Today is the last ESL class of the spring term. There will be a two-week break followed by the beginning of “summer school,” with an extra hour of class and programs for all of the children now out of school. Saying goodbye to my new friends on my last day of volunteering for a while felt like the last day of school but without any of the excitement—I am just going to miss them! Many of us start volunteering out of concern and a conviction to support refugee families, but we continue because we love it and don’t want to miss being with the friends we have made.
Since I started volunteering in January, I have made many new friends and seen them each learn and grow—their English is better, they are more confident, they are earning money, and they are truly a part of a community, both the Glocally Connected community and the larger community of Riverside.
I grew up in Riverside, and this has always been my community, but as our Congressman Mark Takano told one of the students when he met her at the Sahaba Initiative’s Iftar last month, our community is stronger for having refugee families here. That iftar, and the one the women are cooking and planning for this coming Saturday, are just two examples. There’s also the International Day of Peace event in September, where I first heard of Glocally Connected, the Alternative Gift Fair, the Peace Vigil, the Riverside Art Market, meals at First United Methodist, making lunch for the homeless. I sat with two of the families at the interfaith service at Temple Beth El in March. Three families came to the Sweet and Sour event at the Citrus State Park and shared citrus stories all the way from Afghanistan. They truly are a part of this community. That’s a testament to Sherry and Selin and the organization they’ve built, but it’s also a testament to the women and their bravery in being here and courage in taking steps to make it a home for themselves and their families.
I have thought a lot about “home,” and place and community as I have gotten to know these families and tried to welcome them to my hometown while knowing just a little bit about theirs. After class one week I was walking to my car with my cousin, her two sons, and one of our new friends from Afghanistan when two-year-old Elliott pointed up at the bright blue sky and exclaimed, “Look! An airplane!” We looked up with him, then Farishta told us when her kids see planes in the sky, they say “Afghanistan,” remembering their long journey from their home there to their new home here. A few weeks earlier, I had been driving Friba and Shabnam to class and pointed to the snow covered mountains, glistening on this sunny southern California day. Friba said when she sees them, she thinks of the mountains in Afghanistan. The day I met Raudnaur, a Syrian refugee, I was overwhelmed thinking that the day before she had been in Turkey, and a short while after landing at LAX, here she was—here we were—in a room in a church I had driven past for years, women from Afghanistan and Syria and Turkey and Canada and Taiwan and Riverside. Talk about “glocally connected.” And in spite of everything, we were laughing a lot!
When we celebrated the New Year at Fairmount Park, where I used to feed the ducks when I was a kid, I looked at the women I had met and their families spread out on picnic blankets, and at my brother talking to their husbands and my mom holding their babies, and I thought to myself that I was glad we were all there. Now I have a painting of a park in Afghanistan done by Shabnam’s son, here in the United States for just under six months, and I imagine, someday, maybe, somehow, I can visit Afghanistan with my friends and they can show their Fairmount Parks and the places they call home, because I am so glad they are part of the places I call home.
The circumstances that created the refugee crisis and the political rhetoric exacerbating it are ugly, the worst of humanity; the love, courage, and community shown in the midst of it are beautiful, the best. It’s the only thing that has gotten me through this year, and I can’t wait to be back in school with my friends.
By: Nicolette Rohr, UCR Graduate Student and Glocally Connected Volunteer