Charlottesville "Neighbors" Volunteer to Help Refugees

Feb 3, 2016

In our second installment on refugees in Virginia, WMRA’s Jordy Yager takes a look inside a new non-profit group in Charlottesville that pairs Americans with refugee families in an effort to strengthen community by doing something revolutionary… being a good neighbor.

Sound of Mary Plank talking to a Healthcare.gov staff member on the phone…

PLANK — I’m calling for a family friend and I would like to get a Nepali interpreter to help us with this.

Fade out on Healthcare.gov employee saying, “Okay, absolutely, one moment…”

Mary Plank’s made so many of these calls by now, she knows she has to check the battery level on her phone beforehand. Sometimes they take hours.

PLANK — I’m amazed at how convoluted these things are. I’m just shocked. I go and I get a number, and I call the number, and it says we’ll call you right back, and I wait three weeks…You couldn’t do it without somebody, you know.

Plank is that somebody for two Bhutanese families who have spent the majority of their lives — nearly two decades — living in refugee camps along the  Nepalese border. A former school teacher, Plank volunteers with a new non-profit in Charlottesville called International Neighbors. It pairs American and refugee families with the hope of fostering friendship and helping the refugees navigate life in America, including the federal healthcare exchange.

But wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

HARRIET KUHR —  They’re not fleeing because there was a flood or an earthquake or because they need better education for their children — those are all maybe valid reasons, but in this program, people are fleeing persecution.

Harriet Kuhr is the executive director of Charlottesville’s International Rescue Committee, or IRC as it’s commonly known.

KUHR — They have left their home country because of a fear of danger to themselves, either bodily harm or fear of death even.

The IRC resettles between 200 and 250 refugees here each year, which, after 17 years, means that more than 3,000 refugees have joined the Charlottesville community. That’s about 6 percent of the city’s population. And they’ve come from all corners of the globe: Bosnia, Russia, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Burma, the Congo, and perhaps the largest group, Bhutan.

MAN GURUNG — We live 19 years in Nepal, and then we get opportunity in the United States, and then we came here. And now I’m happy, but I able to do anywhere, you know? (LAUGHS)

38-year old Man Gurung and his wife, Maisangh were born in Bhutan. Their families had lived there for nearly a century, originally coming from Nepal. In the late 1980’s, the government declared them and more than 100,000 others “illegal immigrants.” Amid reports of torture, rape, and widespread violence, they fled for the Nepalese border, where 7 refugee camps were built.

When families arrive in Charlottesville, the IRC starts them off with an initial apartment, some basic furniture, sheets and towels, food in their fridge, an alarm clock, toothbrushes. They enroll refugees into English and cultural orientation classes, get them physical checkups and vaccinations, enroll them in government healthcare, get the kids into school. All of this usually within the first month.

But after the first three months of their arrival, the IRC loses State Department funding, meaning that any additional help for refugees has to come from charitable donations, which according to Kuhr, goes but only so far. But largely, after 90 days, they’re on their own, Plank says. 

PLANK — We have people who still have needs that are way past 90 days, years past 90 days, because it’s a long process.

And that’s where Mary Plank and International Neighbors come in. It was started by Plank’s former colleague, Kari Miller, just 4 months ago. They met as teachers at the area public school where the bulk of refugee children go. Year after year, Miller would see children and families struggle to adapt to their new lives.

KARI MILLER —There’s just so much to learn and we can’t expect them to go from living a life of such minimal accommodations and then coming here and…just last month I taught a family how to use their oven. They’d been here for 4 years. And someone here for 6 years didn’t know that the shower, actually the water came out from top and that you could make the temperature warm….

Stories like this are countless. But it’s not just ovens and showers. It’s also setting up dentist and doctor appointments, and then getting to and from them. It’s grocery shopping, helping your child with their homework, knowing the difference between a fake check from Ed McMahon and a real check from Social Services. How are you supposed to do all this when your English is tenuous at best?

MAISANGH — I have been here, I have difficulty in language only…In my country only I studied a little bit, so only difficult for English only, otherwise all good here - work also. (Fade out as she switches to Nepali and says something to her mother in-law)

That’s 36-year old Maisangh Gurung. Her mother in-law makes their traditional hot tea and fried dough. We’re in our socks, our shoes lay customarily parked with the family’s by the front door. The Gurung’s tell me about the conditions they left behind in the refugee camps: Bamboo huts with plastic roofs, no electricity, kerosene lanterns, rationed food every 2 weeks, little access to the outside world, one pair of clothes a year, little work, limited education. Two decades they lived like that.

In my repeated visits with refugees in Charlottesville, I find them extraordinarily welcoming and warm. But life has been difficult, they tell me. They’re so happy to be in America. The land of opportunity. Life shouldn’t be so difficult here. But it is. Just difficult in other ways. Difficult in ways that make people like Plank a godsend. When Maisangh wanted to learn how to drive, International Neighbors hired a professional driving instructor. And when the family needed to be taken to the dentist, Mary Plank was there. Help with Healthcare.gov? Yep, you heard it.

Plank was the first, but International Neighbors has now paired 12 volunteers with refugee families as part of its Family Friends program. The group  has several other programs as well, including High-Five Home Friends, who make sure refugee families have five items: a book in both English and their native language, an easily understood boardgame like Chutes and Ladder, a dental health kit with instructions, a backpack check for kids, and a home check looking for beeping smoke detectors, exposed electrical outlets, or refrigerators left open to cool the apartment.

The group has also held several events to try and bring people together.  I attended one late last year outside a neighborhood where hundreds of refugees live. Dozens of them walked down from their apartments to a large open field. They mingled with Americans and picked through hundreds of donated clothes, shoes and books. As the adults drank hot cocoa, the kids flattened cardboard boxes to slide down a nearby grassy hill, and languages from all over the world blended into one.