I have volunteered with Voice of Refugees for three years, and this summer I finally made my way into an ESL classroom. In an organization that has become very familiar and comfortable, I have leapt into something unfamiliar and even frightening, yet I found myself received by students and volunteers with immense grace. With the newness of teaching English and the many changes since I started with VOR, I have become quite reflective of what brought me to the organization in the first place.

In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis was on everyone’s mind. I and many others shed tears of shock and sadness when a photo went viral of a young Syrian boy who had drowned on his flight to Greece. I was desperate to do something and angry at the comfortability of my own left, but I felt powerless. Through a long series of events and a great deal of persistence, I found my way to Voice of Refugees, and I began to be empowered to enact my convictions. I meet many other people who just want to do something, but they cannot imagine what, and I love to direct them to VOR, where people find imaginative ways to make a difference in the lives of others. 

I identify the fundamental aspect of VOR to be hospitality. This is something that people from the Middle East express remarkably well: if you enter the home of one of the families we serve at VOR, you will likely be showered with food, coffee, sweets, and you will receive care, protection, and friendship immediately. When I encounter this, I think to myself that real, self-sacrificial hospitality is something my culture is somewhat impoverished of. We take care of our own. VOR challenges the desire to retreat into ourselves, to take comfort in our own security, to close the door to our neighbor in need. Through major events and celebrations as well as more mundane things such as teaching English and distributing food, VOR extends hospitality and welcome to those who have experienced upheaval, insecurity, and even trauma and violence. We exclaim to all, “You are welcome here.”

Encounters of hospitality are profoundly humanizing experiences. In America, I have observed two extreme positions regarding people entering our country: they are enemies who desire to do us harm and should be rejected almost unequivocally, or they are helpless people in need and should be accepted almost unequivocally. I now believe that both extremes are dehumanizing of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. My first encounter through VOR several years ago was with a group of young adults from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; we were all fast friends, and many of us remain so today. I was shocked—and embarrassed at my shock—to find them so extremely similar to myself. We had shared dreams, ambitions, hobbies, jokes, and daily inconveniences, and I realized that what happened to them could have just as easily happened to me. This seems obvious, but I regret to say that I was absolutely shaken by this realization that my new friends were not merely victims in need of help from a benevolent power (me), but complex people with complex joys, loves, and sorrows. Through engaging with VOR, I have completely reframed my view of who refugees are and what I have to offer them.

Now, I am relearning this lesson of humanizing the “other,” the person who I once thought was so profoundly different from me and my experience. I am teaching people who are artists, pilots, scientists, and teachers, and I am in awe of them. I am every day observing the reciprocal nature of hospitality: I offer them teaching, cultural instruction, and correction, but my students make me feel extremely welcome in a position where I sometimes feel inadequate and self-conscious. They feed me, encourage me, and share their stories with me. Lately, I see VOR as an in-between place where hospitality is extended and received, each group blending into the other and celebrating what all have to offer. True love for neighbor is not merely mercy or benevolence, but a mutual sharing of oneself. VOR is a space of hospitality and of making room; we are all learning new ways to make room for one another in our communities as citizens, our personal lives as neighbors, and in our hearts as friends.