Lending Help in a Climate of Fear -- What Motivates Volunteers?

Feb 4, 2016

Last month, the Senate voted on legislation that would have enforced even stricter background checks on refugees from Syria and Iraq. The bill failed by only five votes, but it underscored an increasingly common narrative in some parts of the media – that asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries potentially pose a threat. What doesn’t get as much attention are all the people in the Shenandoah Valley and beyond who want to help refugees if and when they arrive.  In the third installment of our series, WMRA’s Jessie Knadler explores what it means to be a volunteer.

When the Augusta County school system closed down one day in December over complaints that a social studies teacher had her students practice Arabic calligraphy by copying an Islamic statement of faith, it made international news. A few parents criticized her, and thanks to social media, people from around the country joined in, sometimes with explicit threats to her. The schools shut down for winter break a day early for safety reasons.

JOEL BLECHER: This is a material effect of Islamophobia—we’re having students stay home from school. 

Joel Blecher is an assistant professor of religion at Washington and Lee in Lexington. He was interested to know how the Arabic-language press was reporting the story. The headline in one Egyptian newspaper implied that all U.S. schools were shut down, not just those in a single county. But he was more concerned that the narrative of Islamophobia seemed to be taking hold in both the American and foreign press.  

BLECHER: Maybe this is the split screen we’re living in between people who are being motivated out of ignorance and fear and groups that are much more optimistic and hopeful about our ability as a community to try to respond to humanitarian crises like the one that’s happening in Syria.

What was eclipsed and overshadowed by the story, he says, are all the people who want to welcome those of other faiths, who are signing up to volunteer if and when refugees arrive. 

And in fact, dozens of parents in Augusta County showed overwhelming support for the teacher at a school board meeting last month, a story that didn’t get as much attention as the original controversy back in December. 

Just two days prior to the Augusta County school closing, Professor Blecher and several of his colleagues were scheduled to speak at an event in Lexington put together by the fledgling Refugee Working Group, comprised of multiple places of worship. It was packed—127 people showed up. Talks were given about Middle Eastern culture and politics, religion and Islam in America. Professor Blecher spoke about his time in Syria.

BLECHER [addressing audience]: Now, I went to Syria over the protest of not one, but two Jewish grandmothers. [LAUGHTER]

Attendees were invited to sign up as volunteers.

MARCY ORR:   All four of my grandparents were immigrants.

Marcy Orr of Lexington was among those who came out to volunteer.

ORR:    They came to this country not knowing anything. People helped them and I kind of feel like I want to return the favor and also because of my faith— you know, the Bible says that you should be kind to the “sojourners in our midst” because you were once sojourners. And so I think that this is our responsibility and our privilege to help others who are in dire straits.

Down the road in Harrisonburg, Sarah Coleman teaches a volunteer orientation sessionfor Church World Service, one of nine agencies contracted by the U.S. government to resettle refugees. When she first started teaching the class in 2014, one or two people would show up. Now, because there’s been so much about resettlement in the news, her classes regularly draw 15 to 20 at a time.

SARAH COLEMAN [addressing the class]:      I had someone tell me once – he was from Bhutan…he had been a refugee from Nepal then came to the United States and he said, ‘You know, I thought U.S.A. stood for United States of America. But actually I learned now it stands for ‘U Start Again.’

Her class doesn’t simply address the feel good aspects of volunteering. It details the nuts and bolts of actually helping people: providing transportation, tutoring, grocery shopping. She explains how to communicate Western concepts like punctuality, health insurance and junk mail.

COLEMAN [addressing the class]:      What might be more helpful is, ‘Okay, see this? See all these bright colors? This is junk mail. Keep this one as an example.  And here is what a bill looks like. See these numbers and dollar signs? This one’s really important.’

The ultimate aim of volunteering, she says, is to give refugees a sense of self-sufficiency as they try to integrate into a new community. It’s all too easy to want to do things for them, given their past upheaval and vast language and cultural barriers.

COLEMAN [addressing the class]:      In general, just encouraging people to do things. You know, if you hear someone say, I can’t do that, I can’t do that, try to be the person who says, Yeah, actually, I think you can.

RONDA BAER: You see your country from a whole different perspective. And it’s meaningful.  It’s important.  It enriches your life.

Ronda Baer has been volunteering for the Harrisonburg Resettlement Office for four years. Not so long ago, she was approved to provide emergency housing, meaning a refugee family could spend the night in her own home if their permanent housing wasn’t ready upon their arrival in Harrisonburg. Late one night, a very tired Afghan couple knocked on her door.

BAER:  What was really special is behind me is where we keep our shoes and when they walked in, they looked and saw our shoes there, so they took their shoes off and placed their shoes beside ours and that meant a lot to me. I just took that as a sign they just felt comfortable in our home.