Monday, November 20, 2017

Finding Home Away From Home

Dominican Volunteer Elizabeth Drake serves as a Refugee Employment Specialist At Catholic Charities Chicago.

If you asked me where I thought I would be right now this time last year, I am not sure what I would have said. However, I am 98% certain I would not have said living in Chicago, Illinois working at Catholic Charities-Chicago helping refugees and asylees find jobs. Nevertheless, here I am more or less adjusted to life in “The Windy City” (aside from the weather, which I’m not sure I will ever get used to). 

 People always say, “home is not a place, it’s a feeling”, and prior to this year I would have agreed-hands down, no questions asked. Up until this year, I have lived in exactly two places-my childhood home in Northern Virginia and my college town in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Both places I think of as home. I moved to Chicago eager to experience city life, and full of hope for the year ahead. I have always been interested in other cultures, and I love learning new languages, so I was particularly excited to be spending my days working with people from all over the world. Hearing their stories and learning about their customs and cultures. The first three weeks of work were my training period, which consisted of going with my supervisor or coworker to job interviews or client’s homes talking with them about their employment goals. It was great. I got to speak Arabic with many of our Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese clients. 

Then about a month and a half in, homesickness hit me. The allure of riding the train 1.5 hours to and from work disappeared, and the unpredictable political climate made work stressful.  However, day by day as I began to manage my own case load, I realized that my clients and I have some commonalities. The most obvious being that we are all now in Chicago and are trying to figure out how to make this city home. As I walk with my clients through the complicated process of navigating employment in Chicago, I am constantly inspired by their strength and resilience. 

Two clients in particular come to mind:

NA*, was a tailor in Aleppo, Syria. He and his family fled in the middle of the night when their city was under siege. They lived in Jordan for several years and finally came to Chicago this past spring. NA  first worked at a factory that packages halal snack foods as a dishwasher and janitor. When I met NA in September he told me that he wished to become a tailor because sewing is his passion. After several weeks of phone calls I found a tailoring job in a factory, and despite NA’s limited English, the factory manager decided to give him a chance. I have never seen someone so happy behind a sewing machine, and I am glad he was able to continue doing what he loves. 

Another client, T*, was a classically trained ballet dancer in Russia. He and his husband left Russia and emigrated to the United States by way of the Dominican Republic. When they got to the U.S. they turned themselves in to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials at the border. They proceeded to spend 8 months in jail while waiting for their asylum hearing. They were granted asylum in May. When I first met T in early September, he had been going to English classes for 4 months. He was not very confident in his English capabilities, but he told me that he hoped to work at a hotel after he finished English classes. Two weeks after he finished English classes he got a job at one of the hotels on the “Magnificent Mile”. One of the most memorable things that T has ever said to me is “You have a good job because you help people like me and God sees that and smiles down on you”. “I hope to someday do the work that you are doing”.

It’s the little things like watching NA use a sewing machine, or hearing words of encouragement from T that truly make this job so great and remind me that no matter where you are, you can feel at home. I am so thankful to have had this opportunity to be a Dominican Volunteer, and I cannot wait to see what is in store for the rest of the year.

*Name was abbreviated to protect anonymity

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

I fill the gaps

 Jennifer Doering serves as a teaching assistant at St. James Elementary School in San Francisco California and shares community with the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.
Dominican Volunteer Jennifer Doering
I’m just going to come out and say it: being a volunteer is rough. Its long hours, it’s (basically) no pay, it’s hard work for little reward, and it’s the job that no one really wants to do. My job title is “Assistant Teacher,” but it really should be “Executive Copier, Behavior and Meltdown Manager, Lunch Duty Expert, and Extended Care Specialist.” Boy is that a mouthful. I’m the one who makes emergency copies. I’m the one who talks to the screaming kindergartener who just doesn’t understand why he can’t swing his pencil around like a sword. I’m the one who sets up hot lunch. I’m the one who stays after school for 2+ hours every day with only 2 other adults, watching the 30 students whose parents work late. I fill the gaps. 

All volunteers fill the gaps. But those gaps aren’t just jobs. When I make emergency copies, I’m taking stress off of an already overworked teacher. When I talk to the kindergartner, I’m teaching important safety and emotional management lessons to someone who needs it. When I set up hot lunch, I’m making sure that my students get something to eat that day, even if they don’t like cheese on their sandwiches, as they constantly remind me. When I work at extended care, I’m giving homework help to students that desperately need it, and spending quality time with kids that don’t necessarily get that at home. I’m doing important work. Do I get annoyed and complain? Yes, almost every day. Do I love my job? Sometimes. Sometimes it’s really hard to love. But sometimes it’s magical. Like the day we blew bubbles outside for an hour and giggled. The times when I have deep conversations about how the solar system works or what a million looks like with a third grader while he’s reading for homework (This same third grader is also obsessed with fart noises. You know kids). The day I decided to play Twister, but fell over with a smile on my face a minute into the game. The day my students derailed our calendar/math lesson (in a good way) because they just *had* to know how many more days there were until Halloween. The times when my students show how much they care about each other because they ask about absent students, even the ones they don’t get along with. 

Being a volunteer is rough. But I didn’t say it wasn’t worth it.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Wow, so what’s it like living in a convent?”

 Gabrielle serves as a counselor at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco. 
She shares community with the Dominican Sisters of San Jose.
DV Gabrielle Smith

             I feel compelled to answer the one question that I’ve been asked on a regular basis these past few weeks by students, coworkers, old friends, and family members alike.  Regardless of who I’m talking to, we’ll be about 4 minutes into a conversation when the person inevitably asks, “wow, so what’s it like living in a convent?” 
            The intonation and expression on their faces make me feel like I’m telling them a big secret.  What really goes on in there?  Do you pray all day everyday?  I guess the curiosity comes from there not being as many convents as there used to be or people have a general image of convent life in their heads from “The Trouble with Angels” or “Sister Act” or some such similar movie.  Unfortunately, I have no hot insider gossip to share, so instead I usually settle for a vague “uh good…pretty regular,” before launching into the details of having my own bedroom, living with 12 other people (10 sisters and 2 other volunteers), having a social hour every Friday, and commuting to school (located right next door to the convent).  From there the response is usually split—half pressing me for more details about rules and responsibilities, the other half move onto other subjects of conversation, maybe slightly dissatisfied with my less than juicy response.   
             So, what’s it really like?  Well, there definitely are rules and there has been a learning curve in terms of what community living means and how that’s different from the average college dorm or apartment living.  With so many people living together, expectations are necessary for the convent to function smoothly. Overall, it is quiet.  It is peaceful.  As a volunteer and non-sister, I feel lucky to occupy such a unique position, experiencing both religious and non-religious life simultaneously.  On the one side of my bedroom wall is the insanely loud traffic of the outside world of Guerrero St. and then I walk into the hallway and it is completely silent because the upstairs is a place for contemplation and prayer.  It is always peaceful, and you wish that we could somehow implement this level of peace outside the convent in the rest of our world.   

A San Francisco sunset with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge