Student mentors refugee family

Leah Matlin, Staff Writer

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Sophomore Abby Lambert (right) and her mother Heather Ross in their living room. There, they discussed the time they plan to spend with the refugee family from Zimbabwe that they were paired with via RefugeeOne through Congregation Hakafa. Lambert’s family has worked with the refugee family since January 2016. Photo by Amy Glazer

After spending 10 years in a Zimbabwean refugee camp, waiting to be approved to leave the country, a refugee family was finally put on a plane to the United States. The family took three separate flights, and on the last one, were told they would end up in Chicago. Every week since their arrival, sophomore Abby Lambert has been mentoring the family at their suburban apartment.

“[My family is] mainly there to tutor [the kids],” said Lambert. “We taught them English, [helped with] their homework and now we play with the little kids.”

In a phone interview, Allison Stein, volunteer coordinator for refugees at Congregation Hakafa, said Congregation Hakafa, the synagogue the Lamberts belong to, partners with a local refugee resettlement agency called RefugeeOne. The Lamberts are one of approximately four families from the congregation who work with the refugees.

“We’re considered a cosponsor, … so we work with RefugeeOne, who paired [Congregation Hakafa] with this family,” Stein said.

According to Stein, the refugee family, who would like to remain unidentified due to safety concerns, landed at O’Hare International Airport on Jan. 20, 2016. There, the parents and their four daughters, between the ages of two and eight, were greeted by members of the congregation who held signs with words of welcome in Swahili.

Lambert’s mom, Heather Ross, said the refugee parents met in the refugee camp where all their children were born.

“They didn’t have running water in the same way we do, or heating or their own bathroom with a shower and toilets,” Ross said.

Lambert said she taught English to the children soon after the family immigrated. At first, the family spoke little English, but the girls learned quickly.

According to Lambert, she remembers the joy she felt when the oldest girl read a book for the first time.

“She sounded out every word and knew [what] it [meant],” said Lambert. “And my mom almost cried.”

Ross said one of the ways she was able to help the family after their arrival was to take them grocery shopping. She helped get them accustomed to an American lifestyle by showing them typical food prices and how to save money while shopping. Eventually the family learned to shop for themselves.

According to Ross, her family has created many unique memories with the refugee family. One of her favorite moments happened about a month ago when she texted the refugee mom to let her know that Ross’ family was running a little behind, and the mom responded with the thumbs-up emoji.

“We just didn’t expect it,” said Ross. “She had just sort of started texting, and that’s how quickly she caught on to [texting trends].”

Ross said her family occasionally spends time with the refugee family on weekends.

“We took them to the beach once,” said Ross. “They’ve actually come to watch Abby play soccer.”

According to Lambert, spending time at the beach with the girls was wonderful, and she liked how the girls were so curious. The trip was enjoyable because even though the three oldest girls had swum in Africa, it was the first time the youngest daughter had gone swimming.

Every week, Lambert said she continues to spend time with the refugees, who she sees as her “second family.”

“We’re really close with them now,” said Lambert. “It’s really cool to hear about their culture.”

Lambert said meeting the refugee family was an extremely eye-opening experience.

“They’ve taught us how much we have here,” said Lambert. “They really have [a simple life], and they’re still so happy.”

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Student mentors refugee family