Monday, September 15, 2014

Ask an Activist: Carla Fuller, Help the Refugees

With National Welcoming Week this week (Sept. 13-21), Levine Museum is reaching out to the Greater Carolina community and asking how we can create a more welcoming environment for all newcomers. 

As part of our Welcoming Week events, Levine Museum spoke with Carla Fuller, who works with Burmese refugees and is making a difference in her own backyard. 


Carla became involved with the refugee community about 6 years ago after four Karen (an ethnic group from Burma) girls moved in with a family from her church. She soon met their friends in Charlotte and continues to visit them frequently. Since she lives a few hours away, the community invites her into their homes to stay with them.  She has come to love their culture, food and most especially their children. 

Although they may not always be able to communicate in English and she has yet to be able to fluently learn their language, communication seems easy. In addition to her new friends, she has been honored to meet the men and women of Charlotte who are dedicated to the refugee community.  Says Carla, “there is a great network of folks who work together to help refugees and I am proud to have come to know them.” Of course, there is always a need for more people and she is always encouraged when she sees someone new get involved. 

Unfortunately, there are people hostile to newcomers and changing demographics. How can we combat this? 

I think as others get to know the refugees personally, they will understand that they are just like us. They have the same wants, needs and concerns.  

When someone first gets involved, it can be hard to find common interests, especially with the language barrier. The refugees understand that it is difficult for us to reach to them and are just thankful we try.

For me, it was taking a family to explore downtown and eat ice cream for the first time that helped us bond.  Six years later, this family has just purchased their first house and they are doing very well.  It is such a joy to have been a part of their lives and share in their journey. Sometimes I forget that in the beginning we couldn't even speak to each other without an interpreter, but now we can have great conversations!

If there is someone wanting to get to know a newcomer, but not sure where to start, I would recommend contacting one of the local organizations. They can put you in touch with a family or individual who would welcome your concern for them.
  
How can we work to combat immigrant stereotypes?

The same as above.  Get to know them and see that they hard working people coming to America to escape oppression and war. They must learn a new language, a new culture, new health care system and so many other things. They have the same love for their families and are just like us in so many ways.

How can we strengthen the voices of communities that otherwise go unheard?

Reaching out to the community leaders of the various ethnic groups will help make the connection.  Going to meet them in their own communities will give them a level of comfort that otherwise they would not have.  They are still very shy and intimidated by Americans.

How can we teach self-advocacy to those within the immigrant community? 

Working with community leaders to find out what they specifically need and having programs around their schedules would be beneficial.  Drivers’ training is one of the most necessary components to self-sufficiency. There isn't much funding for it, so they are teaching themselves with deadly consequences.  

Ten years from now, how do you envision a more welcoming Charlotte and a reinvented New South?

I would hope there would be many more Americans reaching out to the community.  So many folks go overseas on mission and humanitarian trips when they are here in our own backyards. 

I asked one man why the refugees in the camps are always so excited to see the Americans visit and he said because that is how they think all Americans will be when they come to America.  It gives them hope.  But, then they come here and often they don’t find the kind hearts of the missionaries and humanitarians.  Instead, they are often preyed upon by unethical people.

What does your organization do to celebrate and welcome newcomers to Charlotte? 

When we learn of new arrivals, we put the word out to other refugees.  They know firsthand the struggles that the newcomers face.  They take them food, welcome them and then continue to check in on them and assist in however they can.  In addition, the other Americans who are volunteering in the community will try to bring them clothes, food and other items they may need.  Unfortunately, there are not enough people to call upon and many are stretched thin. 

For more information about Carla and the work that she does, visit her website, HelpTheRefugees.com

Join the conversation: 
Levine Museum is hosting a Tweetchat on Wednesday, Sept. 17, from noon-1 p.m. on Creating A Welcoming Charlotte.

Follow and participate on Twitter at @LevineMuseum and use the hashtags #WelcomingCLT  #welcomingweek

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