The following story was shared by Tessa K., a member of Grace Lutheran Church is Des Moines, WA. Grace Lutheran is a member of the Circle of Welcome, the LIRS network’s program connecting congregations and community groups with newly resettled refugee families.
It started with a cup of tea.
My first visit with the Afghan family my church is co-sponsoring was at their brother’s house, where they were staying for a few weeks while they waited for their new apartment to be ready. We were strangers, meeting for the first time. Different cultures, different customs, different languages. I was completely out of my comfort zone, but so were they: The family of 11 had arrived in this country after spending over a year at a refugee camp, having fled their home with only the belongings that could fit in a suitcase. They had just been told a group of strangers were going to help them, people who didn’t know their culture or language or religion. I’m sure they were just as apprehensive as I was feeling.
Upon arriving, I removed my shoes and was ushered into their hosting room, a special room just for guests with beautiful carpeting and matching cushions lining the walls. I smiled and nodded my greeting.
“Tea?” the father asked.
All my fears quickly subsided over the warmth and hospitality of that first cup of tea.
Moving the family into their new apartment was just the beginning. The morning after the move, a call came from the family’s case manager with Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW). Could we help the kids get enrolled in school? The father was eager for his kids to be in school since they had no schooling for the year they were at a refugee camp in Qatar. I said that of course we could help and sent a message to our team asking if anyone could meet with the family and help them get enrolled in school. It took [volunteers] Diane and Shawna about 10 hours over two days to get the six school-aged children enrolled, with Google Translate as the only form of communication.
That Friday was supposed to be their first day of school. However, something was lost in translation (as I’m finding is a common occurrence when relying on Google Translate), and the kids didn’t get on the bus. Over the weekend, I spent time writing up the bus schedules and translating them into Pashto, printing out cards the kids could carry on the bus with them saying who their teacher is, what class they should be in, and that they don’t speak English. The next Monday, Gail (another volunteer) and I went to the family’s apartment in the morning, took off our shoes and entered the hosting room, where we were greeted with tea and breakfast. We then showed the parents and children where and when to get the bus, and we walked the high schoolers to their school. As we were leaving, the eldest daughter asked if she could have my number so we could communicate directly.
A week later, the family messaged me asking if I could come help them with some “problems.” When I arrived, I took off my shoes, made my way to the hosting room and was again served a cup of tea. As an Afghan refugee, I would learn, a big problem is not being able to understand the mail and email you’re receiving. The family had also been receiving phone calls from the school and didn’t understand what was being said.
After helping with their problems, they insisted I stay for a meal—and it was one of the most amazing meals of my life. After the meal, we had another cup of tea and chatted back and forth using Google Translate. They told me more about their life in Afghanistan, and it was in this conversation that we learned that the eldest daughter is married and her husband was left behind in Afghanistan. She showed me her Google-translated phone: “I am sad.”
I typed in Google Translate on my phone and showed it to her: “I’m sorry you’re sad.”
Over that cup of tea, we were no longer strangers, we’d become friends.
The next challenge was one that I thought would be simple: doctor appointments. Their case manager at LCSNW had scheduled appointments for everyone in the family: two per day over 6 days. What I didn’t count on was the follow-up appointments, prescription pickups, lab results, rescheduled appointments, and the struggle with the language barrier. At an appointment for the 1st grader and 4-year-old, the father couldn’t accompany them, so his wife came along instead. Unfortunately, the mother hadn’t had any education and doesn’t read or write in Pashto, so Google Translate did not work for her.
A few days later, I visited the family again to bring some winter coats, help them set up their TV, and practice getting on Zoom for their English classes. I took off my shoes by the door and greeted all the kids as I sat down in the hosting room. Sipping on the tea I had become accustomed to, I watched all the kids try on coat after coat generously donated by people of Grace Lutheran Church. They sat patiently, refilling my tea while watching me install Zoom on their computer and practice logging into their English classes. They insisted again that I stay for a meal, and after another delicious dinner, I set up their TV and they turned on YouTube. Scrolling through videos, I got an education in Afghan culture and what’s currently going on in their country. We discussed important and difficult topics, trusting in Google Translate to convey our message correctly. This time, I wasn’t worried Google Translate would get something wrong and I’d offend them, because they knew me, and I knew them.
They poured me another cup of tea and I asked if it would be okay to share their story with our congregation.
The father said, “Of course, we trust our story with you.”
I was surprised by the trust, and asked, “Are you sure?”
They all nodded and the teenage son smiled and said, “You are family.”
There are so many more amazing stories, and I could talk all day about the joy they have brought to my life. Maybe over a cup of tea.
To learn about how your congregation or community group can get involved, please visit the Circle of Welcome hub!