Refugee volunteers are helping build a better community in Hampton Roads. Here’s how

When refugees come to the shores of America, their lives are changed forever.

But it’s the volunteers that help them start over.

“A lot of times refugee communities can feel a little lonely when there aren’t people around invested in their success,” said Mai-Anh Tran, a volunteer with Hampton Roads Refugee Relief. “(The program) offers opportunity for that and most of what we do is just to offer general support, such as small things that they would have to otherwise worry about at home.”

Tran is one of the many volunteers with the program who works in teaching English as a second language. As a child of refugees from Vietnam, Tran said she understands firsthand how having even just the smallest amount of help can make a huge difference.

The program, commonly known as HR3, started in the summer of 2017 as a nonprofit to help refugees in Hampton Roads. Rabia Jafri started the organization after one of her friends took her to the home of refugees and she saw how much help they needed.

“Two years ago, I didn’t even know any refugees. I didn’t know anything besides what I saw on the news,” she said. “But then I saw their struggles, waiting for food stamps, issues with health, just trying to get their kids through school. I knew there was some way to help more.”

Most of the refugees are from the Middle East and have come with large families, Jafri said. And for Jafri, seeing parents just wanting to take care of their children was enough for her to take action.

Since summer 2017, Jafri, a psychiatrist, has expanded her program to help hundreds of refugees and involve dozens of volunteers—all in her spare time. HR3 is one of the only refugee programs in Hampton Roads and provides a variety of resources, such as classes, childcare and dental care.

But the biggest struggle, Jafri said, is the language barrier.

Tran, who works with teaching English on a weekly basis, said while there are translators and classes, the struggle to learn a different language while adapting to a new culture can be especially difficult.

But more so, she’s noticed, for the women.

“Mostly what I’ve seen is how the mothers feel isolated,” Tran said. “While they are supported in some ways, they’re also really lonely in others.”

Tran said women, specifically mothers, have a greater difficulty in the language sometimes because since their husbands go to work or their children go to school, they might not have as much exposure.

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But while those women want to learn how to understand their bills and take their children to the doctor, what they have the greatest desire for is just building a connection through language.

“They want to learn English not just to get things done but to have conversations,” she said. “They’re social naturally and come from really social communities so it can feel strange for them to come here and not have that social aspect.”

As a result of a growing desire for more English classes, the program is being restructured to provide more classes during the weekday so that instruction can be available during normal school hours.

As the program continues into its second year, both Tran and Jafri hope to see it grow not just in the amount of people being helped but in those with a desire to build a community of refugee support.

“It’s nice to see that these refugees have been welcomed and people are trying to make their life easier,” Jafri said. “The more people realize getting refugees on their own two feet to be productive members of society will benefit the community, the more people can be helped.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.