Today I interviewed Sarah, a refugee mentor from Sioux Falls SD.
What made you decide to be a mentor?
The simple answer is God. The complex answer is after doing short term service and one time volunteer work I felt prompted to be more involved in something that was lasting and long term. While researching my options I came across the need for mentors for refugee families in Sioux Falls. It resonated with me because of my missions background. I went on mission trips every year from the age of 12 through college and I wanted to do something like that again. I told my husband my idea and he said he had felt led there too. That was confirmation to us that God was leading us to mentor.
What did the process look like to become a refugee mentor?
First we met with a case worker at Lutheran Social Services and filled out an application. It was very simple. They then did a background check. We had a young daughter and a 6-month-old son at the time. We knew mentoring a family would take a lot of time, and young children are also time consuming, so we decided to partner with another mentor who was in a different stage of life. Lutheran Social Services gave us two families to choose from. One was a family of four and the other was a family of 9—we choose the family of 9. We felt a family that size would have a lot of needs and probably have a harder time finding a match. The family was also from Africa, and our partner mentor‘s parents were missionaries in Africa for a long time, so we felt it was the perfect match.
What was included in the commitment to mentor?
Everyone sets it up differently. Our commitment was for six months 2 hours a week. We were to meet with the family, get to know them and be a friend to them, helping them as needs arose. We ended up mentoring them longer by choice. For their first year here we mentored them regularly, then about once a month after that. Now they have been here for 3½ years and we still get together from time to time or they call if they need help with something.
Tell me more about the family you mentored and the types of things you did for them.
There were two parents and 7 children ranging in ages 2 to 17. The mother was pregnant when they arrived. They were citizens of Burundi Africa, but came from a Tanzania refugee camp. They knew no English when they arrived. They came in September, and we went with them to all the doctor visits to get the children ready for school. They needed school supplies and backpacks. We took them on their first trip to the grocery store and were there to help the kids on the bus for their first day of school. We taught them how to ride the city bus. They did not know how to run a thermostat for their home so we taught them that. There was a time that they plugged in too many things and the breaker was flipped. They thought the electricity had been turned out, so we had to show them where the breaker box was and how to flip it back on. With the help of our church we got them a washer and dryer and taught them how to use it.
Being from Africa they were not prepared for the seasons and the cold weather we have. After our first snow storm the girls got off the bus and walked home in flip flops. We had to get them winter boots and explain how to dress for the weather here. In the beginning, it was meeting immediate needs: getting the supplies they needed, making doctor appointments, helping them with parent teacher conferences and taking them on weekly grocery shopping trips. They knew what needed to be done, but lacked the language to do it.
How did you see their lives change through your mentorship?
They gained confidence and independence. Having our children play together helped their children pick up the language and feel comfortable making friends. We helped them get driver’s licenses and find a car after being here for a year and a half. We helped them navigate the city. Now they are doing very well. They speak English, work, drive and live very independently.
We have seen one of their daughters graduate from high school. Two more will be graduating this year. Last year we helped them fill out paperwork to apply for a Habitat for Humanity House. They have been approved and now have to put in sweat equity to help build their home. We have a good open relationship now. It’s no longer scheduled but we like to get together for dinner and they know they can call us if something happens—they have a friend.
Do you recommend mentoring to others?
Yes. Everywhere I go I tell people they should become a mentor. Go for it. Jump in.
My cousin knew my experience and recently got their small group from church to join with them in mentoring a family of 5. As far as volunteering and impacting lives, I think this is one of the top things you can do. It effects change in people’s lives. For the mentors who do it, it is a very enriching experience. God meets you on that path and provides opportunities to grow yourself.
From Sarah’s story we can see the huge difference a mentor can make in the life of a refugee. Getting involved makes a lasting change. Whose life will you impact? You don’t have to do it alone—partner with friends or a church group to mentor together. If you have a story to share, please contact me.