April 30, 2018 —  Charlotte, NC– At the tail end of Charlotte’s Do Good Week (National Volunteer Week), 14 exchange students and host family members of AFS Greater Charlotte joined forces with Habitat for Humanity to participate in building a home for a refugee family.  We learned about volunteerism, about house siding, and about another part of the world living right next door.

AFS Greater Charlotte is an intercultural exchange organization with students from countries around the world living with families in Charlotte to experience America.  Often volunteerism is a new concept for them, and a great way to share information about our local culture.

As we cut and hammered siding and soffets on a perfect, sunny day, the soon-to-be home owner stopped by to lend a hand and meet us.  Abdikadir was open to sharing his story.

He grew up in a small town in Somalia, a country on the brink of humanitarian disaster.  Lacking a functional government since 1991, Somalia is ravaged by fighting between warlords, government forces, and Islamic insurgents, has lost many lives the past 25 years to violence, famine, and sickness, and over a million have fled seeking refugee status.

His community’s perspective of white people, especially Americans, was created by the limited, controlled TV they had access to.  American armed forces were shown storming into homes, with guns, torturing Muslim families and destroying property.  “I learned to hate white skin.”

When in high school, interestingly the age of the exchange students of AFS, a US military troop came to the town.  His community’s reaction was anger and fear, expecting that open war had come to their door.

Instead, the military team set up a health clinic.  Soon, he heard that friends had gone to the clinic, been checked and received treatment for their illnesses – for free.   They had never experienced outside relief before.  They were baffled, and peppered the Americans with questions.

The Americans explained they did not know who was “good or bad” and were not there to fight;  they simply knew the people needed help and that was their purpose.   This unexpected act of generosity opened Abdikadir’s eyes and changed his life.

He added English to the three other local languages he knew, and as soon as the Americans asked for Interpreters, he was one of the first to raise his hand and to be chosen.  As another war broke out, he spent several years helping out locally.  He was asked to travel to America, but hesitated.

Despite his experiences he was still fearful it could be a ruse to take him away, harvest his organs, and he would never be seen again.

Eventually he agreed to travel to North Carolina, and has lived here for eight years with his beautiful wife and five children.  He works hard (third shift) and smiles as he says he is blessed to have food for his family at each meal.  He beams as he thanks us over and over for helping him build his first house.

Our group was joined by several other families, which we discovered were also in the process of working towards their first homes.  Habitat for Humanity requires the participants take financial and home ownership workshops and commit many volunteer hours to their and other homes being built.  I walked away feeling like they were perhaps more respectful of and prepared for home ownership than I had been.

Recognizing Charlotte’s issue of affordable housing, Habitat workers admit it is a drop in the bucket.  But on that perfect sunny Charlotte day, I witnessed one deserving family making their dream come true.

More importantly, the experience put a face to the Somalian refugee crisis, and what that means both there and here.  I expect there was much more depth to Abdikadir’s story, and had so many more questions.  But I wanted to respect his limited time.

Two worlds met and it wasn’t what we might have expected, having seen news reports of refugee families swarming into crowded camps.  This family was not looking for a handout, but rather a welcoming neighborhood that allows them to work and play and grow and give back.
It is hard to wrap your heads around the dire crisis happening in far away part of the world.  But now when I hear news about Africa, or immigration policies, or US military forces abroad, I picture his smiling and cheerful face and have a more compassionate view of the choices I contribute to.

It’s an example of the critical mission AFS is committed to:  cross the barriers of country and language and culture and misunderstandings, to build a foundation for respect and peace, one face at a time.