Not too long after I connected with Casa Azafrán, I heard back about volunteering with the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE). I had reached out to Camila, a fellow student who had been involved with the organization for the past year, and she invited me to join a group event scheduled for that weekend. Camila spent the bulk of her time with NICE as a childcare volunteer, and while I didn’t initially realize that was a role at NICE, it made perfect sense when she explained how parents are often overwhelmed while trying to navigate the immigration or resettlement system. Additionally, one of the biggest barriers for adults trying to enroll in NICE’s popular English programs is childcare, as many families cannot afford to hire someone else to watch their children. Many of the university-aged volunteers thus spend their weekends trying to take a bit of weight off parents’ shoulders by playing with and looking after their children. For this particular visit, Camila had planned a fun-filled afternoon of crafts, board games, outdoor activities, and even balloon animals.
When Saturday rolled around, a group of around 15 of us met up bright and early on campus and drove to the address that Camila had sent. We ended up at a clustered housing complex, as right at home was naturally the most convenient spot for parents to drop their kids off. As soon as we arrived, we all followed Camila to a small building sitting next to a colorful playground. Miranda, who had been a part of NICE for the past several years, greeted us at the doorstep, and with a smile on her face, she gestured to the kids peeking through a window behind her and said, “Hey everyone, it’s chaos in there.”
She then immediately asked, “Anyone here speak Swahili by any chance?” Unfortunately, none of us did, and we didn’t know anyone who could either. With so many of Nashville’s refugees coming from Africa, staff like Miranda (who help with the refugee resettlement process) have been struggling with a lack of readily available interpreters. Fortunately, though, just as important services like childcare aren’t as hindered by a lack of a common tongue. I found this out quite quickly, as I ended up happily doodling with a group of girls from Kurdistan, the DR Congo, and El Salvador. None of us could really speak the others’ native language, but we had fun writing each other’s names in cursive and bubble letters, drawing colorful flowers, and cutting out paper hearts. (I did not expect the last activity to be such a wild idea to the girls, but they absolutely loved it and had me cut many, many hearts.) Even though our creations were not particularly amazing or groundbreaking in any way, they certainly show how art really is a great way for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together and have fun.
Miranda, impressed by our overflowing assortment of uncapped markers and messy drawings, later came by and asked if we wanted to try some aushak, a homemade Afghan dumpling. A woman who Miranda helped resettle in Nashville a few years ago had given the dish to her as a thank you gift, as the woman had just bought a house all on her own. It was a sweet success story to hear, and it really highlights the impact that NICE has had on helping immigrants and refugees find a renewed sense of agency in their lives.
Soon after this snack, we brought out a cooler full of popsicles for the kids to enjoy outside. The ensuing frenzy was pretty remarkable, and my “art crew” and I switched gears to playing with sidewalk chalk. One of the girls, probably no older than eight years old, invented a Pictionary-esque game with amusingly complex rules, and after several failed attempts, we ended up playing hopscotch and hangman instead. After a couple rounds of the latter, she started to get embarrassed about her struggle to spell most of the words. She muttered, “I can’t spell in English, and I can’t write in my home language.” I told her she was doing great, though, because she kept trying her best (and could speak two languages, which was way better than most Americans like myself). She smiled at that, and I couldn’t help but silently marvel at her and the other kids’ resilience. Miranda told us about the hardships they experienced when coming to and arriving in the United States, and from just my one afternoon with them, I am confident that they are going to be doing some pretty amazing things in their future.
As our afternoon gradually came to an end, I was really touched by how much the kids genuinely seemed to enjoy our company. We came in as strangers, but after just 7 hours together, our parting was surprisingly emotional. One of my art buddies asked me to sign the paper heart I made for her so that she could keep it, and another girl gave me a teary hug for a solid 45 seconds. As someone who typically feels pretty awkward around kids, I was glad that the both of us had a lot of fun together. (I also can now confidently attest to how going out of your comfort zone can let you learn new things about not only yourself but also others).
Miranda and Camila then reconvened with our group to say thank you for driving out, and Miranda told us (and the kids) to remember that everywhere we go, we bring our own gifts that make us uniquely ourselves and fun to be around. I think the message is a nice one to remember in really any aspect of your life, and the boundless energy and enthusiasm of these kids was definitely a gift to me. One boy even asked if he could make a quick speech before we left (which was awesome and again totally unexpected), and he thanked the whole group for coming and doing puzzles with him. He hoped to see us again soon, and as I write this last sentence, I can wholeheartedly say that I’m looking forward to (and impatiently awaiting) being able to head back there in the fall.
All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.