These first few weeks of interning with World Relief have been nothing short of life-changing. I’ve gone to international markets, cried during apartment lease signings, clapped for joy after a client learned how to use a gift card for the first time. My job looks different every day, and it’s not for the ones who aren’t willing to be rejected. To get looks from strangers. To run so hard and forget to eat lunch once or twice. To serve without any monetary or worldly compensation.
I love it. Even on the hard days and when answers seem unclear, I wouldn’t trade this path for anything. I’ll tell you that with a heavy heart and teary eyed: I love it so much that I want to share the stories with you too.
:: :: ::
Wednesday, January 25th
We had an airport arrival schedule for 4:44 PM. Our preparation began hours earlier though as we followed the World Relief and government guidelines for welcoming new families—
home set up with complete with hygiene items
appropriate carseat(s) fastened in the van
groceries for at least one day bought and delivered
a hot, culturally appropriate meal ordered for the family to eat after landing
translator over the age of 18 contacted
Check, check, and check, we had it all. My supervisor and I loaded up, and prepared for the honor of welcoming a Tanzanian family of 7 at the airport as they arrived to their new home in the States for the first time. We headed into the airport, and found the flight on the screen in the mix of dozens of columns. The flight had landed a few minutes earlier and was already in gate. We headed toward the cafe that has a glass wall to watch the arrivals, assuming it wouldn’t be a long wait.
Rule number one to this line of work: always be prepared for plans to change.
Our translator, my supervisor, and I waited for about 45 minutes. I looked at every bag people carried to see if they had that all-important International Organization of Migration bag. I watched every face that walked by, hoping I’d see the ones I was looking for and just know it was them.
I looked, but I never saw the bag or the family.
My supervisor got up to see if we had bypassed them. She’d been gone for a few minutes, and I felt something wasn’t right. We walked the airport for about 30 minutes. and went to a service desk so that our interpreter could make an announcement in the family’s language on the the speaker beckoning them to come meet us. But they didn’t come and we never passed them— and trust me, you don’t just miss a family like that easily. Especially in a place as small as BNA. As I made another round, my supervisor talked to the information desk at baggage claim and came back with nothing helpful.
“You try,” my supervisor, sweet Eden, said. I pushed my doubts to the back of my mind, took a breath, and headed toward the desk.
I walked into the small office, and was asked how I could be helped. “Here it goes,” I thought. I told the lady that I was looking for a family that hadn’t arrived yet, and asked if she could help. And she immediately respon—
“It’s against the law for me to give you any information. I’ve already told your friend that,” she said with frustration.
Okay. Here’s the thing— you don’t wander an airport for over an hour searching for a family that is your responsibility to find and just stop at someone else’s inconvenience to help.
“I’m not asking for you to do anything illegal. I’m concerned that this family is still in the gate, and didn’t come all the way to the exit so we could meet them. I can’t find that out though, because I haven’t just come off a plane. I’m just the pick-up on this side of the line. I’m asking if you can page a coworker to help me find this family to see if they’re still in the airport in a place where I don’t have access to and cannot see,” I said.
“No, I can’t. Sorry,” she responded shortly.
That’s it. I was gone. Nearly two hours of worrying about this family became real. Another deep breath and—
“Ma’am, it’s a refugee family of 7– including a baby. They’ve never been in the States before. They don’t speak English. And it’s my responsibility to make sure they are here safe. We’ve already sent two messages over the speaker, using our translator, and they have not come to meet us. I’m concerned they are either behind the gate, assuming I’m not here for them. Or, they are still at another airport waiting for a connecting flight they’ve already missed. I don’t know where they are, and neither do they. I don’t know how they are communicating or finding their way around, and I can’t imagine many people being able to find a Kiswahili interpreter easily. I’m worried and I don’t know how else to find them. So, yes, I am a little anxious and would greatly appreciate anything you can do to help. How can I find them?”
She paused and then asked for their last name. I replied, but knowing she wouldn’t know how to spell it, I slid the paper with all the family’s name on it to her. She typed for a moment before looking up, “Where they even booked for this flight?”
That was probably the most unhelpful question I had heard all night. “Yes, they were. I have this flight number coming from this place. We checked our system just a couple days ago, and the flight was still a go—
“Because I’m not even seeing that they were on this flight,” she said.
