While serving as volunteers with World Relief Jacksonville, Barton and Lori saw first-hand the need of many refugees for ongoing support at the completion of their 90 days of government funding. Despite their successful professional careers, their hearts were touched by the plight of the refugees and, after feeling helpless to provide the necessary support while managing full-time careers, they quit their jobs to help refugees full-time.
It wasn’t until about three years ago that we had any idea that refugees were living near us. It was not a subject that was on our radar except for what we heard in the news and that mostly referred to refugees in other countries. We met our first refugee family who was from Afghanistan by taking Christmas gifts as part of a helping needy family’s initiative at our church. The visit was very welcoming and the mother even cooked a meal for us as a thank you. One day, when we were in Walmart, we saw the Muslim husband and exchanged greetings and we each went about our business. Not soon after, he came hunting us down in another aisle. We were so surprised! He and Barton exchanged phone numbers. From that encounter, we visited them again and later asked World Relief if we could be their friendship partner. We were so drawn in by how honoring their culture is. They truly made us feel like we were part of their family. We just fell in love with them. It was hard at first to communicate with the wife because she didn’t have much English so most of the conversation was directed toward her husband and he would interpret. One evening, during conversation, she looked at him kind of sternly, and he said that she made him promise not to do all the talking with us because she wanted to converse with us by herself to learn English better. We all laughed and this opened the door for Lori to visit almost weekly just to have conversation and hone the skills of the mother. Our friendship has continued to this day though long distance because they have moved to California and the husband is working in a supervisory role with the city.
Because of our relationship with this one refugee family we were eager to help another. Our second family was a whole different ball game. This time World Relief matched us with an Ethiopian Muslim family – a single mom and two twin sons in their early 20s. Their father was killed in Ethiopia. This family had very limited English and no work skills other than tailoring. They came from a refugee camp to the US and was not accustomed to our culture at all. One day, not too long after their arrival, they asked me to show them how to use a microwave. When I asked them to give me some food, they pulled a pot of cooked spaghetti and a pot of sauce out from a bottom cabinet in the kitchen. When I asked how long it had been there, they said 3 days. It was obvious that they didn’t know what a refrigerator was used for. I began teaching them about food storage. Later I learned that their culture stores food up to 3 days without refrigeration because their food is so much fresher and it won’t spoil. To me this was appalling but to them it is a normal way of life. Now that I understand why they do what they do, I am better able to help them understand that our food will not last without refrigeration and why. It’s these experiences of sharing life where we both learn so much about each other.
During that same visit, the mother pulled me over to the smoke alarm and pointed and said “woo ooo”. I then clearly explained that if it was going “wooo ooo” they should exit the apartment. Another new thing that was totally foreign to them. We continued to meet with this family weekly to do fun things, but our perspective soon changed when they reached that 90-day point and the World Relief case worker turned over the remaining funds in their account as a check and instructed them how to get it cashed and get a money order to pay their rent. Immediately, I received a call from one of the sons saying that he was not confident to do as instructed and rent needed to be paid that day. I immediately drove to where he was and he was in a check-cashing place that would cash the check for 5% of the total amount so could then purchase a money order. I said there was a cheaper way. We went to a local grocery store who would not cash the check because it had 2 signatures on it and against their policy. I tried to locate the bank where their wages are deposited to get this done for free, but the bank was already closed for the day. Ultimately, we ended up back at that check cashing place as much as I hated doing it that way. It was during this process that I felt the pain and anguish they feel trying to figure out our American ways of doing business. When you empathize and feel the pain they go through, it changes you. You just want to do anything you can to help make things easier for them because they are already struggling to learn a new culture, new language and to work to provide for their families. It’s a lot to learn and do in just 90 days.
This incident solidified in us that we couldn’t be of real tangible assistance to them during times when all business are closed. We decided that we wanted to be available to provide more help so Lori quit her job in corporate marketing, we sold our condo and moved into the low end apartment complex where our Ethiopian family and other refugee families were placed by World Relief. At the time of our moving in there were about 40 refugee families living in the complex. Word spread quickly that we were there to help.
Since then, we have been in the emergency room at 3:00 a.m., enjoyed many meals together, helped with driving lessons, been to countless doctor’s appointments, helped with paperwork and the understanding of their mail – what’s important and what’s junk.
Working with refugees has blessed us tremendously. They are the hardest working, caring and resilient individuals, and they love including you in their life. One young couple from Afghanistan was having their first baby. The husband was so nervous about driving his wife to the hospital and then home with the new baby that he asked if we would drive them. He just didn’t think he could do it. He was so afraid there would be an accident or he would get lost. We did and, when it was time for the baby to come home, we picked them up in our car. The nurse handed the baby to the father to put in the car seat, and he nervously turned and dumped the baby in Lori’s arms for her to put the child in the seat. He was almost physically shaking. It’s times like these that we just encourage them and work to build up their confidence. Since then he has wonderfully settled into being a new dad and now they have a second child, and this time he didn’t need our help. That’s what is most rewarding to us: encouraging them, championing them and then celebrating them in all their steps towards accomplishment.
As we lived in the same housing complex, we began to see another injustice. The refugees were not being treated well when it came to getting maintenance completed in their apartments and there was not any mercy in helping them understand rent issues. They would complain and still nothing would get done any sooner. So, on top of having to learn a new culture, new language and work so hard just to pay rents that took up most of their paychecks, they also had to deal with coming home to apartment issues as well. It was just too much! Seeing all this and hearing their complaints, our hearts stirred in us again. They had already been through so much in life, and they needed some relief from these adverse circumstances. We set out to get an apartment complex of our own that would solely house refugees. With our own apartment complex we could provide the support, life skills training, and etc. needed to give them a longer transition time into society. And no apartment maintenance headaches! That is how Beyond90 was founded. To date, we are finalizing a partnership with another non-profit development group and will have complete funding for our apartment complex.
We believe that having worked with over 40 families from 10 different countries that our worldview has changed tremendously. Before opening ourselves up to learning from so many nations, we only had an American perspective, but the world is so much more. Having experienced life with refugees has enriched our perspective and increased our love and compassion for those who think, act and believe differently than we do. It is because of our diversity that we are stronger and more complete human beings. That’s what we will cherish as we continue on this journey.
Lori and Barton, Jacksonville, Florida (USA). If you want to know more about them, Beyond90 or World Relief you can visit their websites or email us at email@example.com.