From war to peace

Looking for a new book to read I came across “The Heart of Understanding” written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and long-term exile. Reading through the lines I found a quote about reconciliation, he says “The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.”

Back in the Spring Paul (one of MRC’s co-founders and Board Member) and Meg met Jeremy Solomons a consultant who offered to facilitate Dialog Group sessions at MRC. It has been Paul’s vision since he founded MRC to have a place where participants from different backgrounds, cultures and religions will talk about their life experiences and like Hanh mentioned practice a reconciliation process with themselves and others.

Civil wars, religious beliefs, political statements, racial and ethnic discrimination have made some of our participants to be target of groups or people that do not want them in their own country. They are persecuted and the only alternative is to leave and look for a safe place for themselves and their families. Most of the times the journey is a difficult one, they have to cross borders and find where and when they can be placed in a refugee camp . If they cannot be relocated in a refugee camp their options are: go back where they came from or cross another border and find out if the government of another country will allow them to stay there.

All these experiences mark their voyage to America, and after months or years of travel and wait finally they find a place they can call Home. But life is always unexpected and just around the corner they can come across someone who was the “enemy” back in their country and it is here where the reconciliation process starts.

Paul and Johnson (also one of MRC’s co-founders and Board Member) have a unique story of reconciliation. Back in their country (Liberia) they were not “allowed” to be friends; when they met 6 years ago in Austin they were not afraid of each other, Paul and Johnson decided to take the first step and overlooked the differences and decided to move forward and become friends. From war to peace, from enemies to brothers.

The reconciliation process takes time and thanks to Jeremy, Paul and Meg, MRC has been able to develop Dialog Group Sessions where participants can sit next to each other and talk about their experiences and help others move forward. It is difficult for them speak about what has happened to them, but when decide to open their hearts and souls and share with others their journeys, is when some of them realize they have experienced similar situations. Fear and persecution are the first words we hear when the session starts, but at the end of it, strength and survival are the common terms.

Tomorrow afternoon MRC’s participants will become artists of the reconciliation process seated next to each other talking about how they can become part of it, where they do not look for the differences they find what make us equal and one.

*If you want to know more about our programs and how to support Multicultural Refugee Coalition, please visit our website http://www.mrcaustin.org/donate.html.  MRC is also participating in Macy’s Shop for a Cause on October 16, please consider buying a $5 coupon to support us.

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Chain of dreams

Yubelly Perez, MRC Board Member

I remember when I was a child one of my aunts used to crochet all the time. She was a housewife and was looking forward to learning something new and possibly in the future have an income for herself. My aunt in a short time learned how to make scarves, dresses and other crafts. Every time that I was at her house I was looking at her and how she was handling the wool and the hook; and not like other children that are afraid to go to the doctor and see a needle, my biggest fear was my aunt’s crochet “needle”, for me it was a little monster that I could not manage, I tried several times to start a project and by the end of the day I was frustrated until one day I gave up.

One Thursday night while I was at MRC, Meg told me that one of the Iraqi refugees has offered to teach crochet to our participants. Suddenly all my childhood crochet memories came back and I told her I could never learn how to crochet, but at the same time I was telling myself maybe this was a second chance life was giving me to see that I could do it. That same day Meg went with Raheeq to purchase wool and other crochet materials, they came back with a bag full of beautiful colors and those “monster needles”.

The next Thursday Raheeq was teaching one of the participants from Congo how to crochet, I went downstairs and I saw how both of them were using the “crochet language”, Christine only speaks Swahili and French, Raheeq Arabic and English, but both of them were communicating in a way you will only understand when you sit with them and watch how Christine was crocheting and learning the basic crochet stitches.  Christine was with her 5 children and one of her daughters was hypnotized looking how her mother was using the hook to make crochet chains. Encouraged by seeing them I sat next to Raheeq and I told her about my experience and like all mothers and aunts she said to me “Do not give up and watch and learn”.  Patiently she taught me how to hook the wool and make chains, my challenge: to craft a 10 stitch chain. While I was attempting create the chain, I looked at Christina’s daughter and she was also trying to make her first chains, we practiced until our chain stitches were smooth and even.

I went home and I was feeling different, I was thinking about this new experience at MRC and how Christine was excited about the crochet program. The follow Thursday I saw how she was already attempting making a dishcloth and learning new stitches. Week by week more women were attending the class and other children were looking how their mothers were sitting next to each other speaking the crochet language.

At MRC we are always looking for new opportunities for our participants, and thanks to Raheeq we have a program where refugee women can learn a new skill.  Women and girls represent on average 49% of persons of concern to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and at MRC we recognize the necessity of have a place where they can feel safe and empowered.  Christine is making crochet crafts to decorate her house, her daughter is already following small patterns and I am still attempting my third set of chains. Like Thomas Alva Edison said “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward”.

