Serving refugees is not what it seems. I say that because I think people imagine some kind of superhero, someone who gives and gives to benefit others. Yes, in most cases, that is true, but the secret of working with refugees is that I receive benefits as well, and it’s in a way I never imagined. I’ve found that my students, adults who have had to flee their countries and are here in America to rebuild their lives, have become my greatest cheerleaders.
My husband broke his wrist last month. Actually, it was a really terrible month overall. I got into a car accident, he had to have surgery, we were emotionally and financially worn out. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, this was not a big problem. We constantly reminded each other of the things happening in the world that made us, even on our worst days, extremely fortunate.
When I told my students about my husband’s accident, they showered me with so much love and compassion, I cannot even express it with words. These people, who had fled war, hunger, rape, torture, slavery, genocide… they were the ones expressing their sorrow for me. Every. Single. Day. They would ask me, “How is your husband?”. They cared so deeply.
One student came up to me after class. She hugged me and kissed both of my cheeks. “Teacher, I need to bring you food”, she said. I didn’t think much of it, but when she arrived at my house a few days later, I was overwhelmed. She was carrying a gigantic tray full of dishes. She swept through our house, showering us with loving words. She unloaded each dish from her tray and I felt tears in my eyes because I felt so genuinely cared for. She gently took my husband’s casted arm into her hands and prayed over it. I’ve never seen an angel before, but I’m pretty sure she would look exactly like that beautiful woman.
“In my country, when someone is sick or having a hard time, we show them our love by bringing them food”, she explained. Despite the fact that this woman had all of her own worries and responsibilities, she took a whole day to cook food for us. Then, she drove to our house and delivered it with nothing but joy in her heart. I know that she does not have an easy life. Her family is separated and she is anxiously awaiting the day when she will be reunited with her son who is still in Afghanistan. Her husband, who was a doctor, is now a night shift gas station attendant. Yet, she still takes time to care for others.
So you see, even though I get to make a difference in my community by serving people from all over the world, I am not left empty and exhausted. In fact, I find myself feeling more alive now than ever before. The people that I get to work with make my life so rich and meaningful. I like to think that together we are creating a better way. As I introduce them to what it means to live in America, they teach me too. That’s really what our country is about. It’s a place where you can come and introduce a different way to see the world and a different way to care for each other. As I cross the bridges of tradition, ethnicity and religion, I hope I can learn to embrace that better way.
Katie Pham is an English Language Program Instructor at Project Worthmore