Welcoming New Americans: Volunteering & Refugee Support Services

Posted on by Robert Lindsley. This entry was posted in Volunteerism. Bookmark the permalink.

JUMA: This is true?!

ROB: Yes.

JUMA: A man bought a coffee to drink in his car.

ROB: Yes.

JUMA: And when he was driving burned himself with the coffee.

ROB: Yes.

JUMA: But in America, the shop is to blame.

ROB: Sort of.  In this case—

JUMA: — And the judges made the shop pay the man MANY MANY dollars, making him a rich man?

ROB: Yes.

JUMA: And this is why the cup says “Careful!  Coffee is HOT”- because they will only pay this one man and want to pay no one else?

ROB: Yes.

JUMA: How will I ever find my way here!


This anecdote comes from a conversation I had with a young Sudanese refugee in Boston who I will call Juma (not his real name).  I met Juma when I was volunteering with a refugee support organization as a youth mentor.  In this role I would spend a few hours twice a week with Juma, helping to orient him to life in the United States.

Some days Juma and I would meet at his foster home and I would tutor him in math (his favorite subject). Other times we would explore the city and let the lessons jump out at us.  (“Mr. Robert, are Americans wide because their stairs move for them?”) Other times we would just go someplace to sit and talk.  It was in this last context that the above conversation took place, leading us into a complex digression about personal rights, liability, enterprise, and other abstract elements that make this uniquely American story hang together.

I always loved these conversations as they taught me as much about the U.S. as they did Juma. The more time we spent together, the more I came to realize just how confusing a place America can be. Imagine trying to figure out your phone bill if you did not have the language skills to understand all the different plans, introductory rates, and taxes. Similarly, think of how complicated it is just to visit a doctor here?  Even getting rid of our trash requires sorting the items, washing some things, and paying a fee. (“Mr. Robert, you really must wash your rubbish?!”)

Many refugees arrive thinking the U.S. is a Shangri La. However, the reality of life in the US and all its challenges come into focus pretty quickly, creating a situation that can be scary and isolating. Add to these stresses, memories of war or persecution and the feelings of loss that define the refugee experience, and we have an extremely vulnerable population truly in need of support.

Luckily there are over a dozen organizations in the Seattle-area working to ensure that individuals and families seeking safety and a chance at a new life in the U.S.  are supported. Volunteer assistance is always welcomed, and the roles that you can play vary widely, from English conversation groups, to workplace preparation, computer training and more. Want to really blow your mind? Try teaching a prep course for the citizenship exam. It’s hard (!) and also really interesting as this is literally the curriculum for becoming an American. Sound thought provoking? It is!

Whether you have lived your whole life in the U.S.  or came here more recently, your experience and compassion can really make a difference in helping to support vulnerable new Americans as they adjust to their new lives.

If this sounds like something that interests you, please be in touch with any of the organizations below to learn how you can volunteer your time and make a difference. I guarantee that you will learn as much as you teach!

Asian Counseling and Referral Service

Coalition for Refugees from Burma

East African Community Services

International Rescue Committee

Jewish Family Service

Lutheran Community Services

Refugee Women’s Alliance

Somali Community Services Coalition

World Relief Seattle


Here, at the University of Washington, refugees are eligible for reduced tuition. There’s also an International Medicine Clinic at Harborview with translators and non-Western healing options.

Have you had any experience working with refugees? Please share in the comments!