Thirty-two refugees and 12 volunteers talked as they stood in the back parking lot of Shadowood Apartments near Central Avenue recently, northeast of East Independence Boulevard.
They were waiting for the Help Center to open.
The Help Center is a weekly program created by Refugee Support Services that offers free produce and personal advice to local refugees.
Refugee Support Services is a nonprofit founded by Central Piedmont Community College English as a Second Language instructor Rachel Humphries to provide support beyond language to refugees in Charlotte.
Humphries, who lives in Mountainbrook near SouthPark, said she and a former ESL colleague, Lauren Moore, started Refugee Support Services in early 2006 after refugee ESL students kept asking them for help outside the classroom.
The refugees wanted to know about navigating American culture and government services.
“They have so many questions and unmet needs,” Humphries said.
At the Shadowood Apartments parking lot, a silver truck arrived.
The driver and several refugee and American volunteers moved boxes of Asian produce, provided by the local chapter of the Society of St. Andrew, from the truck’s bed to two small, green tables at the edge of the lot.
The Society of St. Andrew is a national nonprofit that works with farmers to collect produce for nonprofits for needy families.
Women wrapped in blankets and carrying babies on their backs, children playing at their mothers’ feet, older couples and young men and women all lined up at the tables.
Volunteer Marci Mroz organized the crowd for food distribution.
The produce – chayote squash, sweet potatoes and pepino melons – had been separated into plastic bags and were handed carefully to each person.
As the line neared its end, some refugees walked toward apartment 1711-A, a small space leased rent-free by Shadowood Apartments to RSS. Inside, women gathered in the living room, which was converted into a small waiting room, and children sat in the kitchen at brightly-colored chairs and tables, drawing on and decorating scraps of paper.
There’s no electricity and the water’s not running, but that doesn’t hinder the conversations between volunteers and refugees.
Anne Banks, a home-school parent from Fort Mill, S.C., who with her children has been volunteering with RSS since 2010, said refugees come to the makeshift office every Wednesday to receive help with paperwork ranging from school memos to mail to help filling out government-assistance forms.
“We listen to what they need and do what we can,” Banks said.
Banks talks while cuddling 4-year-old Leah, the daughter of a Vietnam refugee family.
Banks volunteers at the Help Center every Wednesday with her 13-year-old son, Joseph.
Banks’ family has adopted two refugee families through the RSS Fruitful Friendships program. Fruitful Friendships pairs Charlotte families with refugee families to help them become accustomed to living in the U.S.
Banks said they’ve helped their families work on cars, register children for school and buy houses.
“This is the most special part of my week. … These families are my family and have given me the rewarding experience of unconditional love,” Banks said.
Humphries said RSS supports 600 local refugees from countries including Vietnam, Myanmar, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Eritrea. She said that beyond its tremendous financial needs, the organization desperately needs volunteers.
“These intentional friendships give the refugees an opportunity to learn American survival skills,” she said. “It also gives Charlotteans an at-home cultural experience and a unique opportunity to re-evaluate life’s priorities.”
To become a Fruitful Friend, volunteers must visit the refugee family at its home once a week, bring them food and help them learn more about how to live in the U.S.
Humphries also said refugees speak little English, but volunteers don’t have to be bilingual.
“In the beginning, we are all afraid, but the relationship grows with time, and the friendships last a lifetime,” Humphries said. “These hardworking families strive to be self-sufficient. They just need a little help along the way.”
Crystal O’Gorman is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Crystal? Email her at email@example.com .
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