Experience the story of a Sudanese refugee family’s first year in Houston through the eyes of their Welcome Team.
“This last year with our refugee family has been the best thing our family has been involved in, hands down.
We have learned to love unconditionally, to persevere when it is tough, to speak a few Arabic words, to laugh at ourselves, and to enjoy the simple things in life.
I’d do it all over again! They are such dear friends to us now, we will never be the same since they came into our lives.”
— Welcome Team Member
Our refugee family finally landed in Houston after a very long trip; they had come all the way from a refugee camp in Ethiopia, which had been their home for 18 years. Their 7 kids were born there. They have 9 people in their family and they brought with them only one little black duffle bag. All the possessions they owned in the whole world were in that one little duffle bag. Oh, the stories that bag could tell.
Our first visit with them was on their second day in America. We knocked on their apartment door excitedly, and the dad let us in. We looked in the kid's bedrooms, all the beds were neatly made and looked untouched. We peeked in the master bedroom, and there they were.... all curled up sleeping on the floor, probably, like they had done in the refugee camp. We don’t think anyone had actually used their beds that night.
Learning New Things
We came up with a brilliant idea...we did name tags on everyone. That was a huge help! You try learning 9 African names! We even used tape to label lots of things in English around the apartment, and the refugee kids really liked that. Oh, and we brought a map. We labeled Houston, talked about where Ethiopia was, and left that taped on the wall. The 15-year-old son couldn't point out Ethiopia or Sudan on a map, let alone Africa.
Inside the apartment, we saw that we had some things to teach. We taught them how to use a can opener since the dad had opened a can of food with a knife. He butchered the can pretty well, but thank goodness he didn't hurt himself! I didn't check to see what the knife looked like. I put some groceries in their fridge and noticed that it was HOT! They had unplugged it to save on electricity! We tried to do charades to get the point across to them that you never unplug your fridge! I pray for their safety more than anything else. I'm so afraid of them not knowing how to do something and hurting themselves trying...especially in the kitchen.
We found out they’ve never had electricity, so we brought frozen popsicles for everyone. The mom experienced her first "brain freeze" from a popsicle, and she FREAKED OUT! Can you imagine never tasting anything that cold your whole life? She kept shaking her head with her hand over her mouth while moaning. She quickly passed her popsicle on to one of the kids. She honestly looked at us like we had just tried to poison her.
Oh, and I noticed a new large bag of peanuts in their shells in the pantry that the move-in team had left them. I opened them and showed them how to crack them. The mom's eyes lit up and she laughed out loud when she saw there was a peanut inside the shell. It was like a kid opening an Easter egg!
[During another visit], I sat down with the oldest son and we drew pictures to find out more about their past. Kind of like art therapy. I asked the boy to draw what his house in the camp in Ethiopia looked like. He drew little square houses all lined up. The houses were made of grass he said...I'm guessing probably dry old straw? The floors were dirt, and they cooked all their meals over an open fire. No wonder they were scared to use the stove. They probably had no idea what to do with it.
They asked us to stay for dinner. They didn't seem to realize that they didn't have enough food to share...they just wanted the company, I think. We told them we would cook food tomorrow and bring it to them. The dad told us to come cook it there and show them how to do it. So, I think we are doing our first official cooking lessons!
The cooking lessons went well, at least as good as they could with our limited communication. We made a pot of Rwandan plantain and tomato soup, and Indian red lentils with homemade arepas. Their eyes were wide open the whole time....now I know that it is because they had never had this much or this flavorful food before. Here I was thinking I had picked super simple recipes. But anything looks hard and complicated compared to boiling roots in water.
We had several neighborhood kids that smelled the food and wandered in. Two girls from the Congo that were sisters asked if they could stay and eat. They said their parents were both at work and they were home alone. Well, then, when you say it that way, pull up a chair girls! So, we had 20 for dinner tonight! And like the fish and loaves, God multiplied it. We put two big containers of leftovers in the fridge for tomorrow!
I love, love how their whole family lights up when we show up to visit. Even the neighborhood kids know our names and come hang out with us the whole time. God is using us to not just touch the lives of this one family, we get to love on the whole entire community.
