Walking into the Columbia Regional Airport that night, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As the Multimedia and Communications Intern at Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS), I don’t get a lot of “hands-on” experience working with refugees. Whenever there is a new refugee arrival in Columbia, I am the one to post about it on Facebook, but I had never gone to the airport to pick up a family of refugees, or even met them after they arrived. On Tuesday, October 14, I had a relatively free night. I knew that a family of 11 was scheduled to arrive from Congo, so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to experience a refugee arrival and help out a family. I met Solomon, the African Case Manager for RIS, and two other volunteers, Tina and Patrick, at the office. Because we were picking up such a large family at the airport, we decided to take two separate vehicles. Patrick and I took a car while Solomon and Tina brought a van.
We arrived at the airport about twenty minutes before the plane was scheduled to arrive, which allowed us some time to sit, chat, and get to know one another. My office space at RIS is at the complete opposite end of the hall than the Case Managers, so I did not know Solomon very well beforehand, and enjoyed learning about all of the languages he could speak! I had also never worked with Patrick or Tina before, and even though I had put their bios together for the RIS – Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri website, I still had lots more to learn about the two of them. Tina can speak way more languages than I can even fathom (I struggle with Spanish), and Patrick has had the opportunity to travel to some really cool places. While we learned a lot about each other, our main hot topic of conversation turned to which TV shows were the best right now (both of them agreeing that I just HAD to watch the show Scandal).
When the plane arrived, we were waiting to greet the entire family – and boy was it a large family! Mom and Dad walked in with their 9 children, some of them with carry-on bags, looking exhausted from their long travels. Not being able to speak their language myself, I mainly greeted everyone with huge smiles and handshakes all around. Tina welcomed them all to Columbia, and asked how many bags they had checked. I know that many refugees travel to the United States with little to nothing, but to learn that this eleven-person family only had one checked bag between them was still hard for me to wrap my mind around! We got them loaded up in the vans, along with their belongings, and drove the family to their new home(s). I say “homes” with a plural, because they are such a large family that we had to get two apartment units, side-by-side, so that they would have plenty of space.
After arriving at the apartments, we took the family inside to show them around. It never occurred to me that we would have to show them how to safely use kitchen appliances like the stove, oven, and refrigerator. I also never realized how much work went in to setting up the apartments and homes for incoming refugees. Solomon and a few other volunteers had been at the house working all day to set things up. The apartment was cleaned and set up for the family, beds made and everything. The kitchen was full of boxes of kitchen and other household items that RIS was giving the family to get them started. We had also brought with us fresh fruit, chicken, and a large container of rice for the family’s first meal in the country. After such a long flight, I imagined they were starving, but they did not say a word about wanting food.
The first thing they asked to do after arriving to the house was pray. The family gathered in the living room, with Solomon and all of the volunteers with them, and then the family began singing a song together in their language. I did not understand the words they were singing, but all of their voices together sounded beautiful. Once the song ended, each member of the family started praying out loud, each their own prayer of thanks and gratitude for the new opportunity they were being given. Although I did not speak the language, I could feel the spirit of love and gratitude that surrounded them and their prayers. Sharing in this moment was probably my favorite and most memorable and touching experience of the night. All of the hard work that had gone into preparing for the arrival by RIS, all of the days, months and even years that the family had waited to be granted this refugee status in the United States, and the long flight over to the US was all worth it as shown by the thanks this family was feeling.
Not wanting to make them wait any longer for food, Patrick, Tina, and I took it upon ourselves to get the dinner ready for the family. All of the dishes donated for the family were still in boxes, so we started by taking them all out and washing them. Then we realized that the chickens and rice had become cold from sitting in the vans for a while, so we had to find some place to heat it all up. The oven in the house wasn’t working yet, and there was not a microwave, so we decided to take the food to Tina’s house, which was nearby. Patrick and I spent almost an hour trying to heat up the chicken in the microwave and the rice in the oven. By the time the food was ready and we had it back at their apartments, it was about 1 o’clock in the morning, and I was exhausted! Waking up the next morning to be back at the RIS office at 8am was going to be rough, but I was excited about the new experience I had to share with the other RIS volunteers and workers! This experience allowed me to see the impact Refugee and Immigration Services is having on the lives of refugees, and how none of this would be possible without donations from the community and the work of volunteers. I am so proud to be a part of this great work.