Audrey Hepburn once said, “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”
For this project, I decided that I would get involved with ongoing efforts to help refugees that have come and are continuing to come to Tallahassee. Compared to all of the refugees moving into areas, it feels like Tallahassee gets such a small number. But even with the few new families that we receive every couple months or so, there is so much work to be done. My experiences with helping were through some women in my church, who were working to get families settled. I was really lucky to have those connections because not only did it present me with some opportunities, I was able to talk with them and hear a lot about different parts of the process of getting families settled and all the work that went into helping.
But to first go over my own experiences, the women set up a couple of drives to collect items that the families needed. Most of the people that came did so with very little more than what they were wearing. So a drive to collect new or gently used clothing of all different sizes was important to get set up quickly with the influx of a few more families. My family went through our closets and looked for things that we could part with for people who needed it more. The clothing drive was very successful, and by the end, the storage facility where they were keeping items to sort out before distribution was quite full of donations. There was also another drive for bedsheets. These they specifically asked to be new since used bedsheets can get gross fast if you’re that sort of person and they wanted to make sure the people coming in would get properly clean sheets. I went out with my grandmother to Kohl’s to get some sheets to contribute.
Along with bedsheets, there were all sorts of other things that the people needed. The tricky part of getting families settled was that the government only gave them so much money for a few months. One of the ladies I talked to dealt with this issue a lot. Each family was set up with an apartment or very small house, which after a few months they’d have to support on their own. But if they and the volunteers helping them settle could get the money they were given to stretch, then they would be able to use it to pay for the apartment for a little longer. This could be crucial for giving people time to find work to support themselves. So whatever items that the families would need could be donated, that meant the family wouldn’t have to pay for it from their government aid and they could make the aid last a little longer. Sometimes on Facebook I would see posts from one volunteer or another asking if anyone had old tables, bedframes, and other things that they could give to the refugees coming in.
Of the families coming in, there were more children than adults coming over. This meant a lot of mouths to feed, usually, but the older teens and young adults were actually consistently more likely to get jobs fairly quick than the older adults like the parents. They simply came off as more hirable, I think, to a lot of the entry-level jobs that volunteers were finding for them. But they also had an easier time picking up the basics of English. That was one of the hardest things, it seemed, when I heard about people trying to come and adjust here. Families Tallahassee received came from all over the Middle East and Northern Africa, and hardly anyone spoke English. These young adults were having an easier time picking up the language than their parents, and so were often the main providers for their family.
Considering just how difficult it was to learn English, the other way I was able to help contribute was probably my favorite. Some of the women I knew went into schools to volunteer with special classes for refugee children. When children came over, they were put into school, but they couldn’t follow along and learn typical lessons since they knew little to no English. They had most of their time with everyone else so hopefully they’d pick up some of the language that way, but they also had set apart time with volunteers who would read with them and try to help them get down some language basics to build off of in the normal class setting. They wanted older people with more child experience for the class help, but the women I knew set up a night at church where some of the women came to help put together booklets for the kids. They had alphabet sheets and a whole bunch of flashcards and writing practice pages. We set up a little assembly line to cut out and put in page protectors and organize into folders so that we could make as many as we could. Some of the items were specialized for learning a second language, and the booklets turned out quite well. I was glad that I was free that night and got to contribute in that way. Learning English was one of the hardest factors in how well and how quickly refugees would be able to set up their life here in Tallahassee.