Well, it’s over. It’s time to process.
At first, this trip was frustrating for me. I have been on Alternative Spring Break trips before where I was made to do large amounts of service work. Signing up for this trip, I expected to have the same experience. To my dismay, it was not the case. The employees at Catholic Charities and the Lost Boys center did not have physical tasks for us to do. Most of our days were centered around an interview type of conversation with the refugee families and the Lost Boys. We asked questions and talked for hours. Sometimes the conversation would simmer away and we would all stare at our feet, trying to think of something to say. I did not end each day with sore muscles and a sweaty brow.
I felt guilty. Why was I flown across the country if I was not doing anything for these people? We brought them donations, but in my eyes that did not feel like enough. How were they at all benefiting from my presence there? I felt as though I could be getting the same experience from sitting in class. Fortunately, I was wrong. I had to shift my paradigm of what service-learning is to fully understand the trip’s purpose. It was not until afterwards that I truly reflected on this and could grasp the answer.
It is their stories that mattered the most. A person’s identity is seen through the stories that they tell and how they tell them. I heard a lot of stories last week from many different people. One theme that wove its way through each personal testimony was that of hope. The families from Somalia, from the Congo, from Libya, from Sudan: they all spoke with the belief that things would turn out okay. It did not matter where they were from or what their native language was, they all had this overwhelming faith in life. They talked of their hopes for education, for professional careers, for peace in their home country, and for reuniting with their families.
How could they stay so positive with all of the trauma that had happened in their lives? It was not as though they ignored their hardships, rather they were very open with the struggles they had faced and still face. Yet, I had expected a darkness to shroud their words, and all that I found was light. It was inspiring and beautiful. I realized that this trait is what allowed them to survive through the horrible conditions in their pasts. This group of people is one of the strongest, and most courageous that I have ever met.
The conversations that we had with these people filled in the gaps that our class readings left out. Text on paper does not have the same impact as meeting a person in real life. A piece of paper cannot convey Jany’s contagious laugh, or Koor’s calm and collected demeanor. I can now call them my friends, and this produces a level of compassion that cannot be replicated by a scholarly article. I could have met refugees in Harrisonburg, but it would not have been the same. Leaving our comfort zone of Virginia and being vulnerable to a new city was important to understanding the refugees. When they came to America, the culture and places were foreign to them. We could relate on a small scale, as we had never been to Phoenix or lived with each other before.
As for the service? I may not have set up an apartment or helped teach English, but I did do something. I flew across the country to meet a group of people and listen to their stories. I will speak with the hope that they spoke with. I hope that they feel comforted by the fact that we wanted so badly to meet them. I hope that they feel less alone in this country where their language is not native, and where some people could mistake them for being illegal. I hope that they can call the United States home. I hope that more scholarships are given, so that they can afford to further their education in the United States. I hope that governments around the world will interfere with and stop genocide, because it is not an issue of the past. After this week, I care so much about people in countries that a year ago I had never heard of. It honestly is difficult to convey the impact that they have had on me.
This trip reminds me of the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I could have been given the chance to do more service in Arizona, felt satisfied for that week, and come home. However, I have been taught something far more valuable. The stories that I heard can be spread to others for a lifetime, and hopefully change things on a grander scale. Getting to know people and really caring about their lives is the most important. It is what separates a friend from a stranger; it is what separates peace from genocide.