Personal patriotism has surged on particular days of my life.
The day I saw the original Constitution under glass in Washington, D.C.; the day I stood in reverence at Pearl Harbor Memorial; the day I welcomed my brother home from a dangerous tour in Iraq along with several hundred other soldiers in a Colorado gymnasium.
And just recently, another experience joined my list of searing patriotic moments. Accompanied by a dear mentor from my days at Alta High School, my twin daughters and several members of their high school basketball team met, hugged and served refugees who have recently arrived in the United States.
Two brothers around the ages of 9 and 10 emerged from their South Salt Lake City apartment. Their faces were similar and smiling brightly — except one had distinct scarring around his eye that had healed well. They arrived on U.S. soil the night before as refugees from Somalia. They were clean, enthusiastic and grateful.
My daughters and their friends gave the boys a new soccer ball and some gently used cleats. We gave the mother a 25-pound bag of rice and watched as a boy about their same age from another apartment delivered a pot of steaming, savory-smelling chicken. It was impressive to see residents welcoming the new arrivals as well.
Children of all ages swarmed my daughters as they searched through the bin of donated soccer cleats trying to find the right sizes. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and exciting as the girls slipped cleats onto bare feet but more often than not had to repeat “too small” or “all gone” or “I’m so sorry.”
The rudimentary apartment complex is adjoined by a soccer field where organized games for children of all ages are played. They form teams according to age and nationality, creating a mini World Cup right in their own backyard.
Most of the refugees from this particular apartment complex are from Somalia, Uganda and Burma and are assisted by Catholic Community Services of Utah.
A one-time LDS Church meetinghouse in the area has become a bustling refugee center where many gather every afternoon for English lessons, health screenings and assistance with finding a job. I was told the immigrants received vouchers for food and clothing as well as home visits for the first six months. Soon after they are required to pay back the costs of their airfare to the sponsoring agency and try to be self-sufficient.
For some, the apartment complex we visited is purely transitional housing and families quickly move forward in their new life and new citizenship. For others, the run-down buildings that are full of donated furniture become a safe haven for them to heal from scars that aren’t visible from the outside.
The girls and I sat on the couches of one such family from Somalia. We spoke with a young mother who arrived in the United States with her three brothers. They witnessed as militants shot their father and older brother in the head. They haven’t seen their mother in five years, but just received news that she had been seen with their grandmother at a refugee camp on the Somalian border. The oldest brother attends classes full time at Salt Lake Community College and also works full time at Wal-Mart to support the family. She cared for her younger brothers as well as her two toddlers, who are products of rape from soldiers before she left Somalia.
Hanging above a big-screen television that was playing a violent African action movie was a postcard of the Virgin Mary and two 8-by-10 photos of her 1-year-old as he recovered from an accident where a pot of scalding coffee fell on him. Patches across his head were in contrast to his dark skin as he healed from the burns.
"We're glad you're here," we told the young mother.
She then sheepishly tapped at the simple braids on her head and said, in timid English, “I wish I was white."
“No, we love you the way you are,” we all similarly responded in unison.
It wasn’t until after we left her apartment that we realized she had misunderstood us. When we had said “We’re glad you’re here,” she thought we had given her a compliment about her hair.
Those words, “We’re glad you’re here,” have been ringing in my ears ever since. Through all the raging debates on immigration this week, I hear those words even louder and realize how easy it is for others to misunderstand.
To those escaping horrific turmoil in their home countries, I want to say, “We’re glad you’re here.” With obvious language barriers, that message can be offered with soccer balls, cleats, scooters and bicycles. That message can be sent with bags of rice, fresh fruit, hygiene kits and cribs for babies recovering from burns. That message can be sent by supporting and/or becoming a volunteer at a refugee center.
Personally, I want to send a message to the women of that apartment complex that they are powerful and have so many opportunities before them. Only boys gathered in the street when we first arrived. Mothers and daughters stayed inside only peeking from the windows and doorways. One mother wearing beautiful silk scarves shook our hands and said "thank you" for the gifts to her boys. Later, two pre-teen girls bounced a basketball through the complex with attitude. I thought they might engage with our high school athletes, but instead the two bounced right by with sassy words and no interest for interaction.
The hearts of my twin daughters and their friends were instantly melted by a little brother and sister from Burma who wouldn’t leave their arms as we visited apartments, talked with teenagers and tried to find the best-fitting cleats for older boys. Because they go to preschool, the siblings spoke English with us and with each other. They laughed at my girls’ funny pronunciations of their names and the 4-year-old girl teased her 5-year-old brother because he had flowers on his orange flip-flops.
“You have girl shoes,” she laughed over and over.
My daughters and their teammates have every intention of bringing him some boy shoes very soon as well as cleats for all the older athletes in the complex who are currently practicing fancy footwork in flip-flops. The girls committed to assemble 50 hygiene kits before our next trip to Utah in September. It may not be much, but it is something and adheres to Mother Theresa’s sage advice: “If you can’t feed 100 people, then feed just one.”
To that one or 100, my hope is that our flag, the fireworks and our good works will all echo the message, “We’re glad you’re here.”
For more information on donating bicycles and other necessities to this group of refugees, contact Don Ward on Facebook. He is a former teacher at both Alta High School and in the Granite School District and has made it his mission in retirement to serve refugees and at-risk youth.