I will never forget my first day of school. It was the fall of 1988 and I was a scrawny five-year-old refugee kid from Laos. Just two years removed from a refugee camp in Thailand, I walked into Haywood Elementary school in Nashville, Tn. I didn’t understand a word of English and wasn’t sure what to expect. My father, who was working two full-time jobs at the time, managed to get me to school but didn’t know that I needed a backpack and school supplies. He also forgot that I needed to be registered!
Eventually, I was placed in Mrs. Lambert’s class first grade class. I remember feeling scared and confused because I could not understand what anyone said. The best way to describe this experience is a scene I watched many years later from the cartoon show, Peanuts. Charlie Brown and his friends sat in a classroom while an off screen character, presumably the teacher, can be heard saying, “wha wha wha wha.”
To make matters worse, the students didn’t seem interested in talking to me—I guess it didn’t help that my name was Saengthien Mitsamphanh (Thi was actually my nickname). Often, I buried my head on my desk out of frustration and helplessness. Thankfully, Mrs. Lambert was gracious and patient with me. I’ll never forget her warm hug and welcoming smile.
The days at school turned into weeks and months and my comprehension began to improve. Letters turned into words and sentences and soon I was able to communicate with my peers and teachers. My ESL teachers, Mrs. Corley, Mrs. Gonzalez, and Mrs. Mittivong taught me to read and write English. More importantly, they showed me that I mattered and instilled in me that I could achieve anything I put my mind to. I distinctly remember when other kids were making fun of me by calling me “chicken.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Mrs. Corley sat me on her lap and told me, “Saengthien, if anyone ever calls you chicken again, remember that Mrs. Corley LOVES chicken!”
There were others. Mrs. Mitchell, my second-grade teacher asked me one day to meet her in the back of the classroom. Was I in trouble? To my surprise, she showed me a black plastic bag full of boys’ clothing. She explained to me that her sons had outgrown the clothing and she wanted to give them to me. I held on to that bag all the way home.
Classmates turned into friends and failing grades improved until I was finally on the Honor Roll. By the time I headed into middle school I no longer needed ESL and my parents expected a report card full of A’s. Although they didn’t attend every parent-teacher conference, awards ceremony, or sports competition, they always encouraged me to study hard and take advantage of every opportunity to succeed. I eventually finished high school, became the first college graduate in my family, and last year received my doctorate degree.
This fall, many refugee kids will step into Memphis classrooms for the first time. They come with years of hardship and loss behind them but many more years of hope and opportunity ahead. Will their experience be similar to mine? What fears and frustrations will they feel? What challenges lie ahead for them? Who will come alongside them to encourage and equip them to thrive and succeed? My hope is that one day they can share similar stories of kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
There are many ways to invest in the lives of refugee students in Memphis. If you are interested in after-school tutoring contact email@example.com or Refugee Empowerment Program for volunteer opportunities. To help provide gifts cards for school uniforms, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you've been involved with refugees in Memphis, you already know that transportation is one of the greatest challenges facing these new Memphians. The WRM team has seen first hand how successfully refugees overcome this challenge and found these two articles interesting when considering difficulties with transportation.
In an article entitled The 7 biggest challenges facing refugees and immigrants in the US, Christina Nuñez, editor of Global Citizen, states that the lack of access to reliable transportation can affect nearly every aspect of a newly arrived refugee's life. She describes how limited English proficiency and literacy can delay obtaining a driver's license. The article also mentions that once a family does have one car, this still does not always meet all the needs for transportation. For example, children may need to go to school and adults may need to go to work or run errands at the same time.
In the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows further illuminates transportation challenges in How America Is Putting Itself Back Together. Fallows acknowledges the economic contribution of refugees and immigrants to smaller cities and towns while pointing out the difficulties created by inadequate transportation. In the article Fallows notes that unreliable public transportation is a significant challenge faced by refugees, who sometimes solve these problems by walking long distances to and from work, even in inclement weather. Fallows also tells that cultural norms regarding transportation can be challenging.
In Memphis, you can help new refugees overcome their transportation challenges in 3 ways.
