Cultural Conversations: Refugees in San Antonio

On Monday evening I went to the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio to attend an event… “Cultural Conversations: Refugees in San Antonio“.

In San Antonio we’re lucky enough to have people from many different cultures. And if you know me, then you know I’ve discovered I’m quite passionate about refugees, especially considering what’s been going on lately.

Not only was I hoping to learn more, but I was hoping to find out how to volunteer. Because sometimes kids get in the way when you’re trying to do things like that…

Lucky for us, we want to include our kids in volunteering where possible. We just need the right place to do it.

There are some things we’ve already done, but we haven’t yet been able to find a place we can volunteer together on a regular basis.

Talking with someone at the end of the event, she said events like this not only help us learn, but they give hope. It seems people passionate about refugees have been scattered, but it’s encouraging to have people come together so we can be encouraged and work together better.

So the introvert left the house and went to an event…

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I walked in I signed in and got a nametag. Signed up to volunteer with Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio. Looked at this current exhibit that shares the stories of four refugee families that came to San Antonio, describing the conditions that caused them to flee their native countries and how they have adapted to their new homes:

Institute of Texan Cultures Exhibit

Then I passed through the food and drink area…

And came to an introvert’s worst nightmare… discovering that “conversations” doesn’t mean sitting and listening to a panel of people talk about refugees in San Antonio. It means having actual conversations with actual people.

Cultural Conversations

Ignoring my desire to fake illness and run out the door, I found a group that wasn’t full yet and not really talking to each other (so I could sit quietly too) and sat down next to an older lady who was happy to have someone to chat with.

Just before we got started a young guy sat next to me on my other side.

The first thing we did to open the event was to invite people who were immigrants or refugees to stand. Then those whose parents were refugees stood. Then grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents. Those of us who didn’t stand probably just didn’t know when exactly our family came to America.

The point?

America is a nation of immigrants.

If we don’t understand that, we’re missing something huge.

The majority of the time was spent talking in our groups. These were the questions we were answering:

  • How do we build community with refugees?
  • How does the refugee program work and how can I get involved?
  • The Law: What’s at Stake?
  • Fear of the Other: How can we overcome misconceptions and misperceptions?
  • How is Entrepreneurship and Leadership by former immigrants and refugees changing the city for the better?
  • How do we create Tolerant and Inclusive communities?

We had a volunteer leader guiding the discussion in each group.

Probably the coolest thing we came to discover… there were three basic types of people attending the event. And not any group was an overwhelming number of people.

  1. People who already volunteer and work with refugees
  2. People who are interested in the conversation and may want to volunteer
  3. Refugees

That young guy who sat next to me? Refugee, currently attending St. Mary’s. His roommate is at UTSA. And a friend of theirs teaches math at a school in San Antonio. The thing is… because of current policy, they aren’t allowed to go home and visit family and friends right now.

My group had the first question on my list, “How do we build community with refugees?”

We talked about what is difficult for refugees first.

  • Language barrier
  • Housing (have no record of credit most often)
  • Adapting to the culture here
  • Lack of reliable transportation (problematic for work and school, but also for connecting with other people

We also talked about what gaps and needs we see. The biggest thing we talked about was mentoring refugee families. There are already things in place to kind of start this… but they aren’t organized and they don’t know who is interested so they can launch.

I signed up. This is exactly what we want.

Mentoring is one word for this, but sponsoring may be a better word in a sense. You’re their advocate, their help to adapt to the culture. Call a couple times a week to see if they need anything. Hang out once a month to help practice English and let kids play.

There are already ESL classes you can volunteer to teach, and the Archdiocese organization here wants to do more with entrepreneurship classes for refugees.

Cultural Conversations

Possibly the biggest takeaway from our group…

Is that we should do this together. Don’t try to do this on your own, but find an organization who already has a program going. Either volunteer in that program or help them start a new one. They are already connected with the refugees here and those coming in. They know where they are, their communities, and they get whatever funding and donations the government and people give. Team up with them to make a difference.

Throughout the conversation I took notes where some people are working. I really want to check these out more, and I am looking forward to getting that first email about volunteering.

Here’s where others are volunteering with refugees:

There is a sense of fear and confusion about refugees and immigrants, especially now when those in power are determined to feed us information to make us afraid.

Just because we don’t understand someone doesn’t mean we have reason to be afraid of them.

Refugees are people with stories of being displaced from their home countries. Imagine having to choose between being killed in your country or to flee with all you can carry in just one small suitcase (and for us, with 2 kids in tow), no credit, no money, no contacts, and you don’t know the language of the country you’re allowed to go to. Not to mention half the population there fears you because you are different.

Where do we stand on this? Where should we?

“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’”
(Matthew 25:35-40 NASB)