The last organization that I was able to connect with this semester is the Tennessee Office for Refugees (TOR). I had briefly heard about the office while volunteering with the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE), and after reaching out to TOR about their volunteer opportunities, I was put in contact with Emily, one of their specialists focused on student outreach.
We set a time for an afternoon coffee chat the following week, and in the meantime, I prepared a few questions related to the everyday work that she and TOR were doing. When we met, though, I was surprised by how genuinely curious Emily was to hear more about me. She wanted whatever I did with TOR to align with my specific interests, and we ended up having a very organic conversation for over an hour and a half. As I shared my current thoughts on where I might be heading for the rest of my undergraduate career, I was particularly interested to hear about Emily’s own path to this line of work, as well as the trends that she had seen emerge in the state of Tennessee.
When Emily then showed me her proposals for long-term projects spearheaded by students, I was really excited to hear all her ideas about creating a refugee “story campaign” and a “cultural orientation evaluation” for locals. She was eager to hear my thoughts on the projects, but I was a bit unsure about how helpful I could be as someone who had only just started learning about the United States’ refugee policy. Emily quickly assuaged my fears, though, by emphasizing that TOR is really looking to connect with people from all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives; they need a diversity of experiences and overall familiarity in order to assess how they can best inform as much of the Nashville public as possible. She then handed me a TOR folder chock-full of flyers and data graphics, essentially a beginner’s primer for learning more about the refugee resettlement process throughout Tennessee and the United States.
I was impressed by how thorough yet easily understandable all the documents were, as they provided both a quick crash course and unique insight that many of the United States government’s online technical documents don’t convey nearly as well. TOR is designated by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (within the United States Department of Health and Human Services) to oversee the external support of refugees rather than directly engage with them, but Emily and the rest of the TOR team seem genuinely invested in shedding light on what all this means at a “people” level. For Emily personally, she wants to debunk common, unfair misconceptions about refugees, all of whom have fled from violence and/or persecution. She asked me to try and imagine being “stateless,” with my country and nationality stripped from my identity, and I ask you to do the same. The physical and emotional challenges that refugees have surmounted are absolutely astounding, and I hope TOR’s blend of quantitative data and qualitative stories inspire the rest of the Tennessee public to truly welcome refugees into their community.
Above all else, I have found that TOR works to help refugees integrate as smoothly and quickly as possible, allowing them to feel self-sufficient in their new homes. One of Emily’s other comments that particularly stuck out to me was when she openly admitted that TOR is not an “all-knowing organization.” In order to find new, creative ways to help refugees adjust, TOR’s team believes in connecting with other organizations, as well as individuals. This approach certainly seems to be working, as I left our coffee chat feeling both inspired and better equipped to keep learning and actively contributing to the cause as much as I can.
After just one meeting, Emily truly gave me a holistic overview of the refugee experience and resettlement process in Nashville. She even invited me to pursue blogging with TOR after I told her about this very blog series, and we’ve been exchanging ideas back and forth via email ever since. Although our plan for the first post (a secret topic involving in-person interviews!) has now been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we will hopefully soon pick up where we left off. I’m incredibly grateful to Emily for wholeheartedly encouraging me to step up as an advocate and support Nashville’s refugees such that they no longer are—or feel—stateless.
“As these new arrivals begin to rebuild their lives here in our state, they have the same goals as any other Tennessean: creating a home, enjoying life, and achieving dreams.“– Tennessee Office for Refugees’ home page
With just one more blog left for now, I hope to next highlight in more detail how all these refugee- and immigrant-serving organizations work together to create a deeper understanding of these individuals’ struggles, as well as foster a culture of empathy that extends both within and far beyond Nashville’s borders.
All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.