- Driver's Education Classes: Donate $500 to pay for a refugee to attend class and receive private driving lessons. Students also have the opportunity to take driver's license testing.
- ESL Volunteers: Volunteer to help a refugee become fluent and literate in English so they can pass the driving exam.
- Used Cars: Donate a working used car or money towards the purchase of a first car.
Acting on any of these steps will help refugees assimilate to life in Memphis and move towards self-sufficiency.
Zuhra, Turkmenistan, University of Memphis
Why am I doing this? How is volunteering valuable to me? Why does it matter?
Such kinds of questions rolled repeatedly through my mind when I was sitting during volunteering orientation.
Volunteering is the perfect way to learn and develop a new skill. Mahatma Gandhi said, ”Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” For me community service is a part of my life. It has strengthened my character in ways that will be professionally and socially beneficial for years to come. I had a huge experience before I arrived to Memphis. I worked at the National Red Crescent Society in Turkmenistan where I taught classes over Art Therapy to disabled kids at rehabilitation centers as well as kids from orphanages. I also helped elderly, lonely people who were living alone. When I first arrived to Memphis, I met amazing people who helped me with cultural adjustments and introduced me to World Relief, the only refugee agency in Memphis. I had never met any refugees before, so that experience was totally new for me and was one of the reasons I chose to complete my community service hours with them. I am so happy to be part of the World Relief family.
One of the greatest things about my volunteering experience with World Relief was meeting and building relationships with refugees from all over the world, whether it was having a dinner with a family from Syria or helping with a doctor’s appointment for a Nepali family. As I spent time with some refugee families, I was able to hear some of their stories, visit their homes, and learn about their cultures. I learned a lot of their stories that touched my heart. I can’t even imagine how hard it was to be separated from their family, culture, friends and environment. My experience with meeting and helping them opened my eyes to many different types of people and the difficult circumstances they are facing.
I believe that everyone deserves a better life. I’ve met refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nepal, etc. All of them are brave, intelligent, good-natured, delightful people who want the same future for themselves and their children as we do.
I assumed before that one person can never make a difference, but now I’ve realized that change starts with you. Yes! You, me, her, and just ordinary people. You have something valuable to contribute and learn from befriending, assisting, and advocating for immigrants and refugees.
It’s really neat to be able to take something and to present it to somebody else who really needs it. It can be just friendship, knowledge and experiences. It makes all the difference in the world.
Originally posted here.
So far 19 Syrians have taken refuge in Memphis, and Mahmoud Al Hazaz is just one. He left his home country of Syria behind and took his family to Jordan after the government shelled his successful restaurant. But life is rarely easy for a refugee. Mahmoud has now found safety in the Bluff City for his wife and four children and is hopeful the rest of his family can join him here soon.
This isn’t a story of pain, even though it could be. It’s a story of hope that rises out of pain, and that’s probably the most genuine kind.
Imagine owning a successful restaurant, one that is profitable and full of customers, the kind you see time and again across Memphis. Mahmoud Al Hazaz’s street-level restaurant in Homs, Syria, drew big crowds, bringing him success and a good life.
But in the early days of what has turned into a crippling civil war, big crowds came to represent dissension to the Syrian government. In early 2011, when the Syrian regime came across large crowds they countered with AK47s, tanks and other weapons.
It was during this time that Mahmoud’s busy restaurant was hit with a tank shell. Thankfully when diners saw troops coming, they all went inside and no one died.
Think about that for just a moment. No one died. At a restaurant. Talk about finding the good in a bad situation.
“In the beginning of the events they started with peaceful demonstrations,” Mahmoud says through an interpreter. “Then the Syrian regime came with weapons. When they would see a big group of people they’d shoot at them. We had a crowd of people at the restaurant and the government hit it.”
Mahmoud tells this story as he sits in the living room of the Memphis apartment he has called home since early December. There is no emotion in his eyes as he retells his story in a matter-of-fact tone. Maybe it’s the passage of time – it has been more than four years, after all – or maybe the fact no one died in this attack. Either way, Mahmoud seems grateful.
There is something different about Mahmoud. By all accounts, he is an excellent chef, with the ability to make fantastic versions of traditional Syrian specialties. But on this mild and sunny January afternoon in Memphis, Mahmoud isn’t talking about food. Not yet, anyway.
