Tell Me about Your Country: 4 Ways to Help Refugees Feel Loved and Welcomed

Asian boy at laptop

Kelsey Smith has met a lot of refugees, but she remembers 1 boy in particular. “He was 14, fresh off the plane from his country of asylum, spoke almost no English, and no one else in the program spoke his language,” said Kelsey, who works with a nonprofit organization that helps refugees begin to build a life in the United States. “He appeared tired, dispirited, and completely uninterested in participating in our activities.” She couldn’t figure out how to connect with him.

Then 1 day, Kelsey walked by the computer lab and saw that he was using Google Earth to look at his home country. “I sat down beside him and used gestures and simple words to ask him questions about his country, and that was the happiest I’d ever seen him,” she said. “His face lit up as he used what few words he had to tell me about his home.”

Reaching out to refugees is important—and making them feel at home is vital, Kelsey said. She offered several ways to interact with refugees to make them feel loved and welcomed in their new country:

  1. Understand that “refugee” is not who they are. “I would say that in general, I don’t think refugees necessarily like being known as ‘refugees,’ especially with the political hype of the last few years,” Kelsey said. “One of my mantras that I tell volunteers is that ‘refugee’ is a status, not an identity, and it’s temporary.” Many of them just want to be known for who they are—people who want peace and want to build a good life with their families. They want to be seen as part of the general community, as neighbors, co-workers, classmates, and friends.
  2. Consider it a privilege to hear their story. “Some are more ready and willing to talk about their stories of persecution and flight, while others are more reticent on those topics and would rather talk about what they’re doing now rather than what has happened to bring them here,” Kelsey said. When talking with refugees, acknowledge that it’s probably difficult for them to talk about the country they came from and why they left. Consider it an honor if refugees decide to open up to you.
  3. Listen well, without commentary. Whether it be war or politics, stay away from offering opinions on the circumstances that caused refugees to flee their homes. “Just receiving the story with attention and compassion from 1 human to another is a helpful gesture,” Kelsey said. “I also find that our clients almost always enjoy and appreciate being asked what they love about their countries, as it’s an opportunity to highlight the goodness about places that are usually not seen in a positive light.”
  4. Weep with them. It can be triggering for refugees to talk about their countries. “I’ve often seen people tear up and become emotional as they describe the places they left and long to return to,” Kelsey said. Just being near and sympathetic is usually well received, and Kelsey said she makes sure she tells them at some point in the conversation, “I’m happy you’re here now.”

Grace Thornton is a freelance writer living in Birmingham, Alabama. She blogs at GraceForTheRoad.com.

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