Dylan, a summer intern in his own words... "This was the first time I met a refugee family: They spoke no English. There were bags under their eyes, gray hairs, a constant look of fear and pain scribbled onto their pupils. I stood in the donation room with them, helping them get supplies they’d run out of: Huggies, blankets, some light bulbs. We communicated on a basis of pointing and smiling. They were gracious and curtsied slightly before they left.
I interned this past summer at World Relief’s office in Southern California, an immigrant services and refugee resettlement agency. Cultures of all types converged in this office; every day I got smacked in the face with a new language, a new accent, a new face. One day a Vietnamese man walked straight into the office to speak with the Vietnamese rep, not even glancing at me. “Sir!” I said, getting up and running after him. “Sir, you’ll need to take a seat!” He looked at me, confused, so I used to Google Translate to talk and he exclaimed, “Oh, oh, oh!” and followed me back to the waiting room.
Another time I accompanied a caseworker to the home of a Burmese family of five — soon to be six, with the grandma arriving as a refugee that evening. We moved in mattresses, pillows, blankets, and other household necessities. Entering the home, an odd smell met my nose. It wasn’t bad, but it was different. It wasn’t a smell I was accustomed to and I found myself being repulsed. Don’t, I willed myself. It’s their food. It’s their culture. And I felt bad that I was grossed out. I hadn’t even had any of whatever it was and already I was writing it off. I wanted to be more open-minded than that.
Later, at an office celebration someone brought in legit Iraqi food from Little Arabia. Listen, before this, I considered myself open-minded when it came to food, but it’s not until you’re actually confronted with a foreign cuisine that you realize you’re actually not that outgoing. But I decided to be adventurous. I ate that Iraqi food and it was delicious.
Another job I had was gathering information from refugees, usually via phone. That was nerve wracking. What if they couldn’t understand me, what if I couldn’t understand them? What if I got something wrong? What if they were in a bad mood, what if I offended them? That never happened. Each refugee I talked to was positive and made a noticeable and concerted effort in English.
I thought of myself as a generous person before my internship at World Relief but it wasn’t until I actually interacted with them — the people on the news, the people to be feared, the people often used as scapegoats online — that I began to comprehend their struggle. The physical, emotional, and psychological toll crossing borders takes on a person is unfathomable to most Americans. Many of these people have lost everything they found valuable--children, parents, friends, their homes. And, the process to get to the United States can take years.
Another intern in the office was named Mohammad. He is from Iraq and had entered the U.S. as a refugee about 5 years ago. He’s currently in his second year at Cypress College; we still keep in touch through Snapchat and Facebook. We once worked together in the donation room, keeping inventory of donations for refugees. I asked him, “What do you consider your country?” and he said, “I’m country-less.” That profoundly affected the way I view my home, not just in the sense that I’ve had a permanent house most my life, but that there is stability in my country. We don't have war on the streets. What a simple thing to be grateful for.
My experience at World Relief heightened my sense of compassion for the vulnerable, including refugees and other immigrants. What does it mean to live a moral life? That question has stuck in my head since my internship experience. In my view, it’s helping out people. It’s serving the impoverished, the sick, the injured, and disadvantaged people. It’s opening yourself to people you normally wouldn’t, and allowing people to open up to you.
I feel like I was able to do a little bit of good while I was at World Relief, for the months I was there. But I learned a world’s load — most of which I don’t think I could’ve learned elsewhere. You can’t fully learn about refugees and other foreign born people online. It’s not a spectator sport. There’s a stigma around the word “immigrant,” they’re all lumped in under something negative. “They’re terrorists,” some say, or “they’re the ones taking our jobs.” There’s a sense that they’re villainous and shockingly malicious.
When I met a Syrian straight out of Damascus I was surprised at how incredibly normal she is. She rode the bus. She lives in a one-room apartment. She wants a better life for herself. Once I saw the world through the eyes of a refugee, and once I spoke with them, I wanted just to hug them.
I felt I grew tremendously while at World Relief and became more open and accepting than I’d ever been before.