A Lesson from Volunteering at ECIRMAC
This semester I volunteered at the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center in Urbana and helped with the clients that were Latino immigrants. Certainly they came to the Refugee Center for a great variety of reasons, some familiar and some foreign to me, ranging in degree of severity and difficulty. But the women who worked in the office that I interacted with—Deb, Guadalupe, Ha, and Maite—always did whatever they could to help their clients. Me? I think I was able to help about as often as I wasn’t. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t really all that helpful in fact. Sure, I could answer the phone and take a message if the caller wanted to speak to someone who was out of the office, but I didn’t necessarily have the knowledge to help some of the clients in certain situations. So I awkwardly hovered besides Guadalupe waiting for instruction, maybe pulling a file before returning to my place at an empty desk to answer the phone. I remember feeling like the clients must have thought I wasn’t a particularly useful asset to the Center since sometimes all I could do was make small talk with them in Spanish as they waited to speak with Guadalupe.
When I first began volunteering I worked with a client whose husband was picked up by the local Champaign police while he was just walking down the street. They ran his name and discovered he was an undocumented immigrant and turned him over to ICE. Scared, confused, and looking for answers, his wife came to ECIRMAC and asked Guadalupe for help locating her husband. Although I couldn’t be of much service, I was able to pull the client’s file and verify her information and her husband’s.
Another day a man that had difficulty transferring money to his brother in Mexico came to see Guadalupe about the problems he encountered. Guadalupe had yet to arrive, but was due shortly, but again I really did not have the information or knowledge to help this client either. The strange thing is I remember these two people and their situations specifically because I didn’t really help them. I could not do very much for them, and yet they still thanked me as they left. I realized all I had really done was speak with them in Spanish, even if it was just small talk or me apologizing for being unable to help them more, but I realized that was not nothing. It clearly meant something to them, and maybe something bigger than I knew, when all they heard all day long is English.
The Latino immigrants that come to the Refugee Center have come to the United States for a variety of reasons. It is possible that their native countries were unstable or dangerous, either politically and/or socially or by way of natural disasters, and they came here seeking somewhere to live where they would not have to fear for their safety. Or perhaps they simply wanted better educational or occupational opportunities for themselves and their families. Whatever their reason or motive for coming, immigrating to America is no easy task. Many citizens are suspicious of immigrants, criticizing them for not learning English, worrying that they will steal jobs from Americans and live off taxpayer money since they are here illegally. It can be exhausting, depressing, and just plain difficult to face that kind of prejudiced sentiment day in and day out. So perhaps hearing someone speak their native language to them is a pleasant surprise. Maybe it bolsters their confidence and shows them that there are some people who don’t mind them being here in America, even welcome it. There is a chance it even gives them a sense of pride to see a non-native Spanish-speaker, someone who elected to learn their mother tongue, initiate a conversation with them. So even if that is all I did to help the immigrants at ECIRMAC overcome their challenges, then I feel I accomplished.