*If you want to know more about our crochet program and how to support Multicultural Refugee Coalition, please visit our website http://www.mrcaustin.org/donate.html.  MRC is also participating in Macy’s Shop for a Cause on October 16,  please consider buying a $5 coupon to support us.

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Wish List

Yubelly Perez, MRC Board Member

Last night I was talking with one of the volunteers and he asked me how long I’ve been volunteering at MRC… I started to think and at that moment I realized it has been over a year!

I remember we used to host our MRC programs on Thursday night at the YMCA on North Lamar. We had a small room where we used to have sewing, computer and job skills classes at the same time. Week by week the space was becoming smaller and crowed, each Thursday night we had more and more participants waiting to use the sewing machine or one of the 5 computers available for us.

We realized it was time to look for a bigger place and move on. Thanks to Foundation Communities we found out we could use the community center at Trails at Vintage Creek twice a week to host our programs. It was a big change for us–to move to a center and have an additional day to help the participants. Our concern at that moment was losing some of them, because they would have to take two bus routes instead of one or they couldn’t walk from their homes to the center.

We were anxious about what will happen next. It was a slow transition for them and for us; we were in need of more volunteers, sewing machines, and other supplies. We started to advertise more of our programs and each Thursday and Saturday we had new people coming over to sign up for one of the classes. Unfortunately some of the participants that live in the North Lamar area couldn’t make it over to the new place, but at the same time we started to see people that could not be reached before.

Almost one year after, MRC’s programs have grown. A formal computer class is being taught every Saturday thanks to a City of Austin grant awarded to MRC; more sewing machines have been donated to us and the room downstairs hosts the Sewing class on Saturday; the children’s program helps the refugee kids with their homework and the volunteers take care of them while their parents apply for jobs or are in one of the classes; Thursday night one of the Iraqi refugees teaches other refugees to crochet, and we have been able to host workshops and dialog group sessions every month.

What is next in our wish list?   To have a place we can call home and host our programs every day.  To have employment specialists dedicated to helping our participants look for a job,  a tailor shop where the participants can create and design.  To have a place to host workshops and informative sessions for refugees who are looking for a new career and to have the doors always open for the participants who are still struggling and need and advice or someone who can listen to them.

I’ve been only with MRC a year and I’ve seen so many changes, imagine what Paul and Johnson have seen since the moment they decided to found MRC when they were thinking of having a place for reconciliation and congregation for refugees from all over the world.

You can help us make our wish list come true, visit our website www.mrcaustin.org and see how can you donate or become a volunteer, maybe in one year you will be the one writing what has happen in the next 12 months.

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Two New Classes at MRC

Today was a great day for MRC as we started 2 new classes.  One was our gardening class through the Sustainable Food Center/Citizen Gardner Program. Along with 20 other students from the Austin community, around 10 refugees from MRC participated in the class to learn how to build a square foot garden.  Pictured below are Johnson from Liberia and Amine from Eritrea as they help the instructor build the garden plot.

Johnson and Amine help construct the garden plot.

The class was very hands-on and encouraged class participation.  Everyone really enjoyed getting to be a part of it and learned a lot.

Johnson demonstrating on how to care for the soil

The class really enjoyed learning from the refugees on their gardening experience.  Johnson was an agricultural extension agent in Ivory Coast, working to ensure proper food production and distribution to the refugee camps so he had a lot of knowledge to share.

Chuda Moni watering the garden

Chuda Moni from Bhutan is seen above watering our new garden plot.  The Sustainable Food Center has reserved 4 garden plots at the newly developing Festival Beach Community Gardens for refugees through MRC.  We will receive orientation on how to participate in the community garden later this week and should be on our way to producing food through the community garden program for which we are very grateful!! We are also grateful to Dick Pierce of the Citizen Garden program who arranged for MRC to participate in this class and for the wonderful teachers and community members who were all so welcoming and inclusive.

Today was also the first day of our computer literacy class at the MRC Community Center. We received a technology grant from the City of Austin to support this program and we had a great turn out for our first day.  Students pictured below are from Eritrea, Bhutan and Congo.

MRC Computer Class Day 1

We are grateful for our wonderful teacher James Easterling who is patient and supportive as he introduces computer technology to many for the very first time.   Here is James pictured below introducing computer hardware on Day 1 of the computer class.

MRC Computer Teacher James Easterling on Day 1

We look forward to sharing with you more updates on these very exciting classes and ways to get involved as they develop.

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Only one…

A few weeks ago I wrote “Be United” and Sunday morning while I was watching MRC’s soccer team playing  against the AMSA Rangers, I was thinking about Nelson Mandela’s word.  Our participants were playing with their hearts and minds and there was only one voice and language on the soccer field –“Be one”.

Meg Goodman our wonderful Executive Director, was sitting next to me and she looked at the field and she said “This is what I love about MRC, our participants from different countries (Iraq, Congo, Sudan and Honduras) playing and enjoying the game at Dell Jewish Community Center”.  I told her I was thinking about the same, and I looked at the field and there was a diversity that no one would ever imagine to see together. Only one word through the soccer field yelling “amigo, friend, rafiki pass the soccer ball”.

