I live in a close-knit community where everyone practically knows each other from birth. I married my childhood sweetheart, my best friend’s house is only at the end of the road, and my parents stay next door. The other folks in the neighborhood have similar life stories, too.
Then, sometime in 2012, we saw a new car pull up at the only apartment complex in town. At first, we thought that the landlord owned it, but a dignified-looking man I had never seen before came out. Two adults and three kids followed him. Even from afar, it was possible that they were a family from the Middle East. The man led them in the apartment and went out alone after a few minutes.
As curious as I was, I kept myself from barging in the complex and demanding to get to know my new neighbors. But I had the chance to say hello to them when the new family went to the park where my kids typically played one afternoon. That’s how I learned that they were refugees from Iraq and that they fled from the country after the school they worked at got bombed.
I could not fathom the anguish and fear that this family must have experienced. It pushed them to move to a foreign country and leave everything they had behind. The least we could do to help them settle in the community were:
Make Them Feel Welcome
The first thing I did was introduce the family to our neighbors. The town is too small for people not to get acquainted, so it’s better for them to have a formal introduction now instead of later. And once the others have heard the reason why they have become refugees, their expressions transform from mere curiosity to sympathy, too.
To make the family feel welcome, we decided to throw a little picnic party at the park. Everyone chipped in and brought homemade dishes and drinks. Although it was a small gesture, our new neighbors were teary-eyed while thanking us, saying no one had ever been too kind. This statement made me want to cry for them, but I held it in because pity was the last thing they needed.
Avoid Asking Too Many Questions
After several conversations, we learned a few things about the Middle Eastern family. For instance, Abdul (the father) served as a high school principal in Iraq, and Alia (the mother) taught pre-school kids. When they fled, they stuffed as many belongings as possible in two suitcases.
However, seeing how sad the adults were whenever they talked about it, we tried not to ask too many questions regarding life back home. I figured that they would open up once they were emotionally ready to do it. At the moment, the family should focus on familiarizing themselves with the community that they might live in permanently.
Offer Mental Help Support If You Can
Since we met the refugees at the park regularly, we noticed that they would get jumpy when a car door closes loudly, or someone honks too much. Adult or not, their reactions were the same. Even if I was not a psychologist, I could quickly tell that the family was most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). From what I gathered, this condition was common among victims of war and violence, which they clearly were.
I talked to my husband (a psychologist) about my observation, and he agreed to offer mental help for free. So, I asked the family to come over at our house so that they could converse in a safe space. The more group counseling sessions they had, the less affected they were by external noises that reminded them of what they ran away from.
Find Out What They Need But Still Don’t Have
Another act of kindness that we did was finding out what other things this family needed but did not know how to get. It would not be acceptable to give them hand-me-down clothes or money, after all. Though they were refugees, they were not homeless people or charity cases. They could even afford the rent at the apartment complex without the help of the government.
When I asked them what else they needed, Alia said, “Abdul and I need to look for teaching jobs. Our savings would suffice for a year or so, but we need a stable income source.” Hence, I brought them to my kids’ schools and introduced them to the principals. After a few meetings, they agreed to hire the couple.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the Middle Eastern family lived happily ever after. They felt awkward at first, but they managed to get back on their feet. Even the kids were doing well and trying different extracurricular activities. It was as if they had been living in town all their lives. Hopefully, every refugee gets to settle in their chosen communities as smoothly as they did.