Kailey, Dairyland’s Organizational Development Liaison, shares about her experiences volunteering with refugees in the US and how they have impacted her.

They timidly enter through the community center’s front door, up the steps to be greeted by a smiling face offering a name tag, a safe place for their children to play, and a seat at the table.

These individuals, mostly women, are refugees – new to both the country and Madison more specifically. Most come from warm climates, making the bitter cold of Wisconsin feel especially miserable. Most have already spent years crowded in refugee camps waiting to be granted asylum. Most have personally witnessed violence, experienced trauma, and are well acquainted with the stress of fleeing home. Many had successful careers, are educated, and were contributing members of society in their home countries. All have fled their homes because of war, persecution, or disaster.

I’m here because I volunteer with Open Doors for Refugees (ODFR), an all-volunteer group that helps refugees make a home in Madison. Though ODFR provides a broader array of resources to refugee families, on Sundays our main priority is to build relationships, drink tea, and practice English conversation. It’s delightful.

The first week I sat at a table with two Iraqi women. Both have a basic understanding of English; my fluency in Arabic, their native tongue, is even more meager. Yet we sit in a circle, smile, make hand motions often, and go about the work of practicing introductions, colors, numbers, driving directions, and job-related phrases. We go about the work of welcome and connection.

I have been interested in and concerned about refugees – especially those who have become my proximate neighbors – for a while now, beginning in college when I learned about the expansive global community living only a few blocks away from my campus.

I began joining a weekly craft club for middle school-aged refugee girls then tutored a Burmese family for a year prior to graduation. I loved those weekly visits. We drank Pineapple Fanta, explored the local library, shared stories and meticulously rehearsed the words and phrases that would become staples in their new lives.

I thought about the feeling that arises when we experience the pangs of loneliness, the insecurity of newness or displacement, and the counteracting power of feeling seen, cared for, and invited in. Though I have never experienced the refugee reality, I have sometimes known relative glimpses of those feelings as well as the human touch that didn’t allow me to stay isolated. Doing my best to reciprocate with our new guests seems only natural.

Spending time with the refugees I have known has profoundly affected and enriched my life. Whether from Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Bangladesh, Iraq, the DRC, or Syria. As trust grows, we move from sharing about the activities of our days and what we love to eat to the stories of our childhoods, of home, of joy and disappointment.

Maybe I play the role of “volunteer” but before long we simply become co-learners. And that, for me, is a way I can Live Engaged.