A New Chapter

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             When I moved from New Mexico to Colorado three and a half years ago, I didn’t fully realize how important food could be. Within a few weeks of my big move, I remember missing the flavors of red and green chile, a crop grown in my home state that is the cornerstone of New Mexican cuisine. For me, red and green chile is more of a comfort food than mashed potatoes and gravy or apple pie. To this day, when I’m homesick, or missing my family and friends, I inevitably crave chile. And at the beginning of September, I get a little sad because I’m missing the chile roasting. Instead of sitting in my backyard in Albuquerque with my dad peeling roasted chiles from 20lb burlap sacks, I’m in Colorado.

As sentimental as I have become about chile, it’s hard for me to imagine what it means to not just leave your home willingly, as I did, but to flee it, as many of our clients at the GRC have. When leaving their homes, refugees leave behind possessions, friends, and even family members. But most of all, they are leaving behind an entire culture, the familiarity of language, religion, geography, and even food. The good news, though, is that recipes are replaceable, especially when learned by the side of a loved one and the taste of familiar foods can instantly transport us home or really anywhere in the world.

This week, as part of our A Walk in Their Shoes event, the GRC clients, staff and volunteers worked together to make a sampling of the food that is important to the culture of our clients. Among the ten or twelve dishes available, my favorites were samboosas, doro wat and injera. Samboosas are a Somalian dish, a fried dough triangle filled with a spicy and flavorful mixture of vegetables and beef. Doro wat is an Ethiopian dish, a stew of chicken, hard-boiled eggs and a spicy base made from chili paste. Injera is bread-like dish from many African cultures. It is a spongy flat bread that has a taste similar to sourdough bread and goes well with most dishes, especially the doro wat.

For me, and hopefully for all those people who attended the event, tasting these foods gave me a sense of the flavors of Somalia, Ethiopia and other places I could never really imagine. It gave me a sense of the people I work with in the GRC office and help teach in ESL classes. But mostly tasting this delicious food reminded me of what new refugees are working for.

Refugees are more than victims of civil war and conflict, they are people with a history and a culture that they bring with them in relocation. In addition to the struggles of assimilating to a new culture, they must also maintain the one they left behind. While it is our responsibility to welcome refugees into our homeland and our culture, it’s also important to remember what they have to offer us.

Throughout our shared thread of global history, America has welcomed refugees, from famine, poverty, war and conflict who, not only found shelter in the promise of our nation, but also shaped many aspects of our American culture. Refugees are contributors to our melting-pot-tossed-salad-society in everything from religion to language and even food. So this new influx of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, etc is not a burden on our culture, as some people seem to think, but a new and exciting chapter of our history, an arrival of ideas, religion, language, beliefs and delicious foods into the life of our ever-changing society. 

The Silent French G

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“How do you spell onion?” I asked the Level One ESL class during my first lessons as a substitute for the GRC.

We had started class reviewing classroom vocabulary and spelling and, at the request of the students, continued to practice spelling words beyond pen, desk, chair, etc.

I thought that grocery store vocabulary seemed practical, so I began naming off fruits and vegetables for the students to spell. After we’d cycled through a few, apple, tomatoes, potatoes, easily, it seemed that onion presented a bit of a challenge.

 The class was a bit stumped. We got as far as O N I before the crickets started chirping. And then one brave soul, Jeanette, spoke up, “G.”

            “G?” I hesitated, the dry erase marker hovering over the whiteboard.

            “G,” she said confidently.

I put the G on the board (this is one of the tricky things about teaching: do you let the student make the mistake before you correct them? Or do you stop before the mistake takes place in their brain?). My curiosity prevailed as to how onion could be spelled with a G, so I let her continue.

After a few shouted letters and hesitant marks on the board, I asked if she would like to come up and spell the word. At the board, she took the marker, pondered for a second, erased my G, then the I that came before it and filled out the word: ONGNON.        

I pondered the spelling and the only familiar word that came to my mind was Mingnon, as in Filet Mingnon.

“That’s very French of you,” I said.

She looked confused. I pointed to the letters. “This spelling in French makes the same sound that you’re looking for, the nion, but in English it looks like this.” I took the marker and spelled out onion below her interpretation.

The power of our human brains is the power to make connections, find patterns and make strange things more familiar. It’s the connection that takes the sounds of the English word onion and translates them into the familiar, the French combination of letters creating the same sound “ngnon,” for a West African refugee.   

For me teaching ESL at the GRC it’s the ability to connect my limited French vocabulary (Filet Mingon) to a misspelling of an English word with a similar sound (onion).

