This semester I completed a service learning experience as a part of my French studies and it ended up being what I believe will be the most memorable experience of my college years.
For my service learning, I worked as an intern with Jewish Vocational Services, or JVS, in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. JVS is responsible for resettling refugees from all over the world on the Missouri side of Kansas City. Dr. Myers and I thought this would be an interesting way to experience French because JVS regularly resettles refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR), a former French colony in central Africa which has retained French as its official language. Like many former European colonies, the CAR has been struggling with poverty, corrupt governments and lack of governmental infrastructure, as well as abuses of human rights which has led to thousands of people fleeing from their home country into refugee camps in neighboring countries.
I was extremely excited to begin my service learning experience at JVS. I went through a three hour orientation with other interns to learn about the organization and all of the things that they do. I thought it was going to be fun—I would improve my French, learn about how French colonization affected the CAR, and gain new insight into the plight of refugees. However, my experience turned out to go far beyond what Dr. Myers and I had expected!
My official role at JVS was as a school liaison. I would enroll recently arrived refugee children into school. Simple enough, right? Actually, it wasn’t simple at all! I had to fill out forms, chase down signatures, find school supplies, walk children to bus stops, and even pick them up from their first day occasionally. It’s important to mention here that these were not just children from the CAR. These were families from all over the world—Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Cuba, several nations in Africa, and others. So not only did most of them not speak French, most of them did not even speak English. The first time I truly felt overwhelmed was the day I sat in on an orientation meeting and listened as the interpreters translated what the instructor was saying in English into about 7 different languages. I was supposed to be helping with the CAR family, but I couldn’t focus. Each language had its own sounds, rhythms, and pitches and I was fascinated…for a while. Then I got a headache from trying to learn 7 languages in 2 hours!
|Kristin accompanying new friends on a trip to the zoo.|
|Happy faces on a day trip|
This thought brings me to what were probably the most important things I learned this semester. First, America truly is a great nation and second, I have had a lifetime of blessings that I never even thought about! America is great. Seeing America through the eyes of the refugees was truly eye-opening for me. They are so grateful to be here and they love everything about America. I was told once by a Cuban woman that, “Americans do not appreciate the gift of citizenship,” and she was right! At this point, we were in the midst of election season so that statement was even more true than usual. Regardless of our political stances or who the president is we are Americans! We live in a country that these people hope and pray to be sent to. This is something I have never truly thought about. Another time, we were at the home of an Iranian family who fled Iran because they were Christians and were being persecuted. They had hung a giant American flag in their living room and I was telling the mother what a beautiful flag it was when the father looked at me and told me that the flag was the most beautiful gift he had ever been given because it meant he was free to worship God however he wished. I have been blessed to live in a country where I can worship, or not worship, however I want. I don’t live in fear of communicable diseases or dying during childbirth, and I don’t have to worry about a rebel army coming in the night and burning down my village. I worry about homework at a rather expensive private college. I live in fear of not getting into the graduate school I want to go to and I stress about what to buy my family members for Christmas. I complain about food in a cafeteria and refuse to eat it even though it’s prepared, paid for, and available. I felt ridiculous at times around the refugees, and that is another reason I am so thankful for this experience.
|Kristin accompanied a group to the zoo as part of her service learning experience.|