The Gift of Welcome: Giving Refugees a Home
The aerial view: a hilltop Nolensville Road apartment complex, resplendent with saris and hijabs, lilting and unfamiliar languages, kids playing soccer. Now zoom in: Near a tidy playground, there’s a cheery cinderblock classroom, where a dark-eyed Nepali man answers another woman’s questions. They’re demonstrating a mock job interview to six young, hopeful and attentive Nepalis who’ve spent most of their lives in refugee camps.
“I am eager to work,” the man tells the “interviewer,” as another American woman nods approvingly. World Relief ESL coordinator Brandy Holloway, her growing baby barely showing beneath a striped turtleneck, is teaching these new immigrants how to live in America, beginning with the basics: how to talk and how to find work.
This particular gentleman arrived in February, and he is translating for the newer arrivals. He says that Holloway’s mentorship is a gift he won’t forget. “It is nice,” he says in his slowly-unfurling English. “I appreciate it.”
“Eden also helped,” he hastens to add — searching for the words to describe caseworker Eden Medhin, who gave him a tour of nearby hospitals and grocery stores and stocked his kitchen with food when he first arrived here. “It was the great help.”
At the World Relief office, Eden Medhin shows me a stack of shopping lists she’s created, each a country-specific menu of foods familiar to immigrants from Sudan or Somalia, Burma or Bhutan. “Then it will be so easy to shop!” she declares, flashing a triumphant smile.
For many refugees, Medhin is the first Nashvillian they meet upon landing at BNA. Every week she welcomes immigrant families from the world’s most desperate places — countries fraught by civil war or famine or ethnic strife. Medhin recognizes the excited, bewildered, and exhausted looks on their faces as they stumble into the terminal. She thinks back to her own journey on foot from Ethiopia to Sudan, a wait of four years, and finally, a flight to America.
“This is the best, best place,” she says, an American at heart, if not yet in name. With her house paid off and daughters in college, at Hume-Fogg, and at John Early Middle, Medhin is living her American dream by sharing it with people seeking their own. After greeting them at BNA, she takes them “home” to a furnished apartment and walks them through every detail of it. For some of these new Nashvillians, everything is so new, that Medhin has to explain what a toaster is for, and what kind of food goes into the refrigerator. With a sly shine in her eye, she adds that she gives this tour to women and men. “This is America,” she tells husbands. “Here, you need to help your wife.”
Medhin describes her work with World Relief as a calling. “Sometimes I work from 7 a.m. to midnight,” she says, in her quiet, modest way. “It’s in my heart. I love people.”
It’s the same with Holloway, a 29-year-old of firm Christian belief who followed that calling to Moldova for two years to learn what being an outsider is like. She says the trip taught her “to be a child again.” She sees that same frustration, exhilaration, and isolation in her students’ eager — but often uncomprehending — faces. “It made me a better teacher,” Holloway smiles.
As Holloway’s job readiness class draws to a close, she tells her Nepali students a story about how much she disliked her first job in Tennessee, and how she eventually found one she loved. This one. “If your first job is not what you want,” she enunciates carefully, “Don’t be discouraged. Do you know ‘discouraged’ in English?” They shake their heads.
Holloway says she once asked a group of refugees whether they thought the American dream was alive. “They said, “Yes, absolutely!’“ she smiles. “And everyone’s American dream is different.” For many, that dream is simple, and still taking shape — they come to America seeking a better life.
Holloway marvels at her students’ resilience and optimism, their willingness to work tedious, low paying jobs, and to find the energy to keep learning. For her, it’s a privilege to offer them the single most practical survival skill they’ll ever have.
“I have the fun job,” she says. “I’m giving them English.”
How you can help:
• Individuals or organizations can become a Refugee Angel Sponsor, which offers one more refugee a new, legal life in America. worldrelief.org/nashville/refugee-angel-sponsorship
• Individuals or organizations can “adopt” a family or a child for the Refugee Christmas Project. You’ll receive a photograph of your “adoptee” with a few modest gift suggestions.
• Visit the website to learn more about volunteer or donation opportunities: worldrelief.org/Nashville
Photo by Michael W. Bunch
“I was putting up my Christmas tree when I got the phone call,” says Teri Johnson-Hiett, referring to the moment she found out she had breast cancer. It was right around Thanksgiving in 2005, eight short months after losing her mother at age 51 to the same disease. Teri was only 29.
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