A few months ago, a woman posted a story online about a Syrian family that had been living in the D.C. area for the past four years. The father, an Uber driver, was struggling to make ends meet. Money that had once gone to pay rent or to buy diapers for his youngest child was needed instead to pay for his wife’s medical bills since their Medicaid coverage was cut off. He had family and more support available in California, but the airfare was impossible. He posted an ad to sell his daughter’s bed, hoping to raise $15. A woman, a stranger, came across the man’s ad and posted his story to a Google Group asking for help. Within three days, a group of D.C. residents collectively contributed $2,500 and enough airline miles to fly the family of four from Virginia to California. Kenn Speicher, one of the dedicated members of this group, called this effort “the power of the network.”
The network to which Kenn referred is the Northern Virginia Friends of Refugees (NoFR). The group is comprised of six hundred forty members representing faith communities, NGOs, elected government officials, refugee communities, businesses, and schools. It is dedicated to mobilizing communities to support resettled refugees in the greater Washington area. With its mission of “making every refugee feel welcome and every resident a welcoming friend,” NoFR engages in three types of programs: advocacy, life-skill training programs, and community events.
I spoke with Kenn, a dedicated member of the NoFR executive committee, who is no stranger to helping those in need. He was involved in numerous Methodist Church mission trips to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and then became more involved with the church’s immigration services. NoFR founders Wendy Chan and Norma Kacen were disheartened by the political rhetoric attacking refugees in 2016 and decided to educate their community with forums on refugee resettlement. NoFR invited speakers from a number of government agencies, resettlement organizations, and the refugee community itself. These forums sparked a lively dialogue. Chan and Kacen built on this, forming a movement committed to delivering local, community-based solutions for refugees and host communities.
“Imagine if you moved to a brand new country, unable to speak the language, unaccustomed to its culture,” said Kenn. “You need medical attention, but you don’t know how the healthcare system works or what documentation to bring or how to interact with medical staff. These are just some of the problems newly resettled refugees face in the U.S.”
This challenge inspired one of the programs of which Kenn is most proud. NoFR, in partnership with Georgetown Medical School first year medical students, is producing a series of short medical orientation videos in several languages for refugee families to better prepare them for interactions with the U.S. healthcare system. The videos also serve to bring attention to the particular needs of resettled refugees in the area and to better tailor medical practices to the refugee population.
Today, NoFR strives to create welcoming communities for refugees by encouraging people to meet refugee families, to take the time to understand their stories and what they have experienced. The group facilitates community outreach to resettled refugees and their host communities through special events, such as the upcoming One Journey Festival this June at the National Cathedral. They also send regular updates on social media sites such as Facebook and hold community education events. They publicize available medical and social services, employment training, job openings and resources available from other government and private organizations. The group works to rally citizen volunteers, organizations and refugees themselves to work together to create local solutions and build welcoming communities for refugees and their neighbors.
The stories Kenn shared with me exemplified this mission. He told me of a young Afghan girl, who came to the United States to pursue two graduate degrees, knowing that, someday, she wanted to become a member of the Afghan government. She didn’t know the area, and her stipend provided limited funds for housing. After hearing her story, the NoFR community helped her find affordable housing so she could pursue her dream. Then there is the Sudanese man who arrived in Virginia with next to nothing. He started his own company selling coffee. He leveraged his network, learned about American markets, and grew a sustainable business. His profits now help his village back in Sudan, and he speaks at several NoFR events.
Meeting refugee families, understanding their stories, empathizing with the conditions they have fled – this is the way to create welcoming communities. As Kenn so beautifully puts it, “interpersonal experiences transcend politics.”
Jessica Thea, an intern at Refugees International, is the author of the “Welcoming Communities” series.