My new friend patted the chair seat next to him, a universal sign to sit near. I had just met this seventh grader an hour earlier. Barack has been in Omaha for only a few short weeks, coming from a Tanzanian refugee camp where his Congolese family lived for years. We had a chance meeting on a subzero degree Saturday as I prepared to introduce NO ONE EATS ALONE (NOEA), a program created to decrease teenage isolation.
I arrived early that day expecting in one hour to see 80 middle school refugee students ready for a Saturday school flipped classroom. A flipped classroom is an educational strategy that reverses the traditional teaching style by assigning instructional content outside of the classroom while leading typical homework exercises inside the classroom. On approach to the foyer, I saw Barack standing outside, he queried ‘today school?” I looked carefully at his bundled-up, cold appearance and heard an accent that helped me identify what I might try to communicate. I tried to speak to him in French, which was somewhat successful, but not until I greeted him with “Habari ashubui, mimi ni Martha; fanya kazi Chou Kikuu cha Nebraska” did I get a smile that could brighten even the coldest Nebraska day! We were immediately buddies; he carried supplies and props, untangled balloons, moved tables, swept the floor, and was ready to engage in whatever unfolded. Meeting Barack was a gift; he was a small package in an oversized coat.
Small packages in my life end up being the biggest blessing. Another gift was Ganesh volunteering to promote the launch of NOEA in middle schools. Ganesh openly shared his challenges of relocating to America three years before. He understood language and cultural differences; he felt and experienced being a refugee in America quite differently than the immigrant experience; he will not soon be able to return to his homeland, if ever. His story related his years of refugee camp experiences, his untouchable status denoted by his last name, his escape from violence in Nepal, and his ‘assimilation’ in American society where he is viewed as the ‘other.’ No one can better describe what it feels like to have a ‘border’ between them and their new neighbors than refugees. Ganesh had experienced teen isolation and he was committed to decreasing isolation of all teens. He was especially keen to address with younger students the ‘symbolic borders’ present to those coming to U.S. shores. Four years after landing in Nebraska, Ganesh is now labelled differently. While he remains a ‘refugee’, he also carries the labels of ‘college student,” an esteemed ‘Avenue Scholar’-‘premed’-‘full-ride academic,’ and as ‘past President of his high school’s THRIVE club.’
The younger generations may be ahead of the crowd by eliminating divides and being careful to not label people different from them as ‘the other.’ We make global strides together when we make room for others in our neighborhoods and in our hearts.
Highlighting successful programs that address neighborhoods near and far reveal that at their core these programs build strong relationships. One successful program that builds capacity and makes sustainable inroads into some of the worst maternal and infant mortality regions of the world is Seed Global Health (Seed). Seed educators work alongside in-country faculty to build curriculum that serves as a lynchpin in teaching and learning. By empowering medical, public health, and nursing students with didactic and clinical lessons, faculty members freely share their understanding that knowledge is power and help build the much-needed healthcare workforce in sub-Saharan Africa.
This work makes our world safer by leading to effective immunization campaigns or epidemic surveillance or by creating a world of advocacy and dialogue. Peace and stability are byproducts of programs like Seed’s that at their heart are relational, aim to build technical capacity, and support sustainable health care advances. Understanding the value and dignity of each global citizen is the underpinning of equal and effective partnerships. Whether through formal educational partnerships or informal friendships in schools, we all must respect our neighbors, refugees and locals alike, and strive to strengthen our communities together.
“If you want to build a boat, don’t begin by collecting wood, cutting boards or assigning tasks. Begin by awakening in the souls of your workers for the vast and boundless seas” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery.