grateful that I could help welcome this new family to Sioux Falls and be one of the first persons that they met. I’m glad that I was able to help them get settled on their first night in their new city. And I’m happy that after a few weeks I was able to match them up with a mentor family who will visit them regularly to help them adjust to life in Sioux Falls!
If you are interested in welcoming a new refugee family to Sioux Falls, sign up to be a mentor at http://www.lsssd.org/family_services/refugee/volunteer.html or call 605-731-2000!