My heart sank. She kept talking, but I knew there was nothing else she could do. I shrunk away, defeated that nothing had been accomplished. Walking briskly back to the baggage claim, Eden, Asifiwa, and I came up with a game plan. Heading back upstairs to the Delta desk, we made another speaker announcement in Kiswahili.
“What kind of language do they speak? This is Tennessee!” the guy at the desk chuckled. He meant well, and I know he was just trying to lighten the mood. But, I don’t think realized how little his words were.
“Oh, it’s Kiswahili, brother!” I chuckled back, gracefully continuing, “You’d be surprised to know what languages are spoken here in Nashville.”
I didn’t mean anything by it, I just wondered how often people think English— maybe Spanish too— are the only languages in the world. I grew up in Cheatham County, Tennessee, and I can admit to you: I had no idea there were more than two languages until I left my sweet, small town.
We hung around the desk for a few minutes before Eden received a pass behind the gate, and I walked every level in the waiting and pick-up area outside to find this family. Finally, we surrendered our flags and left. We knew they weren’t coming.
We went briefly to the apartment to drop off the groceries and make sure the set-up was prepared—
the hygiene items were in the bathroom
the sheets and mattresses were in the bedrooms
the carseats were still fastened in the van
groceries were tucked into the cabinets and fridge
the hot meal for the arrival was put away in the fridge
the translator over the age of 18 walked the apartment with us
And then we prayed that they’d arrive soon.
:: :: ::
It was nearly 8 o’clock by the time I got back to the World Relief office, and began the long drive back home. I left with a heavy heart, and shoulders that slumped in exhaustion and defeat.
Selfishly, I looked at my clock and realized we had spent 8 hours preparing for this family’s arrival. It was a lot of time and energy, and I was completely spent. Not only had my plans deviated, but theirs had too. I spent a lot of time thinking about their reality that night—
They traveled across the ocean, and then across the States to be here. They’ve spent years fleeing from home, and keeping 5 little ones safe. And now, they’re so close to being here in a place with beds. A pantry full of food. A working lock on the door, and every other basic necessity that I forget isn’t as easy as a trip to Dollar General. They’re so close to being in a place of safety to call home again. They’re so close to seeking refuge. I’m spent tonight, but they must be too.
As I wondered where they were and prayed they weren’t scared anymore, I decided all I could do was trust they were going to be taken care of and be patient until my next shift to find out.
:: :: ::
Friday, January 27th
Two days later, the president issued the travel ban, suspending tens-of-thousands of vulnerable people from seeking refuge for a time. I got to the World Relief office, and although the outer circumstances were chaotic, we moved with a peace and grace. Regardless of the things attempting to steal our joy and purpose around us, we knew our work was far from over and we were prepared to fight this war. We began in office-wide prayer, before heading into another day of unceasing work.
I learned quickly that my assignment was to visit the Tanzanian family of 7 and take them to buy a cellphone. It sounds mundane, but I was thrilled to learn they had arrived safely and without additional complications. They were here, they were safe, and they were in their home— there was much to rejoice over.
Turning the ignition in the large van, I drove to pick up my friend Asifiwe to help me translate, and we headed toward that apartment closer to the airport. I had barely parked and walked toward the door, and I could see little faces watching me through the window. I could only make out the whites of their eyes and their white teeth revealed through a goofy grin, and I waved and smiled back at them. Raising my hand to knock on the door, and to say my usual greeting and the only Kiswahili I know “Me-me Brianna, World Relief!”, it opened before I could make a sound.
And there at the door stood the most beautiful family I’ve ever seen. The littles stood smiling at me, and their mother and father greeted us. In typical African fashion, we grabbed hands signifying our friendship and welcome. Immediately, through the smiles on their faces they began speaking excitedly and Asifiwe translated, “They are very happy and thankful that you are here.”
All I could respond was, “Beautiful, beautiful family. Thank you, I’m so happy to be here too.”
Soon, the father, Asifiwe and I left for Cricket and Walmart. I introduced myself at the Cricket store, explained my work and purpose. Because this family lives outside of Nashville— away from the places World Relief Nashville has built connections with— I was eager to share our mission and begin another relationship here. I talked with the sales associates as I watched my friends choose and purchase a phone. Finally, he chose the cheapest, $20 one.