For refugees, displaced from their homes, taken away from everything familiar, food, language, family, the only lives they’ve ever known, the desire to make connections becomes even stronger and more necessary. Language is one of the strongest connections that we, as humans can make. It defines us, roots us in our heritage, but also has the ability to make or break us. Without language, we cannot communicate, which is the GRC is trying to provide the opportunity for refugees to connect to a new community through a new language, minus the silent French G.

Widening the Depth of Focus

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There are a lot of causes in the world. Good causes, or bad situations, that need our attention. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all of the things that I am supposed to care about and feel, as a young person, as part of the generation that will inherit many of these problems, that I, personally, am in charge of fixing them all. This is, of course, ludicrous, insane even. For instance, a year ago I took a literature and the environment class, and, after the unit on food went through a series of crazy dietary changes, including trying to stop eating products made with corn (which if you didn’t know, is almost all food), becoming a vegetarian (a fickle attempt at best), and not eating farm raised fish (sushi, enough said).

On beginning this internship with the Global Refugee Center, I experienced similar feelings. I began to research the many different refugee situations, war-torn nations, and humanitarian crises that affect millions of lives every single day, yet go unnoticed by millions more. How could one college intern, or even one local non-profit make a difference in the tidal wave of world problems?

I therefore decided that my best course of action was to look away. To focus on what good we can do at the GRC. We can help our clients learn English, find jobs, help their children get an education, and maybe make our local community more involved in the well being of its newest citizens.

While these are worthy goals all, they are not the whole picture, they don’t encompass the full range of responsibilities of an organization like the Global Refugee Center.  

Thus far, this blog has focused on my experiences of the day to day workings of the GRC, the small victories, the ordinary. I’d like to widen the depth of focus and begin looking at the big issues facing the diverse population of refugees represented by the GRC’s clients.

With this in mind, I’d like to recall a bit of wisdom from the professor of my literature and the environment class. Whenever we’d watch a documentary or read a book with some disturbing information about food or pollution or land issues, she would always say you can’t unlearn something, you can choose to ignore it or let it inform your thinking and your beliefs in a positive way, even if the information is negative. Remembering this, I’m committing to research the issues that face our world today, talk about it openly in this blog, and let it positively inform my thinking about the day to day that I’ve already embraced at the GRC.

Colorado Gives Day

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This post will be short and sweet. Today is Colorado Gives Day, a day to celebrate, appreciate and give back to the many wonderful non-profits that provide services to people throughout Colorado. Of course I am a biased party, because I work for one of these non-profits, but still, how could charity be bad. If you enjoy this blog, or have never read it, but like what the Global Refugee Center does (which if you didn’t know is provide services for refugees in the Greeley community with the goal of self-sufficiency, independence, and citizenship) then make a donation! Every bit counts and your donation will be so greatly appreciated! Click the link to learn more and to donate. http://us4.campaign-archive2.com/?u=008b8850402d127217d4fd4ca&id=76e5b52beb

Small Victories

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I’ve learned a lot from the three months I’ve been working with the GRC, but one of the most valuable things I’ve learned is to take pleasure in small victories. I hope and feel that this is an attitude that most of the staff and volunteers share. Dozens of people come through the office every day for classes, for help with their bills, for job applications, even for the simplest of things like diapers, soap or toothpaste. Most of the time we can help them. It is, after all, our goal as a non-profit. But sometimes we can’t. Some days the classes are frustrating for students. They couldn’t quite understand what the teacher was saying. Some days we are just out of diapers, especially when everyone comes in needing the same size. For those days when something just doesn’t click, it’s always nice to remember the small victories, every other time that we have helped them, because again, these successes generally outweigh the defeats.

Today I’d like to take a moment to celebrate a small victory that’s been a long time coming. One of the things that I do in the office is college tutoring for one of the students, Abdirashid, who attends community college. Abdirashid is taking a college composition course and at least once a week, I help him edit his papers and assignments for this class. A few weeks ago, we started working on his final paper, an argumentative essay using outside sources. His first draft was rough: there were a lot of grammar issues, he hadn’t been using outside sources, and his topic didn’t have an argument. These are issues that many beginning writers have, but of course, with ESL students, minor issues are always a bit more complicated. So we’ve been working on the paper for a few weeks. He’s been through a few rough drafts and comments from his instructor and from me.

Today, he asked me to read his essay one last time before he turned it in. I sat down with my editor’s eyes, looking to catch the last few tiny errors that maybe he had missed, but in reading found none. Not only was his grammar and punctuation proficient, but the essay was great. His thesis was clear and concise, his paragraphs were well structured, and his sources were relevant and properly cited; I could see the improvement in his writing from the first essay I had edited. I literally cheered. I think that I scared one of the office assistants, Asad, who asked me what I was doing. After explaining the excellence of the essay, Asad also cheered, congratulating Abdirashid right along with me.

