This Saturday Jen will wave goodbye to her best friend Seng as she moves to Iowa. Seng and her family are Kachin people from Myanmar, resettled to Amarillo in 2011. Seng and Jen met in 2017 at RLP’s initial run of Table Talk at Margaret Wills Elementary School (pictured above). What started as an awkward, new mentorship in an echoing cafetorium slowly grew into a thriving, life-giving friendship. Now, their children are best friends, they see each other almost daily and they have walked with each other through school changes, job changes, music lessons and a whole lot of life. It has been a connection that transformed the lives of both families, and the move will be a hard transition for all of them.
In many ways, their successful relationship has been the goal in our minds when we’ve connected people into face-to-face mentorships. We hope for long-term, meaningful connections between Americans and refugees – our mantra being depth over breadth. Mentors are typically asked to commit for 6 months so that the relationship has a chance to grow roots. In reality though, those connections don’t always materialize into what Jen and Seng have.
Zoy has been a mentor with RLP since 2018. She first connected with an elderly Congolese couple and joyfully worked with them for a year before they abruptly announced they were moving to Indiana. Zoy has since poured into two other families over the past four years, each one ending when the mentee moved out of Amarillo.
It would be easy for Zoy to be discouraged by the often untethered and transient lives of our refugee friends. Their jobs change, they move to be closer to family or access better services, or they just don’t have the time or energy to meet after a long shift at a meatpacking plant.
For Zoy, she has come to see these relationships as windows of time, some wide, some narrow, that she has been given. She says it is up to her to speak into the lives of people for as long as the window is open. She has learned to recognize that the amount of time is not what’s important. It’s the language of love, care and dignity that will remain long after this flat, yellow expanse disappear from their rearview mirror.
Whether we have experiences like Jen and Seng, or have connected off and on like Zoy, the lesson is the same. We don’t know how long with have with people who have intersected our lives. The time we spend investing in them makes up only one part of their story, a narrative that continues long after visits and phone calls cease.
So the question is this: How are we prioritizing and strategizing time with our refugee friends? What things can we work on or talk about that will build a capacity to flourish during that window of time? Maybe it is studying for citizenship interviews. Perhaps it is finding ways to get into the education system. It could be a conversation about pain and triumph or taking time to show them new places around town. Whatever it is, we want to be intentional and strategic in the ways we interact, knowing that we aren’t guaranteed to be around when they reach their goals.
To this end, RLP’s mentorship program is honing itself into a more refined tool for holistic impact. We are developing a framework that mentors can use to guide their time and discussions with mentees based on areas that demand more urgency or seem more suited to individual goals. We want to steward well the time we have with people, and equip others to do the same.