By: Shelby Kruczek, Guest Blogger
Do you know your neighbor? At first, this might seem like a pointless question. But I implore you to genuinely consider it. With high-speed internet, instantaneous global news, and social media galore, our so-called “connected age” ironically can make us feel disconnected from our most immediate surroundings. My husband and I share a cul-de-sac with approximately 30 other folks and we know only a handful of them. These connections with our across-the-street neighbors have stemmed from conversations about their dogs, unfortunate lawn mower mishaps, and evening strolls in the neighborhood. No matter our differences in personality, lifestyle, background, or gardening habits, we do share one thing in common: a little residential pocket of the community where we spend most of our time.
As Vanessa summarized in her blog post last month, “Our communities are greatly enriched by refugees’ culture, determination, and substantial economic contributions.” A key word here is “communities”. Through many conversations with friends, family, and coworkers, I’ve come to realize it’s easy for us to assume that refugees are resettled elsewhere, or at least seem worlds away from our own lives and routines. When we hear about the Syrian refugee crisis on the news or read articles about the civil war in Somalia, sometimes it’s difficult to visualize or even empathize with the people affected by these conflicts because they are so far away. This mentality can carry over when we hear about refugees hosted by the United States, or even in our local areas.
The truth is that over the past several years there are over 1,000 refugees annually resettled by LSS/NCA in the Washington DC Metro area. Refugees are, in fact, our neighbors and very much part of the fabric of our local communities. You may cross paths with multiple refugees every day and not realize it. For example, the woman in the fruit aisle at the grocery store this morning, the man at the shopping mall yesterday, or the family at the local park every week. The most recent family to move into your neighborhood may be displaced and fleeing conflict in their home country. So how can we get to know our neighbors in a seemingly disconnected world where recent rhetoric more often divides us than unites us?
Develop a Capacity for Connection
Regardless of whether or not you know the people who live on your street, there is a significant difference in connotation between the words “neighbor” and “stranger”. These automatic, unconscious terms can affect if and how we start conversations with others and build relationships. Cultivating personal empathy by stepping outside your comfort zone and listening to the stories of refugees (and your neighbors) can enable you to better understand the situations of others and bridge gaps in your circles of influence and local community. For example, listen to Ibrahim’s journey or seek out other opportunities to learn from those who have risked everything to start a new life because of violence or persecution in their home countries.
Find Space for Connection
LSS/NCA provides opportunities for community members to help make newly arrived refugees feel welcome and transition to the neighborhood. These “housewarming” efforts are heartwarming for every person involved. There are countless avenues for you to intentionally connect with refugees, assist in their arrival and transition, help them navigate social services and resources, and empower them to be active members of society. Click here for a list of ways to get involved and learn more about the work of LSS/NCA.
After your volunteer experience, I encourage you to share your story. Introduce a new friend to your family, faith community, or other social group. Invite friends along the next time you volunteer or post your volunteer experience on social media. Promoting a healthy narrative of refugees as valuable members of our communities can help sow seeds of peace, goodwill, and compassion.
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then it is all the more important that we re-frame the narrative of refugees and seek to treat them as our neighbors in both word and deed.