One of the most delightful and rewarding aspects of working and volunteering at Refugees Northwest is meeting new people from all over the world and being part of their journey as they get to know their new homeland. It is often a wonderful and warm exchange of traditions, food, music, and cultural understanding. And when the new arrivals are older people who have a lifetime of experiences and accomplishments to share, the possibilities are endless.
Refugee Northwest’s Refugee Elder Program began in April, funded by the State of Washington Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. It brings together new immigrants who are 60 years old or older and have been in the U.S. for less than five years. The goal of the program is to reduce social isolation among the participants and to connect them with social and community resources. Many of the group members experience mobility issues, so a program tailored to their needs really opens up the opportunity to explore, learn, and make new friends.
In this initial program, the group numbers 27 people from Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan. There are parents and grandparents, academicians, craftspeople, musicians, singers, even a cookbook author. A couple members survived life in refugee camps for more than twenty years before being permitted to resettle in the U.S. You can only imagine the resiliency, courage, and wealth of knowledge they possess!
So, what did we do in our weekly meetings? Some of our activities focused on wellness: presentations on proper nutrition, prevention of falls, oral health for elders, and even disaster preparedness. We enjoyed potluck dinners to share not only food, but cultural and familial histories. We even took a field trip to the Kent Library to help group members learn how to access the library services and receive a library card. We added an English as a Second Language component to the program, and taped interviews of the elders for them to save as a legacy gift for their children and grandchildren.
But honestly, our favorite excursion was a visit to Fire Station 75 in Kent, which was both educational and a ton of fun! The elders had a blast touring the facility, meeting firefighters, seeing the firetrucks and equipment at close range, learning about fire safety for themselves and their families, and asking LOTS of questions!
Mohammed from Afghanistan said it was an amazing opportunity to understand a community resource that is available to everyone, and to meet the firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us. “I enjoyed it so much, I cannot tell you how much! I really liked talking with the firefighters. They are like angels!”
He continued: “They put their lives in danger for other people. In very difficult times, they are there to help. I have so much respect for them and appreciate them so much.”
Many of our elders come from countries of origin that don’t provide such reliable community services, so the idea that everyone—no matter what—is protected by the firefighters was particularly notable to them. Mohammed commented, “Everything was very interesting for me because it is a place that saves lives. The fire station is a very important place for everybody.”
Due to some initial confusion, the fire station personnel had expected a tour from a school class. When they saw new immigrants instead, and received such profound gratitude, it turned into a deeply moving scene.
Community Programs Coordinator Kelli Schlegelmilch smiled as she remembered. “For me, this was one of the most memorable days in the elder program so far. The exchange of respect, both from the elders to the firefighters and the firefighters to the elders, was very touching to see. I know this is a day our elders won’t soon forget. They were all smiles when we left and have already asked for a return tour!”
We are a nation of immigrants, a nation of human beings, a nation enriched by people with different experiences who nonetheless come together as one community. Seriously, we wish everyone could have been there that day. The mutual respect, gratitude, honest curiosity, and connection is what our work at Refugees Northwest is all about.