“What language does he speak?” the lady asked, beginning to set up the phone.
“Kiswahili,” I replied as Asifiwe wrote it on a paper for her to see.
“Oh. Uhm, that’s not available on this phone…” she mentioned somewhat awkwardly.
I looked to Asifiwe as he translated and spoke in sounds I only wish I could understand.
“He said that’s okay— he wants his phone in English so he can practice and learn,” Asifiwe spoke on our friend’s behalf.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that. I can’t imagine my phone being in a language I don’t know. But then I stood with a man that knows no English and just purchased a phone entirely in this foreign language simply for the sole purpose of learning— that’s not a thing for the weak-hearted or complacent to do.
Afterwards, we went to Walmart across the street and bought a week’s worth of groceries for both of my friends. By the time we got back to the apartment, the little ones made a game of putting their groceries away. Then, momma asked me how to use the washing machine, and asked how to keep the floor clean. Asifiwe and I imitated using a mop and broom, and laundry detergent too.
As Asifiwe continued to answer questions for momma and dad, I knelt down on the floor to play peek-a-boo with the littles ones. They smiled and giggled at me, and by the time we left, my heart broke—
My heart broke at the deep beauty of this family,
my heart broke at the things that no one noticed about them,
my heart broke for the life they once had,
and my heart broke for the ways that was being threatened even here in their place of safety and refuge.
:: :: ::
When I reflect on that day, two things come to mind: the beanie and the strangers.
I think of the Stars and Stripes beanie that dad of the family wore the entire time I was with him. Donning the letters U.S.A. and the bright red, white, and blue, the hat never left his head throughout our errands for the day. As I met his family— saw their smiles, heard their words of thanks, watched their willingness to learn— I knew that beanie was more than just warming his ears. Call me crazy, and maybe I am, but I couldn’t get the idea off my heart that he was wearing that hat because he was proud to be here and eager to make a life with his family.
That beanie was on my mind for the rest of the day. And as I came home that night to reflect on that day, I also had the implications of the day’s announced travel ban to process. As I continued to read and learn about the ban, as well as other reactions to it, I kept thinking about that beanie—
and it was that beanie that left me sobbing late, late that night as I remembered the faces of the strangers we passed in Walmart.
I saw the way they looked at us— a small white girl with two dark-skinned guys wearing flip flops and hoodies. They heard they way I explained to them how Walmart is different from the markets they are used to, how to buy yogurt, where to find soap, how to use a gift card. And the strangers we passed look at us differently than they would have if I were alone.
For a moment, I chuckled to myself and thought, “What I would give to know what they’re thinking.”
As soon as I thought it, I was met with another thought: no, I don’t want to know.
I don’t want to know what they assume about my friends and their story. I don’t want to know that they feel threatened by these vulnerable people. I don’t want to know they are glad to meet a brother who is eager to contribute to society in America. I don’t want to know that there is no compassion for people whose stories have had little to no self-choice. I don’t want to know what they’re thinking.
Those strangers didn’t see them the way I do. They didn’t hear the way they said “thank you.” They didn’t watch momma imitate me as I showed her how to clean her floors and wash her laundry. They didn’t shake the hands of the littles ones as they giggled. They didn’t look at dad’s English phone. They didn’t even notice the Stars and Stripes beanie on his head.
They didn’t wait for hours in airport for this family, fight for them when help seemed distant, and exclaim “Beautiful, beautiful family,” when the long-awaited greeting finally came.
World Relief’s motto is “Stand for the vulnerable.” Although my heart began to hurt for strangers some time ago, this was the day that my heart shattered for friends as their stories became more than words. The deeper I go into meeting them and interacting with culture about refugee work, the more attached I become. The physical act of standing on their behalf, and fighting for the least of these— whether at Walmart or the airport— became a tangible act that I have found myself boldly asking for more opportunity ever since I met that sweet, Tanzanian family of 7.
It’s the kind of passion that promises me that this work is worth it because they are worth it. And at the end of it, my prayer is this: God, give me grace, give them understanding, and give us the grace to do the work of standing for the vulnerable.