They’re not pretty, a cluster of dark-brick garden apartments from the seventies with rain-filled potholes in the parking lot that seem capable of swallowing small cars. The rooms have fake wood paneling and carpets that saw better days a decade ago.
But they’re safe. No one will break into your bedroom in the middle of the night to arrest you or your family. There will be no more torture or killings. It’s hard to imagine what the Burmese refugees who are being settled here have experienced, and I am not going to ask them.
“I hope they won’t kill me.” “I hope nobody’s following me.” “I hope I don’t step on a landmine.” “I hope they can help me find my family.” These are some of the sentiments commonly expressed by people who find themselves without safe haven in violent countries. They’re listed on a poster in the front office of the Interfaith Refugee Ministry in New Bern, North Carolina, to which a few of us have been delivering donated furniture.
On our last trip to Interfaith, Jeff and I drove a pickup crammed with chairs, dressers, and a beautiful kitchen table to an apartments that was being readied for a family of five from the Karen culture of Burma. As we waited in the Interfaith office for someone to escort us to the apartment, Jeff noticed another, more personal illustration of a refugee’s experiences: a child’s crayon drawing that showed houses with huge flames coming out of their tops. “This is the last view I had of my village,” a caption explained.
There is so much sadness in the world, in so many corners. The Interfaith office handles mostly Burmese, Congolese, and Colombian refugees. When I asked a staff member why Colombians might flee their country, she replied, “Their names are probably on a death list.” Apparently the drug wars there haven’t completely cooled down.
In Diffa, Niger, 130,000 refugees, mostly women and children, are living along a desert road that goes to nowhere. They’ve fled their fishing and farming villages to escape the terror being wrought on the region by Boko Haram. Nearly three million people in four countries have left their homes to escape Boko Haram’s reign of terror. Similar horrors are being played outworldwide. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more displaced people in the world today than ever before—more even than after World War II.
What can I possibly do to help soothe all this pain? Precious little, it seems, especially since my Outer Banks home is 140 miles from Interfaith, our closest resettlement agency.
But last year Susan Hutton, the executive director, told me that Interfaith has a constant need for good furniture. So some of us from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nags Head helped organized a furniture drive—and members of the congregation opened their hearts and their storage bins. We’ve tried to strictly follow Susan’s request: Please don’t bring anything you wouldn’t have in your own home. Several times we’ve loaded chairs or tables into a truck with the laughing comment, “This is nicer than my stuff!” I love the notion of offering these things to people who for years have been given only castoffs.
As we’ve rounded up things that will be useful—and only those—I’ve thought often of the advice I once received from a pastor who helps house the homeless in Detroit. I’d asked her what she most needed from her volunteers. “Don’t come here acting like it’s an outing at the zoo,” she advised. Meaning, treat the people you see here as courteously as you would your neighbors. Don’t gawk at them. Don’t intrude. Also, be willing to do whatever we need you to do, without question. Don’t tell us you have better ideas than we do for getting things done.
I’ve tried to take that to heart, despite my own desires. When I helped get this program started, I secretly hoped to be able to talk with the refugees who received the furniture, that (fantasy time!) maybe I’d even get to know them, hear their stories, and share some meaningful conversation. That is not likely to happen, not if I only drop into their lives for a few hours every few months.
One day I was able to sit in on a class about American customs with Congolese refugees. They smiled at me, and one very outgoing man posed for a picture in front of a map of the U.S. Mostly, though, they seemed shy and tired. I didn’t stay long, despite my intense curiosity. I just dropped off the goods I’d brought and quietly went home.
Susan and her staff have been very appreciative. It helps immensely, I think, that we are not needy volunteers. Instead, we try to bring what the refugees most need and then step away without expecting thanks. Susan’s thanks is always forthcoming, of course. But were it not, I would be fine. This is my goal: to unobtrusively help others and, in the process, to help myself.
Things have changed at Interfaith in the past four months. The numbers of refugees allowed into the U.S. this fiscal year has been cut from 110,000 to 50,000. Since Interfaith receives 80 percent of its funding based on the number of people it resettles, its budget has been severely cut. So now even more than furniture, the agency needs financial donations. The number of new clients will drop, yes, but it still must maintain basic support and services likes classes in English and cultural acclimation. The St. Andrew’s congregants and many friends on the Outer Banks have kindly responded by opening their pocketbooks.
It’s been so simple to start this helping effort, and so gratifying. I’m hoping I can remember its core lesson, which to me is a vital one: True service doesn’t need to be complex. It needs only to be careful and kind.
You can learn more about the Interfaith Refugee Ministry and its programs at www.helpingrefugees.org