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.