Refugees and Volunteers Build Friendships Through Mentoring

[Story taken from CWS Newsroom. Written by Erika Iverson. Published January 7, 2015. Find article here.]

Refugee resettlement offices rely on volunteers, churches and community groups to help welcome refugees to their communities. With offices spread across the United States, each has a distinctness based on the local community, and many train local volunteers to mentor refugees in their time of need.

Mentors serve different rolls. Pam Welch, formerly of the Amarillo branch of Refugee Services of Texas, says, “we give mentors a lot of flexibility on what they do with their time.” Activities range from providing homework help to school age children to working with adults on completing their GED.  Sometimes they go fishing, and sometimes they go to a park.

Kelly Hebrank is Deputy Director at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, the CWS affiliate office in New Haven, Connecticut. She notes that while mentoring might center on a crucial activity like finding a job, the real benefit to both the refugee and the mentor is often the connection that develops over time. “People are really looking to build relationships.”

Most mentors at IRIS assist refugees with job searches. Charles Riley started mentoring refugees through a partnership between his church, First and Summerfield United Methodist, and IRIS.  While rewarding, he notes that mentoring someone during a job search is challenging and requires a great deal of patience and persistence from both parties.  “I hadn’t imagined that it would take so long to hear from employers. There is so little follow-up once the application is in.”

For Laura Martin, a pharmacy student at Texas Tech in Amarillo, these relationships are the primary reason she mentors at RST. “I started to mentor because I wanted to help others and was interested in other cultures...I continue to mentor because of the quality of relationships, the strength of friendships, and the enormous power of investing in another person’s life.” Not only is the refugee impacted, but so is she.

Currently paired with a Somali family, Laura spends most of her volunteer time with the family’s teenage girls. “The teenagers that I mentor are interested in science and love learning about anything related to science. They both want to go to school and become doctors.” Laura and the girls talk about the process of becoming a doctor, the different courses they’ll need to take, and the different levels of education they’ll have to pass through before they become doctors. 

Landrum Medlock, a retired Methodist minister and former employee of RST, also serves a mentor at RST. He is currently mentoring several ethnic Chin boys, originally from Myanmar (Burma). For Landrum, mentoring allows friendships to develop that might not have otherwise. When asked whether he’d recommend mentoring to others, his reply was classic Texas. “Yes, ma’am. It might not be for everybody, but for most people, it’s something.”

Laura agrees. “To me, volunteering as a conversation partner for international students or a mentor for refugees is something that I will be doing for the rest of my life.”

If you’re interested in mentoring refugees in your area, search for the nearest CWS refugee resettlement office here or write to us at immigration@cwsglobal.org.

Erika Iverson is a Program Specialist with CWS's Immigration and Refugee Program.