His restaurant was destroyed by his government. He and his business partner responded by reopening it in a taller building so it wouldn’t be in the line of fire. But Mahmoud also decided it might be safer if he stayed with a friend instead of in his own home.
The fighting eventually followed. The free Syrian army and Syrian government forces had firefights around his restaurant.
It’s estimated that since the Syrian civil war began in early 2011, a quarter of a million people have died. Mahmoud’s father was one of them. Mahmoud didn’t share how, only that a bullet did the job. No emotion, just a bullet.
Mahmoud left his successful restaurant of five years behind and took his family to Jordan. It was still pretty easy to leave Syria in November 2011. In those days a passport was enough.
It also helped that at the border crossing, no charges against Mahmoud or his brothers were found. So they were allowed to cross, ultimately settling in the capital city of Amman.
When he and his family first arrived, conditions were good. They were welcomed, and Mahmoud and his family began to resume life in a new home. But life is rarely easy for a refugee.
“In the beginning, Jordanians were welcoming,” Mahmoud said. “Their treatment was good, but then as more and more came and it got crowded, the way we were treated was difficult.”
Mahmoud said rents were raised, but because of his restaurant experience, this successful chef had no problem finding work, especially in the beginning. Also, living conditions weren’t bad, especially compared to Syria. Mahmoud’s extended family of 10 shared a four-bedroom apartment.
But then more Syrians followed and with them more difficulties. In his first year in Jordan, Mahmoud didn’t need special permission to find work. Later, though, the country began requiring refugees to acquire permission papers to gain employment, which meant it cost about $700 a year just to get a job.
In Memphis, Mahmoud hopes to gain permission to work soon. His traditional Syrian food is really good, he said. It’s hard not to take this man’s word for it. He’d love to find a restaurant that could use his services, or maybe a restaurant owner or investors willing to take a chance on a man who’s already taken a chance on life and won.
“All my experience has been with Arabic food, so that’s what I’m comfortable with. But I can learn anything,” he said. “I can do Western food.”
In broken English, he said “KFC,” with a smile.
Mahmoud has found safety in Memphis for his wife and four children. But his mother and brother, as well as his brother’s wife and child, are still in Jordan. Mahmoud said the family is hopeful to hear soon they can come to the United States.
Maybe you’ve heard their story. Mahmoud’s mother was interviewed by the website Humans of New York in early December. “Tomorrow he’s leaving for a place called Memphis, Tennessee,” she told the site. “I don’t know what I will do without him. I hope they will let me come to Memphis too. Can you tell us anything about Memphis? Are there nice people there? I heard that it is a city of music. I love music.”
Mahmoud is hopeful his family can join him here. He also has a brother still living in Syria, and two others living in Germany and Brazil, respectively.
Memphis is a different world than Syria. For one thing, Homs is a battleground.
“I didn’t know anything about Memphis,” Mahmoud said. “I knew California and Texas. It’s very nice here. The people have been excellent. Their treatment of us has been very good. I’m not just saying this for your sake. When I talk to my family they ask, ‘How is the treatment of Americans,’ and I say it’s wonderful.”
Mahmoud said his children were afraid at first because they were around new people, and because they didn’t know the language. They’re adjusting, though, particularly the girls – ages 10, 8 and 5 – who are all in school. The boy is 2 1/2, and like most toddlers, his attention is on the phone in his hands instead of the American reporter in his living room.
Mahmoud said his life was wonderful in Syria, but that was before the civil war. There is no going back for him, ever.
“Syria’s finished,” he said with a smile. “As far as I’m concerned Syria’s finished.”
He did admit that he’d like to one day live in his home again, but he knows better.
“There’s nothing to go back to,” he said. “The old city is demolished, complete destruction. There is no going back.”
Not to their house, at any rate. When they left Syria, Mahmoud and his family left a home fully furnished. Afterward, they heard everything was stolen, even the toilets, electrical fixtures, and light bulbs. It’s since been destroyed, presumably by an artillery shell.
And of course, Mahmoud’s story isn’t unique.
