At a training seminar to teach volunteers how to work with refugees, Elham Khairi, who spoke about cultural awareness, asked attendees to read phrases on slips of paper from a basket.
“This person cannot make eye contact,” one statement read. “This person walks five miles a day,” read another. “This person is known as a troublemaker.”
“What if all those sentences [are] all in one person?” Khairi said. “What do you think about that person? All these qualities in one person: will you be a friend to them? Will you hire them?”
“This is why we’re here,” one attendee replied. “Because we all have something to give to that one person.”
Khairi revealed she was that person.
Though Richmond doesn’t compare to larger cities like Boston and New York in terms of having a historic immigrant population, a number of organizations work to help refugees who have recently arrived to the area. The seminar, held last Saturday by three local refugee aid organizations, included English-as-a-second-language lectures and discussions on working with refugee communities and services for immigration and resettlement. Many attendees were volunteers already working with one of the host organizations.
The nonprofit ReEstablish Richmond, one of the groups that hosted the training, focuses on transitioning, empowering and connecting refugees to resources. Executive Director Kate Ayers said Richmond’s refugees are mostly from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Immigration and refugees have been controversial topics since the inception of President Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban on a number of Muslim-majority countries. The president has continued to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. every year, with plans to cap the number at 30,000 in 2019.
“The community impacted the most is our Syrian families,” Ayers said. “There were probably seven or eight families in Richmond before the ban came down …[now] they’re seeing and hearing about their family members in danger.”
Ayers said ReEstablish Richmond has several volunteer teams who help people look for employment, buy homes and study for the citizenship test.
“One person we have is from Pakistan,” said volunteer Ed Meyer, who meets with the Pakistani refugee every week. “As soon as he gets all of his paperwork he’s going to be working seven days a week.”
Meyer said he has only been volunteering at the International Rescue Committee — another organization that helped host the training — as a mentor and driver for a few weeks, but said IRC’s work is “tremendous” and he plans to teach ESL in the future.
“I’ve been a volunteer for almost two and a half years,” said Cary Hintz, an ESL teacher with Church World Service — the training’s third host group. “I go into people’s homes. When people first come, they don’t have cars, they can’t get to those classes, so we go in their homes and teach them.”
Hintz described the work as rewarding, but challenging.
“It’s hard, it’s heartbreaking because of their stories,” Hintz said. “You cry with them.”