“I have crossed so many rivers I no longer get wet”
One evening this summer, just as the light was beginning to fade and the intense summer heat began to give way to cooler evening breezes, in a brightly lit youth center in Downtown Houston, a group of women and girls gathered for a Chinese cooking class. Around the room they chattered with one another as they chopped vegetables, gathered ingredients, and pored over recipes. But this was not just any group of women, and the language you would hear as you wandered around the room would not be English, or even Chinese, but instead a mix of languages as immigrants and refugees from the community came together to learn and to socialize.
Sponsored by the Raindrop Foundation, this evening was just one of many events organized in seventeen different communities scattered across Texas—events with goals to “bring people from all backgrounds together to cultivate friendship and community.”
Nancy Kara, who volunteers with Raindrop Houston, attended CSW to help raise awareness of the efforts they are making in getting communities involved in helping themselves—in real, collaborative, and generative ways—to build a sense of belonging and identity between members of their neighborhoods. Together with Zeynep Cifci, a counselor in the Fort Bend school system, and Ayse Seiha Susla with Embrace International, Nancy is trying to use her experience as an immigrant to help others navigate the difficult and often traumatic process of becoming a member of a new country, and a new community. “Even something as simple as grocery shopping or driving can be difficult when you are unfamiliar with the customs, and the language, and the environment. These are people who were professionals in their countries, educated and confident—and they suddenly feel set adrift. When we see people isolating themselves, it is often done out of fear—they don’t know who to trust, or what to expect. We are hoping to help people overcome those challenges.”
Nancy and Zeynip met in 2005, in the midst of Hurricane Katrina, when they both decided to open up their homes to people fleeing the destructive path of the hurricane. “Some of the most vulnerable in disasters like a hurricane are these new members of the community, the women and children who have never experienced a hurricane or storm with the type of destructive power that Katrina had—they don’t know where to go or what to do, or even, at an essentially basic level, who to trust.” Zeynep noticed this same attitude of fear and distrust among the families of the students she oversees in her professional capacity as a counselor. “I spoke with one boy, whose family had been displaced over and over again, who did not really trust that he was going to be able to stay in our school. He said to me, about the refugee experience, ‘I have crossed so many rivers, I no longer get wet.’”
Zeynep talked about the refugee students and their families that she works with, saying, “There are challenges with the students and their families—barriers of language, barriers of traditions, and barriers of fear. What helps us overcome these barriers are providing opportunities to get involved in the community. Without friends and a place to belong we can feel isolated and alone, alien in a strange land. But when you have people to belong to you feel more comfortable putting yourself out there to learn new things and have new experiences—you have a safety net to help you feel comfortable.”
Raindrop has a wide variety of programs from language classes to dinners to a women’s chat night, but some of their most successful programs have been focused on the arts. Nancy loves to talk about the success she sees with young people who come to Raindrop. “The women’s association came together to empower through language classes, art classes, water marbling, cuisine classes, and culture classes. But my favorite has been the art. We have hosted an annual refugee art show for several years now, to give students a way to communicate through art everything they struggle to express. We see them come in and their trust is uncertain—they are quiet and reserved—so through art we encourage them to express their feelings, in a form that has no language barriers. Art and theater and music can be powerful and important in bringing people together.”
Zeynep added that many of the classes are focused on fabric arts, cooking, knitting, housekeeping, and many other skills that are traditionally seen as women’s roles. “Instead of seeing these skills as a weakness, we are trying to build one another up and find strength within the skills that traditionally belong to women and girls—we learn together, we build bonds of friendship, and we express ourselves—we find liberation. Instead of seeing these roles as a weakness we see our places as places of strength—places of abundance and joy. We can bless ourselves and the next generation and the next generation if we look for the solutions within our communities to help one another and rely on the gifts we have been given.”
Nancy agreed, saying, “We need to gather together and tell one another stories, stories that help us learn and grow and help one another. Hardship can bring us closer together or can isolate us—it is important to create a community to help us heal together. “
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