More than 800,000 Syrian refugees sought asylum in Europe between April 2011 and November 2015, according to the United Nations. That’s enough people to fill 12 soccer fields, standing very tightly.
Additionally, the UN has registered more than 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa, most of them living in camps close to the border. For these refugees, it would take 62 soccer fields.
So far 19 Syrians have taken refuge in Memphis. Nearly 55 soccer fields fit in one square mile, and Memphis is over 300 square miles in size. That’s enough room for considerably more than 19 Syrians.
Steve Moses is the office director for World Relief Memphis, an organization that brings about 200 refugees a year to the area. He recently was in the Middle East, a region he’s spent a lot of time in over the years. He gets emotional recalling a 5-year-old girl he met.
“She cuts herself, breaks glass in her hand, takes cold showers yet shows no emotion,” he said. “Her uncle sits incapacitated and in a deep depression.”
But the most important part of the work he does, Moses said, is to deliver the message he’s been told to bring back to America, time and again.
“All – yes, all – of them stated they are human,” he said. “Real people … they desire for dignity and respect. (They want) their personal stories to be known and not simply lumped together as a large group of people.”
By Lance Wiedower in the High Ground News on Thursday, January 21, 2016. The original article can be found here.
The Refugee Empowerment Program (“REP” for short) is a cornerstone of support for our refugee community in Memphis. In 2002, a recently arrived refugee began to see a need for educational support and more interconnectedness between the refugee population and local Memphis communities. She came to Memphis from Sudan with her 5 children and her sister’s 5 children (sadly her sister passed away before their journey to Memphis).
Because of her vision and her efforts, with 12 students and 2 volunteers, REP opened its doors; since then, it has grown to a network of more than 400 people plus hundreds of volunteers who are committed to serving and walking alongside many refugee families who call Memphis their home. Many refugee youth have had limited access to formal education, because they have spent large periods of time in refugee camps or fleeing persecution. After families are resettled in Memphis, REP and its dedicated staff and volunteers help to fill this education gap.
(For a more background information, you can watch this short video featuring the founder of REP on the Choose 901 Blog.)
REP offers an after school program Monday-Thursday and currently serves about 250 refugee students who range in age from pre-kindergarten to high school seniors. Some of their other programs include educational summer programs for youth, adult education classes (including three levels of ESL classes), character education classes for teenagers, college prep courses, pre-GED classes for adults, a women’s leadership program, and Bible studies for all ages.
We recently were able to talk with Cam Blackmon, the Executive Director of REP, about their work in Memphis. It was abundantly clear from our conversation that the staff and volunteers at REP are changing lives on a daily basis. She spoke about our tendency as Americans to “fix” problems, but how working in community gives you a unique opportunity to be part of a process that is beneficial for both you and the person who you are working alongside.
Mrs. Blackmon also talked about finding community and kinship in ordinary circumstances and how REP strives to “teach education through daily life.” She sees REP as a mission field, where she is able to work with people from various nations and show them that we all have “love” in common - and that love can transcend oceans and any of the barriers that might keep us apart.
We are so thankful to have the Refugee Empowerment Program serving refugee families in Memphis! If you would like to learn more about REP, get involved with any of their programs, or support their work with a donation, you can visit their website.
One of the biggest barriers faced by the refugee population is access to transportation. The public transportation system is not very reliable or user-friendly for our clients. For example, it may not provide routes or schedules that are convenient for certain jobs. Saving money for a car takes time, and obtaining a driver’s license is also difficult for our clients who have limited English proficiency because Tennessee’s exam is only offered in English and Spanish. Refugees with limited English skills do learn English, but takes time, especially to have the skill level to pass the exam. We rely heavily on our volunteers to transport our clients until they are able to provide their own transportation, and we are really excited about this new program that will offer transportation to our refugee clients and Memphis residents!
Recently, we sat down with Sara Studdard, the project manager at Explore Bike Share, to talk about what the Bike Share program hopes to bring to Memphis and how this service will positively impact the greater Memphis community and our refugee clients. Explore Bike Share is committed to developing a bike share program that can truly advance our city on multiple fronts: transportation, tourism, health, environment, and culture.