In the grand scheme of the world, these things are small and insignificant. A well written college composition essay, or a new vocabulary word or even a bar of soap and a pack of diapers won’t change the world. But here, it’s the small victories that count, and hopefully, over time, add up to something bigger.

Pineapple!

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Two weeks ago, the GRC was transformed into a cultural experience open to the Greeley community. The office was turned into a buffet room featuring dishes cooked by a few of the GRC’s most loyal clients. The basketball courts outside the office became a stage for an interactive African drum and dance performance. And as the sun set, the playground became center stage for this incredible event.

  

After experiencing the traditional food and entertainment of just a handful of the countries represented by the GRC’s clientele, the hundred or so attendees of A Walk in Their Shoes were ushered onto the open field near the playground to experience Passages, a simulation game created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After splitting into “families” of about ten people, naming their families and being assigned roles within the family, the game began. While our game was only a fraction of the game assembled by the UN, the attendees still got a taste of the refugee experience.

They participated in four simulations including a night in the refugee camp, crossing the border without knowing the language, finding shelter, and being separated from the family. While each game was informative and required participants to put themselves in a refugee’s shoes, I thought that the initial activity, family separation, was the most telling of this experience.

“During a normal family outing to the center of your village, an airplane swoops low over the rooftops. The tremendous noise startles and frightens you. A few seconds later, a whole formation of airplanes appears in the distance and attacks the town. A number of bombs explode and throw debris everywhere. Heavy smoke fills the street where your family happens to be. People are screaming, running in every direction. Your family gets separated. It’s impossible to see through the dense smoke that’s stinging your eyes, throat and lungs. You start yelling too, hoping to find your family so that you can all get away together. You must find all your family members while keeping your blindfolds on,” the game leader announced. The participants were ordered to separate their families, surrounding the field.

“Go!”

Instantly, the field transformed. Blindfolded and screaming, 100 members of the Greeley community, mostly college students, wandered purposefully around the field, yelling for the families they had become a part of only minutes ago.

“A! A! A! A! A! A!”

“Penguins! Penguins! Penguins!”

“376! 376! 376!”

Charged with filming the event, I decided to follow one person until she had been reunited with her family of ten. Her strategy, unlike everyone else’s was to not scream out her family’s name, but instead to listen. At first, she seemed more lost than most, but then her ears sensed the word she was looking for.

“Pineapple!”

She turned and hopefully echoed the call, “Pineapple!”

The word became a chorus shouted between the girl I was filming and someone off in the distance. Never before have I heard so much emotion in such a simple word.

“Pineapple?” Desperate. Hopeful.

“Pineapple! Pineapple!” Optimistic. Apprehensive.

A group of three, two young men in jeans, hoodies and green blindfolds linked on either arm of a shorter girl in a black sweater and black boots rushed to the sound of my subjects timid shouts, “Pineapple?”

Finally, they came within reach of each other. The two guys reached out their available arms while the two girls echoed each other. “Pineapple? Pineapple!”

The group embraced, screaming in joy, you guessed it: Pineapple! They linked arms, hope renewed, and began the search for the remaining six of the pineapple family.

 

We Do Ordinary

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“So what do you do?” is the question that most people ask when I say that I volunteer for the GRC. I’ve been trying to answer this question for myself, and after a little more than a month of being with the GRC, I feel I can give a pretty good answer, beyond the general mission statement.

The biggest service that the GRC provides is English as a Second Language, GED, and Citizenship classes for adults. We also provide access to basic needs like toiletries, diapers and bus passes. Beyond these services, everything else is whatever anyone who walks through the door needs.

In the past month I have helped a mom fill out an “All About My Family” form sent home from her daughters kindergarten class. I’ve helped people pay their bills over the phone and set up e-mail addresses.  I’ve helped several people fill out job applications (which, for factory jobs involves a long and tedious survey asking in ten different ways if the applicant steals, punches their coworkers or does any number of illegal and prescription drugs). Recently I’ve spent most of my office time working with Abdi, a young man who both works for the GRC as a translator and receives tutoring for his community college courses from the teachers and other volunteers.

So what do we do?

We do ordinary. The everyday tasks that someone who speaks English might find ordinary, like paying a bill or checking e-mail becomes significantly more difficult when you don’t speak the language. So while our clients work towards become citizens, settling into the community, finding jobs and learning English, they can lean on the staff and volunteers at the GRC to help out with whatever they may need.

Ready?

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Walking to the Cameron Community Center, where the Global Refugee Center (GRC) of Greeley, Colorado is located, I didn’t know what to expect. I was meeting with Ally, the volunteer coordinator, to discuss a new internship working in social media and marketing for the GRC, a non-profit organization which provides services ranging from English and citizenship classes to driving lessons and access to computers and internet for refugees from approximately 23 different countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

The quiet, unassuming building serves partially as an office for the GRC and partially as an auxiliary building for School District Six’s special educational needs. A typical school building, there’s a playground in the back, heavy metal doors that seem to be the gateway to every school, a flagpole proudly flying our nation’s colors, and a circle of benches out front. Entering the empty office, I still couldn’t get a sense of the GRC, but after talking with Ally, I accepted the position.

