The tech team for the Refugee Response Initiative does a lot more than just tech. In addition to setting up computers for Afghan families, they help out with anything the families might need – a tour of the neighborhood, help with finding a job, companionship at a doctor’s appointment, for example. “We wear many hats,” said Andy, one of the members of the tech team.
One of the biggest things they do is just listen and talk. Sometimes the Afghan family members want to chat about their lives, and sometimes they have specific questions about life in the US. Either way, tech set-up is rarely an in-and-out job – it often happens over the course of a hearty home-cooked meal and multiple servings of tea.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect before I started,” said tech team member TJ. “But they have made me feel so welcome.”
TJ, Andy, and Melody have had very different professional paths, but they’ve come together to form a strong team. Most days, they’re connected by a text thread and help each other troubleshoot any technical issues. They also coordinate with the organization that donates the computers (PCs for People), the immigration-focused nonprofit CAPI, and four CAPI case managers, all of whom are Afghan evacuees themselves and speak Dari. “Everyone is coming together to make this possible,” said Melody.
Each tech team member has their own way of making connections with Afghan families. TJ, who has an ongoing interest in geography, likes to talk with them about the specific regions and cities they called home. Andy’s own parents were refugees who came to the US from Laos, and he sees the connection between the two. “I see myself and my family in their experiences,” he said. “It pushes me to be a little bit more understanding.”
Melody, the third member of the team, also has family who immigrated to the US, in their case from China by way of the Philippines, Macau, and Hong Kong. She also worked for nearly a decade in the MPR newsroom, and brings her natural curiosity about people to the team.
“Many people I know and love came to the US as immigrants,” she said. “I know it’s really, really hard to leave where you are comfortable. And it’s especially hard if you didn’t necessarily want to leave.”
Getting to the “Why”
Now that they’ve been serving for a while, the team is starting to see the difference their service has made. When they go back to visit, they might see kids playing video games on a TV they set up or parents paying bills using the computer.
“It’s really fun to see that they’re actually really using the stuff that we worked so hard to set up for them,” said TJ.
The tech team also had a big role in helping the refugees use the new computers and hot spots – learning to log in, surf the web, download applications, use a mouse, and troubleshoot any issues.
Mainly, though, Andy, Melody, and TJ served as some of the first friendly faces the refugees interacted with in Minnesota. The relationships they built show that. Andy got to know a pregnant couple – then, during his time serving them, got to meet their newborn child. Melody has gone back repeatedly to help one family reconnect to the internet. The father greets her warmly as “sister” every time.
Melody sat with a woman who was having a hard time learning to use a computer mouse, and kept practicing it with her, even though it was really hard for her to get the hang of it. “She’s super, super capable, speaks multiple languages, and manages so much for her family. She just hadn’t used a desktop computer before,” Melody said. “She wanted to learn so she could help her kids learn. Pretty soon she’s going to be using these things like nobody’s business.”
All three members of the team plan to continue with refugee response in some way, either through volunteering or a future job. Andy, who has a particular interest in emergency response work, has been especially excited about connecting with people in the industry through his service.
“Serving with RRI was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life,” said Andy. “I’ve met a lot of people and got to connect with people in this field. I’m glad it got to be my first official professional experience after college.”
There’s a big need for Refugee Response Initiative members like Andy, TJ, and Melody. Though the initiative was at first planned to last for about six months, we’ll be extending it with Resettlement Corps, a year-long program that will begin in the fall, once again in collaboration with Minnesota’s Department of Human Services. The members of this program will help newcomers to Minnesota access housing, employment, legal orientation, education, and other resources.