Explore Bike Share is in development to build a system with around 60 stations and 600 bikes that will connect the city’s downtown, midtown, and surrounding neighborhoods. Bike Share also hopes to make connections with existing greenway assets and the future Wolf River Greenway trail. Memphians would be able to walk up to a station, pay (with cash or credit card) to check out a bike, and ride for a chosen amount of time. There will be a variety of membership options from daily to longer term, all of which include unlimited mileage within a set amount of time. After your time is up, you return the bike to any of the stations, either to end your adventure or to check it out again.
Sara expressed that she believes the Bike Share program will bring the Memphis community closer by connecting fellow Memphians with each other. She says Bike Share is not only a mode of transportation, but also a tool to connect our neighborhoods and our cultural assets because people will be spending time biking through areas that they might have previously driven right through on their way to somewhere else. She also noted that there is only a short bike ride between many of the neighborhoods and popular attractions throughout Memphis.
This is especially exciting for our refugee clients. We envision them being able to access Bike Share to make it easier to get to and from work or run errands, and also to connect more with the broader Memphis community. Accessing a bicycle is a reliable and cost-effective solution for transportation that also provides the benefit of exercise and opportunities to socialize - which means that our clients can benefit financially, physically, and socially from this program. We at World Relief are very excited about the Bike Share program coming to Memphis soon.
If you would like more information, visit their website: http://www.explorebikeshare.com.
60 million. According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, there were 60 million refugees worldwide in 2014. The United States resettles around 60,000 per year. Memphis, TN resettles around 200 per year. I had the incredible opportunity of interning with World Relief Memphis for one summer – or roughly one-fifth of the year. So one-fifth of 200 refugees = 40 refugees.
40 out of 60,000,000. That’s nothing. That’s less than one percent of one percent of one percent of refugees for the year. That’s nothing. I did nothing. But when you’re serving the God of the universe, He turns nothing into everything. I could talk for hours how God moved in Memphis this summer and I wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface.
For the most part, the tasks I did this summer appear fairly simple. I moved furniture. Cleaned apartments. I took families to the grocery store. To the Social Security office. To the doctor. To the bank. To register for school. To the Health Department. Taught English classes. ….Nothing that appears all that difficult to an average American citizen. But now imagine doing all these things: without a car, without speaking any English, without being able to fill out a form in English, without knowing where these places are, without knowing how these processes work, without the documents you need. Suddenly ordinary things become near impossible.
But that’s where we came in. We - people who didn’t speak your language- would show up at your apartment, take you and your family and documents to some unknown location, would often wait there for hours, talk in English to people behind counters, and return you home.
But sometimes those “simple” tasks involved having a 4 year old boy scratch you because he hates going to the doctor, digging through trash looking for a receipt, running through the aisles of all the nearest grocery stores looking for a family, waiting at Social Security for hours only to be told the documents are missing one number, spending five hours fighting for four students to get enrolled in high school, or simply sitting in a corner and filling out stacks of forms.
But in all that, in all the craziness and the struggles and the frustrations, I realized what it means to advocate for someone, to stand up for them, to fight for them when they don’t know how to themselves. I realized what Jesus does for us each and every day. I realized how Jesus stands before our Father, pleads for us, takes our burdens, and suffers. How Jesus advocates for us when we can’t do it ourselves. How we don’t even know half of what He is doing for us, or remotely understand why, yet He patiently and selflessly loves and stands up for us. And He never stops. Even when we want to.
God taught me this summer how upside-down He works. He revealed stories of suffering and death and pain, beyond which my heart could bear. He led me to my knees asking why. And then reminded me that He created this universe, and my little childlike mind can’t begin to understand why. And taught me this - that we are most the hands and feet of Jesus Christ when we humble ourselves, when we step out of our comfortable bubble, when we are broken at the foot of the cross, and when we learn to love in spite of the brokenness.
God gives us a new perspective if we let Him take us out of our routine. I experienced new meanings of ordinary words: family, sacrifice, loss, trust, injustice, faith, worship, forgiveness, ambition, suffering, joy, community, and love. I came to World Relief to serve others, and others served me. I came to love others, and others loved me. In the words of my partner: We taught English, but they taught us life.
