I just recently started volunteering with a family of Iraqi refugees. I am a mentor, which means that I'm supposed to help them get acclimated to American life. They have a case manager that helps with things like jobs and food stamp applications, but I'm available to help them with their English and learn to get around. They get government assistance for a couple months, but after that they'll need to be completely self-sufficient. The husband and wife were both teachers in Iraq, and he cut hair for awhile. It is difficult because they need to be licensed for those things here, and their credentials don't transfer. They need to get an entry level job, and then acquire more education or training later.
I met them last week when the volunteer coordinator took Molly and me to their apartment. They were very welcoming, and we began communicating somewhat ackwardly because of the lack of common language. After awhile, it occurred to me that the woman might wear a veil outside of the home. I asked her about it. She told me that yes, she was a Muslim, and she covered her head. I surmised that she had looked through the peephole, and saw two women standing outside. She allowed us in without putting on her veil because she is allowed to be uncovered among other women and her own husband. Because appearance is somewhat important in first impressions, it is a weird feeling to get to know someone looking one way but knowing that her appearance would be much different when we go out in public or if Ryan accompanies me to their home.
Yesterday we ventured out to the grocery store. Usually the husband rides his bike to the store, so the wife (who I'll call Tina to protect her privacy) gets little opportunity to shop. They have no car, and no car seat for their preschool aged son. (They also have a daughter in school.) I'm not sure what the carseat rules are for older children, so because my mom was watching Molly, I just turned her seat around to face forward, and strapped the boy into her seat. When we were at the store, Tina noticed some spices in bottles. She was trying to find a particular one that her husband had purchased with which she was not familiar. I told her that when we returned home she could show me, and I could help her with it.
Tina's husband had recently shopped, so we mostly browsed. I helped her get some Valentine cards for her daughter to pass out at school. She had absolutely no idea and this, and I did not want her to be left out. The daughter knows little English, too, and may not have known that the kids would be passing out cards. I also bought some things to make guacamole. I wanted her to be familiar with some of the produce (limes, avocados, tomatoes) that are prevalant here (and inexpensive), especially at the discount grocery stores in their mostly Hispanic part of town.
When we returned home, she showed me the spice bottle. It contained MSG. Nothing else; only MSG. I had no idea how to communicate what MSG is in very simple English. I just told her that it was a chemical, and that it was bad! I did not want her to pour it on foods she was giving to her family!
She also showed me a note that had been left on her door. She had no idea what it said. It was a carbon copy and was difficult for me to decipher. I figured out that they had left a bag of trash outside their apartment for a short time. This was a note warning that a violation had occurred. It has to be indimidating to live in a foreign country like this. There is only one other Iraqi family in the apartment complex where they live. I'm excited to help make their transition here easier!