Still unsure of what I was doing, I walked to the GRC’s office again, this time on the first day of the new semester. Walking through the crowd on the first day, I heard languages I couldn’t even begin to distinguish from people whose country of origin I would have no way of guessing. Basically, the ethnic diversity of Greeley I had heard existed, but never really seen.

As a former education student at the University of Northern Colorado with three semester’s worth of observations in Weld County public schools, I was aware of the presence of refugees in Greeley. But, as a resident of Greeley, this presence is less noticeable. I occasionally see groups of women in traditional headscarves pushing their carts tentatively through the local King Soopers, but, as I am becoming acutely aware, the worldview of a college student is very limited, even within their own community.

My first day at the GRC, really my first half hour, was a bit of a culture shock, something that seems wrong to say about an experience in a building only six blocks from the small house I rent. But it’s true. It’s hard for me to call Greeley home when I have only recently become aware of a whole community within the city limits.

Despite my ignorance, I was ready to jump into the experience. I walked through those heavy metal doors, held open by two tall dark men who greeted me with a jovial “Good morning,” and responded to my thanks with a “Welcome, miss.” I waved to Ally and tucked myself into a convenient corner between the office door and the copier. “Sorry,” she said, “I’ll be with you in a second. The first day is always crazy.”

“No problem,” I said as she turned back to the crowd that had surrounded her, drowning her in questions.

As each new person walked into the office, fighting for Ally’s attention, they turned briefly to me saying “Good morning,” or “Hello.” I returned each greeting with a friendly “Good morning,” beginning to feel more comfortable in the bustling office.

I watched Ally move easily from person to person, giving directions to classrooms, greeting familiar students, and running between the doorway and a blue plastic box on a desk at the back of the room as nearly every person she talked to eventually asked the one word question, “Pencil?”

As I observed the hectic first day unfold, a basketball rolled across the floor towards my feet. I moved to pick it up when a girl, barely bigger than the ball, with cornrows and a pink sweater ran to me.

“Is this yours,” I said.

She giggled and pushed the ball towards me.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

She picked up the ball and dropped it, clapping her hands together. I realized she probably didn’t speak enough English to understand me, so I picked up the ball. She laughed and clapped her hands together as small children do when they have succeeded in roping an adult into play-time. I put down my purse and bounced the ball as she had. She picked it up again, this time raising it above her head and looked at me intently. She thrust the ball with her full weight. It hung in the air for a minute. I grabbed it before it could knock her out. She clapped her approval then held out her small arms in a hoop.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Ready.” She repeated. I gently dropped the ball. She caught it with ease and immediately held it above her head.

“Ready?” She asked.

“Ready.”

Words with Dignity

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As a writer, I’ve been taught that my work should speak for itself. Disclaimers should not be used because they imply a need for apology, and a writer should never apologize for their work. But this blog, while I am claiming authorship for its content, does not represent me individually. This blog represents an organization, the Global Refugee Center of Greeley, Colorado, made up of many people; from a hard working staff and group of volunteers to the refugee population the organization serves. So, as a responsible new member of this organization, I would like to take a brief introductory post to discuss Words with Dignity.

Words with Dignity is a concept that I learned as an education student at the University of Northern Colorado. In the education program it meant that, as future teachers, we needed to be exact and appropriate when describing a particular student, either in a writing assignment or in an oral presentation. This meant using person-first language (i.e. the student who is African American instead of the African American student) to convey the standards of equality and inclusion that we were learning to implement in our classrooms.

In real world writing, and in real world experience, the exactness of Words with Dignity that I had learned previously was more difficult to apply. Writing my first blog post, I found myself in a strange new form of writer’s block; one fueled not by procrastination or lack of inspiration, but instead by a fear of political correctness. How can I use Words with Dignity to describe the bustling first day crowd at the GRC when I couldn’t ask someone to describe the exact country of origin of each of the approximately 40 students who walked through the GRC’s door on my first day?

I can’t is the short answer. However, the concept of Words with Dignity still applies to my writing, especially in this blog.

The dignity of my words from this post onward comes from my great respect for the GRC and everyone and everything it represents. The GRC’s mission to work “with the refugee community to improve their quality of life by implementing programs in Education, Health, Finance, Culture, and Civil & Human Rights that lead to self-sufficiency and self-reliance,” is one that I believe in, which is why I’m doing this in the first place. My internship with the GRC is learning experience for me and I will do my best to represent the GRC with dignity and respect.

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