All thanks be to God, for this summer, for this Jesus-serving organization, for the selfless staff who work there, for the other interns that made it so memorable, and for the loving refugees who taught us all so much.
Intern Summer 2015
If we are being honest, health insurance and accessing health care services can cause a headache (no pun intended) for almost all of us. There are rules, regulations, and policies everywhere you turn. This is no different for our newly arriving refugee clients.
We recently sat down to talk with Michael Evans, the State Refugee Health Coordinator for the Tennessee Office of Refugees in Nashville about his job and experiences working with refugees. Michael began his work with refugees at World Relief in Nashville, then started working with the Tennessee Office of Refugees in March 2013. Michael oversees refugee health across the state of Tennessee, which he says consists of three primary components:
(1) offering a TennCare alternative for refugees who do not qualify for TennCare,
(2) overseeing medical screenings for newly arrived refugees, and
(3) promoting a program that encourages health literacy and helps refugees who have difficult medical conditions.
He spoke of some of the barriers that refugees face with regard to healthcare access, including limited English skills. It is also difficult to find medical providers who are culturally sensitive and have a degree of understanding of what a refugee has been through. Similarly, finding medical providers who are willing to provide interpretation services can be challenging because it could mean covering the cost an interpreter if that is not a service covered by a patient’s insurance.
When asked about the strengths that he has seen in the refugee population, Michael spoke of their kindness and generosity as well as their resilience and adaptability. Most people can only imagine what life would be like in a similar situation: forced to leave home to move somewhere with little or no knowledge of the language and culture and without a strong support system. To say this would be hard is an understatement. Michael said that it is amazing to think about the fact that people actually “make it.” They go through that and more, but succeed and are able to live well-adapted lives - which is such a testament to their hard work and resilience.
Michael said he thinks that it would be very easy for refugees who have experienced so much hardship to blame a higher power; however, he said he does not see that. Most often, they are deeply convinced of who their God is and His faithfulness through hard situations. He says that it has given him a better perspective when he is going through a hard times because he has seen God be faithful to so many people and he knows that God will be faithful to him as well.
Michael, we appreciate your heart and your work for refugees across the state of Tennessee!
On my second day as a summer intern at World Relief, the four other interns and I spent an entire morning and afternoon visiting the homes of refugees in Memphis. We hopped from apartment to apartment hoping to make new friends and to receive advice for understanding and helping refugees who are resettling in the US.
Each home received us with warm smiles, delicious tea, and many stories. One Syrian family even went so far as to prepare an amazing, authentic lunch for us to eat! Each family shared their experiences as they’ve adapted to the States and offered us tips for the different cultures we would encounter during the internship. Some refugees even told us memories of their life back home.
Many of these refugees have fond memories of their countries—how beautiful the green mountains are, how delicious a traditional food is, or how fun celebrations with their families used to be. Every refugee, however, has lost much in the way of violence. All have been displaced, forced to leave their homes and possessions behind. I met some families that have spent as many as 20 years in refugee camps. Even more, many of these people have lost family members due to conflict. Some have died and others are somewhere back in Africa or the Middle East, without contact or a means to bring them over to the United States.
In my life, I’ve had times that were hard for me, and I got through them because people came around me and loved me. These refugees have experienced and are experiencing hardship that I cannot fathom. They absolutely need people to come around them. Being an intern at World Relief showed me firsthand that it’s not impossible, or really even too difficult for that matter, to support and love those who are from other continents, cultures, and religions. So many are happy to invite an American into their homes and share what little they may have, be it tea, food, smiles, and stories. The majority of foreigners have never been invited into an American home, and I know from experience that a meal shared in our home with them would be a great delight and honor! However we can join in their lives and share the same love that Jesus has for the multiplicity of peoples throughout the world, we should seek to do it.
My involvement at World Relief prepared me for the next year that I will spend in Jordan. God used this time to give me experience with Muslim and Middle Eastern culture. If you’re interested in learning to love and share with people like these in your present and in your future, there is no better place than World Relief. Also, please pray for me as I’m in Jordan!