Last year, I wrote an opinion piece on Clayton’s need to embrace its rich diversity in order to learn from its differences and transcend some difficult times. Now, I share a similar message; this time, however, I share it not just with Clayton, but with the world.
The word “refugee” elicits one of two responses from people, depending, say, on their political affiliations or personal experiences. Speaking from experience exclusively, I’d like to use this space to illuminate the nature of a few refugees I met while volunteering this summer at a refugee resettlement day camp at the International Institute of St. Louis. This is not intended to be a persuasive essay; if nothing else, I hope it will function as a running catalogue of the experience I was fortunate enough to share with a refugee family from Sudan.
Honestly, volunteering at a refugee resettlement camp was not part of my preliminary summer plan. Initially, I was intent on traveling, visiting old friends and sleeping. Traveling, I thought, would be relaxing, rejuvenating and educating all at once. Visiting friends would revive some of my most cherished memories. And sleep would be an unbeknownst friend. But no.
A friend’s mom insisted I come volunteer at a day camp for refugee children to be held at the International Institute in St. Louis.
“Just come try it out,” she said. “What do you have to lose?”
This was no endorsement; she was in charge of recruiting volunteers and admittedly desperate. I had never worked with refugees before nor had I ever heard of the institute that would host the camp. But, thanks to taking economics class the previous school year, I did know about opportunity costs. And the opportunity costs associated with spending my summer sleeping were magnanimous and utterly unignorable. I needed to do something.
“I’ll be there.”
And, on July 11, I walked through the doors of the International Institute of St. Louis without any expectations.
I put on a red t-shirt that identified me as a volunteer. Soon after, I was approached by one of the camp directors, who asked if I’d be willing to work in an isolated setting with two boys, Mohamed and Faris. I soon learned that the two brothers were from Sudan and traumatized by their unimaginably difficult past; their mother had died in childbirth and they spent the majority of their young lives in a brutal refugee camp. Both of the boys suffered from severe behavioral problems only to be compounded by being in a large group setting. The rest, however, was unknown. What was known was that they needed help. And they needed it desperately; the leaders of the camp had considered excluding them altogether to ensure the safety of the other refugee children. But, the conscience of Gary Sherman, a retired pediatrician and camp volunteer, insisted that they stay.
We worked with the boys in a small classroom on the third floor of the institute. I assisted Gary as he attempted to teach them English and rectify their extreme, frequently violent behavioral tendencies. We kicked a soccer ball with them in the gymnasium. We watched as the boys played, laughed and smiled. And, by the end, we would aim for their reintegration into the camp.
The curriculum was designed to include an American-themed parade on the last day of camp. After three and a half weeks of working with the boys in an isolated setting, this was our ultimate chance to see them coexist with the dozens of other refugee children. We watched as Mohamed and Faris held miniature Sudanese flags in one hand and American flags in the other. We listened as they chanted “USA” in unison with the other children. A priceless moment — a picturesque, tangible reward only made possible by the trust and faith Gary had invested into two boys he’d never known. A world with more Gary Sherman’s is a better, more welcoming and loving world. Like Gary, we must all embrace the privilege of our society’s diversity regardless of the challenges doing so might present.
What do you have to lose?