The church took the sanctuary pledge and that means thinking about the needs of refugees and immigrants and helping them. IRIS is the refugee agency in New Haven and the church has begun a partnership with them. Although IRIS has many programs, they have families and individuals who need extra help in assimilating.
The Project began as an attempt to help one or more refugee children have a positive and enriching experience through music. Music would help them gain some western cultural knowledge and would integrate them into a primarily American group for interaction. The benefits seemed as if they would work both ways – American mothers and children would have the chance to interact with refugee mothers and children. What made this uniquely our effort was that we were able to work with a program already happening in our church – “Music Together”. The Music Together folk were very enthusiastic and generously offered reduced tuition for those participating.
Process: the staff at IRIS suggested several families and we talked to each of them. Two were very interested. Working with an interpreter, we explained the program. Betty Whitney, Mary Webber and Dick Hasbany worked out the logistics of weekly transportation.
Cultural Discoveries and Hurdles: It became clear to everyone that we had much to learn. The first realization and perhaps surprise was that the program had benefits for the mothers as well as the children. Many refuge mothers have little contact beyond their homes and families. Many are uncomfortable moving around the city in public transportation. The weekly “Music Together” program provided exposure of a sort to their new home and American neighbors. As the program continued, it was also clear that different cultural norms relating to punctuality, reliable attendance, etc. were issues that needed patience and persistence to resolve. We also encountered the predictable issues of parents with small children (sickness, dental appointments, and other family demands).
Outcomes: We started with two families. We lost one family in the first session. The continuing family completed the first but not the second session. The mother is now reaching out for help in other ways. That’s the way it works for their schedule demands. We have learned to be flexible: sometimes metrics and goals have to be adjusted on the fly. Connection has happened and our new friends’ world, as well as ours, is a little larger and brighter. The project had many positive results from the joy and pleasure it brought the children and the deeper connection we developed with this family and with IRIS..
Going Forward: We have learned to deal with cultural differences through being flexible and reframing issues. As a whole congregation we can take on these challenges and continue to help families facing tremendous dislocation. The mission committee wants to try other ways to help IRIS, including some that are easier and can involve more of the congregation. Stay tuned for how you can help. For example the refugee women’s sewing group will have a craft fair at the church in July. More information on that later!