While Meg and I were talking about what an amazing opportunity had been presented to MRC,  thanks to Alex and Tom Linehan who helped organized the game to raise funds for MRC’s Soccer program, the players were scoring goals and dreams.  Some of them were wearing shoes or soccer gear that the other team had lent them for the game. Meg had told me that one of our participants was going to playing with sandals because this is all he had .  However, this was not a practice like the one they have every Wednesday, this was a game with an AMSA team and soccer gear is recommended for the safety of the players.  Only one wish— raise enough funds to purchase soccer shoes, shin guards, socks, and other equipment or find someone who can make an in-kind donation to MRC.

The final score 3 – 2.  MRC’s soccer team had won their first “official” game.  At the end all the players gathered together for picture time, something to remember, a big smile and their hearts racing because our dream has been progressively coming true.  While I was taking the pictures I saw a group of dragon flies near the soccer field.  In some cultures people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and as a good luck charm. Only one thought, prosperity for our participants and their new lives in Austin; harmony in the soccer field, no fights, no walls, no limits and a good luck charm.  MRC’s team won!

Yubelly Perez, MRC Board Member

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A beautiful Multicultural Refugee Coalition day….

Today was a truly beautiful Multicultural Refugee Coalition day filled with education, community and reconciliation.

The morning started with our MRC Refugee Mens Soccer Team having the opportunity to play the Austin Mens Soccer Association Rangers Team as a fundraiser to help us raise the funds to support us the the league.  Thank you to Alex and Tom Linehan for organizing this game.  A great time was had by all and our team enjoyed a win of 3-2.

MRC and AMSA Rangers Soccer Game

This afternoon Melissa Helber of Refugee Services of Texas went out of her way to help me locate one of the Burmese refugees who has had years of agricultural experience and we knew would benefit from our upcoming MRC/Citizen Gardener classes starting on Saturday.   We enjoyed the afternoon listening to his dreams of creating sustainable agricultural practices here just as he had done in his home country of Burma.  We look forward to our upcoming gardening classes and the community garden plots at the Festival Beach Community Gardens.  Thank you to Dick Pierce of Austin Permaculture and the Sustainable Food Center for helping us to facilitate this wonderful opportunity.

This evening we were invited out to the Amala Foundation Global Youth Peace Summit in Wimberly for our founders- Johnson Doe and Paul Tiah- to speak to the 80 person youth camp of their journey as refugees from Liberia and their peace and reconciliation efforts that have led them to be the best of friends and the foundation of MRC.  The camp is made up of refugees and youth from Austin and around the world coming together to learn peace and respect from one another.   It is a beautiful experience and we are very grateful to have had the chance to be a part of it.  Thank you to  Cindy Zieve and Linda Freiheit for facilitating this opportunity.  Below are a few pictures from the camp…

Johnson Doe, Cindy Zieve and Paul Tiah

Vanessa Stone of Amala Foundation introducing Johnson and Paul

Johnson Doe speaking to the youth

Paul speaking to the youth

Johnson and Paul with Iraqi refugee youth

Johnson and Paul with Martha Ward, Refugee Services Program of Health and Human Services Commission

Johnson and Paul with Sofia Casini, Director of Refugee Services of Texas

We are truly grateful for all of these opportunities to carry out our mission.  A beautiful day indeed for Multicultural Refugee Coalition.

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Back to School Drive

It’s hard to believe that in just a few weeks school will be starting. In Austin many of our refugee kids will be attending school for the first time. You might be able to relate how hard it is to attend a new school, but imagine attending a new school in a new country where they don’t speak your language.

I was having a conversation with the little Bhutanese girl’s mom in the picture above and asked her a question, I ask many of our new arrivals.  “What do you like best about America”?  I typically get answers like , the food is plentiful, people have computers or everyone has nice apartments , with a car and there is an opportunity for work. But her response was different.  She said, “What I like most about America is my daughter will be able to attend school beyond the 6th grade and she will be able to pursue the career of her dreams”.

Area faith communities do go a good job at getting used clothes and shoes for kids. Because of this MRC is not seeking clothes donations.  In addition, the school district provides a very basic school supply kit.

We at MRC are concerned about some gaps in some specific areas that need to be available for our refugee kids to be successful and need your help.  We want to focus on a few items that will not be provided for the kids but are essential to their education.  We would like to give the older kids a English to Arabic, English to French or English to Nepali dictionary. We want to make sure that they have adequate supplies not just very basic. We want to make sure they have a working calculator. We want to build up a emergency fund so that kids with parents that are unemployed and on food stamps don’t miss out on school events that require a fee. Please help refugee kids by making a donation on our web site:  www.mrcaustin.org/donate.html so we can get them better prepared for the new school year.

-Nate Kreutter, MRC Board Member

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