[During another visit], we brought the mom some crocheting supplies since she had shown us a few things she had crocheted in Ethiopia. She sat outside on the concrete and taught us how to crochet. A neighbor from the Congo strolled by and sat down to watch. I tried to talk with her, but she didn't speak English. That didn't stop her from just hanging out. I wondered what each mom was thinking, sitting there unable to communicate with each other. They were both far away from their home in Africa just hanging out with each other for company. I guess the mom from the Congo who had landed here a few years ago probably understood our refugee mom in a way that I won't ever be able to. It really was touching. They say you don't need words to communicate.
challenges in a new country
No one from our team is going to visit our African family today. I keep asking myself if we taught them everything we should have. Did we forget to tell them something? They have lived in a straw hut for 18 years, for goodness sake. How do refugee families do life here without American families walking alongside them? I'm sure they will be fine. After all, they have an all-knowing Father looking after them. And He has been watching over them much longer than I have. He saw them in that hut with the dirt floors long before I hardly even knew what a refugee was.
Our refugee kids start school in a week. I’m so nervous for them. Can you imagine going to a new school where you could hardly understand the language, let alone the culture? We sat down with them last week and helped them fill out huge stacks of school enrollment forms. I know I say this all the time, but how do refugee families make it without a welcome team like us? There is so much they still need help with. A few of our team members went over at 6:30 AM on the first day of school to make sure each kid got on the right bus. The photo we took of them before they got picked up is hilarious because they all have winter jackets on for some reason. It is August.
While we were hanging out at their apartment one night, I casually asked the 5th grader if she had any homework. She ran to her backpack and pulled out crumpled sheets of math that apparently weren’t on her to-do list for the evening. Once I explained the math concept to her, she caught on fast…mind you that when I’m explaining, it is half English and half charades! She then pulled out the Spelling words…oh my. The teacher had given her a list that said 2nd grade across the top. Her high-school brother couldn’t even read a few of the words on the list, let alone tell me what they meant. So…the next project is to set-up our American team members on a schedule to stop by once a week to tutor these kids. I hate the idea of them being labeled as ‘not smart’ when really the problem is that they only speak partial English.
We have had lots of conversations (aka, charade games) about budgeting and saving. I imagine it is a very foreign idea. But, we have made huge steps in the right direction. Two other team members spent all day earlier in the week driving our refugee father and his oldest teenage kid all over Houston to get a Texas ID card and then to open a bank account. The whole process was so confusing, how do refugee families do it without American teams to help them? No wonder so many families fall through the cracks. Refugees need help and guidance, someone to walk them through these tough and very confusing American processes.
But you know, with all this going on they were just as happy as always, no complaining. They are grateful, they know where they have come from. I did catch myself looking around their falling apart mouse infested apartment thinking, “Is this what they came all the way across the ocean for? Is this the American Dream that they had envisioned?” We actually asked them that question. They all said, “Yes!”. They had heard that America was great, they thought it really was, and they were happy to be here. They had no desire to go back.
Who would have thought that getting to know a refugee family could change you so much. It has been so good for my kids. When we go over there, my kids aren't the center of attention, so one asks them how their day was...the time is all spent on this new family and how we can help them. Also, my kids get to feel important as they are the ones who the African kids will learn English from. They have a job to do. I think sometimes kids learn from other kids best. They are learning language and culture all at once. That is something you can't get from any school curriculum.
[During one visit], the mom told us she had a headache. She kept saying it was hurting behind her eyes, not on the front of her forehead or in the back of her head…just behind her eyes. No one had any medicine on them, so I grabbed a cup and a bottle of Coke that was on the table that we had brought earlier to share. I figured the caffeine could help. We poured a cup of coke and handed it to the mom. She took it very hesitantly! She had MAJOR doubts, we couldn’t figure out why she was so scared of a cup of Coke. What happened next still makes me laugh but also shows the level of trust our refugee family had developed toward us! The mom took the cup, tilted her head back, and started to pour the coke into her eye!!!! We all screamed so loud that I bet all the neighbors heard! She literally thought we were asking her to pour it in her eyes to make the headache go away! What trust!
The family liked one of our team members so much that they renamed their youngest child after her! We thought it was a joke at first, but they ditched the African name that she came across the world with, and the baby is now named after one of our American team mates. That will be an interesting story for them to tell this baby girl when she grows up.
[The family] just had their one year anniversary of arriving in America! Now that their English is improving, it was fun to hear more details of their lives. They even told us all about what it was like to get on the big airplane that brought them here. Gone are the days of charades! I love hearing their stories and thoughts about life. They still have a way to go, but for one year, they have come far.
As always, when we leave and return home, we are reminded of just how much we have. It helps us keep our priorities straight. I’m grateful for each visit we have with them.
This last year with our refugee family has been the best thing our family has been involved in, hands down. We have learned to love unconditionally, to persevere when it is tough, to speak a few Arabic words, to laugh at ourselves, and to enjoy the simple things in life. I’d do it all over again! They are such dear friends to us now, we will never be the same since they came into our lives.
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Note: The family’s name and image have been removed or altered to protect their privacy.