The Work of a Community Liaison
“I’m already speechless, and it’s just started,” exclaimed Ayan Musa Said through an interpreter. Ayan had just opened a box of gifts for her baby, provided by Catholic students at a nearby university. I sat with the family and one of the students in the Saids’ simply-furnished apartment. It was December 22nd.
When the youngest boy opened his coat, he clasped it to his chest as if it were the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. And since the family, all refugees from Somalia, had moved in July from an African desert to the windy Texas panhandle, it was beautiful…and practical.
In my role as a community liaison for a faith-based non-profit, specifically its refugee resettlement division, one of my joys is connecting volunteers to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. As I took pictures and video, I treasured the family’s reactions to the bounty in front of them. A co-worker, himself a former refugee, interpreted. Josh, the student, helped pass out presents, smiling as he saw the profound effect his group’s generosity was having on “the least of these.”
In The Tipping Point, Macolm Gladwell calls us connectors—those with an “extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances.” We like meeting new people and getting to know them. We also see potential connections and receive a thrill when we can link like-minded folks together. Put another way, we were networkers before networking was cool.
In my four decades, I’ve cleaned out horse trailers, filled-in as a legal secretary for my dad, served as a summer youth minister, and been an elementary music teacher. I’ve had experience in childcare, education and public relations. When my new hubby and I were poor seminary students, I even made cold calls for a roofing company for a whole week, earning $6 a lead—until one person was really nasty with me. More recently, I acted and sang professionally in a music theater while speaking and writing part-time.
I enjoyed some of those jobs immensely. Others, not so much. But my current position feels like I’ve been training for it without even knowing it.
Each day, I have the privilege of advocating—through writing, speaking, public relations, and volunteer coordination--for people who’ve been victims of violence and tragedy. They’re all legal immigrants who’ve fled their home countries due to war or persecution and have gone through extensive background checks to be eligible for resettlement.
Ayan was just seventeen when she witnessed the murder of family members due to an ongoing civil war. She and her aunt were raped and tortured by opposing clan members. Fearing for their lives, Ayan and her family fled to a camp near Kakuma, a city in the southern part of Kenya.
The Saids lived in a crude mud hut for eighteen years. Her boys, all born in Kenya, didn’t know life outside a refugee camp until their eventual resettlement in Amarillo in July 2010. At the camp, food was distributed twice a month, and each delivery provided only five to eight days of sustenance. Careful planning and the help of relatives and friends helped the rations last fifteen days. It’s hard to fathom, but Ayan regularly woke up at three o’ clock in the morning to get in line for water.
Now Ayan's sixteen year-old son grinned like the Cheshire Cat when he opened a pair of cleats. He’s a member of the Texas Tigers, an award-winning Amarillo soccer team made up of both native Texans and refugees from Congo, Somalia, and Iraq.
After, Mr. Said shared, “Getting off the bus last night after work, the wind was blowing hard. I wished for a coat with a hood, and that’s what I have now. You gave us exactly what we needed.” Mrs. Said asked for God to “bless us as much as we’d blessed them,” and we pretended to leave. But then we surprised the three oldest boys by bringing in brand-new bicycles. The kids whooped, Mom gasped and covered her mouth with both hands, and Dad got choked up.
But in the corner, the youngest boy sobbed. He hadn’t asked for a bike like his brothers had, but now he wanted one. As the parents apologized for his outburst, Josh sidled up to me and whispered, “I’ll buy him a bike and bring it by later.”
I turned to him and shook my head. “Josh, you’ve done enough. You don’t need to do that.” “I know,” he stated quietly. “But I want to.”
Later, Josh came by my office and brought the receipts for his purchase. He had not only purchased a small bike; he had also bought an air pump, locks, and helmets for all the boys.
“Josh!” I exclaimed when I saw the grand total, shaking my head. “You didn’t have to do this.”
He just smiled, shrugged, and said, “It wasn’t a big deal.”
But it was.