A few months ago, Natalie Holland arrived late at night to the Jacksonville International Airport to greet a family of six, just arriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although they didn’t speak English, and Holland doesn’t speak Swahili, she could plainly see the family was exhausted from their more than 14-hour flight.
“The father had a backpack and a few duffel bags on his arms,” Holland recounts. “The kids had small bags on their backs and the mother held a baby of less than a year old. That was all they had with them.”
Holland has been volunteering in the Reception and Placement program for Lutheran Social Services for the past three years. Among other services like supplying a community food pantry and organizing HIV/AIDS prevention and assistance, the LSS provides refugee resettlement in Jacksonville.
After greeting the family, Holland called a language line provided by Lutheran Social Services to acquire a clumsy translation from English to Swahili.
When they finally arrived at the apartment that’d been arranged for them, Holland showed them five clean, sheeted beds laid out for each of the children and parents. Holland continued to speak to the father, explaining some important safety precautions in his new hometown.
As she spoke, the rest of the family all headed toward the back of the apartment, then assembled together in the one queen-sized bed laid out in the bedroom—the children and their mother, all squeezed on one bed, waiting for their father to join them.
“It was a moment that sounds obsolete—them [choosing to] share a bed,” Holland says. “But it will always stick in my mind.”
LSS does more than welcome refugees to the Northeast Florida. They offer a comprehensive resettlement plan, which aims to help acclimate new arrivals to their new culture and surroundings as quickly as possible. To start, they provide a fully furnished apartment with a refrigerator and a hot meal originating from their home country. The next day, volunteers arrive to assist with all the paperwork that comes with becoming naturalized; including Social Security cards, citizen paperwork and health department documents. They then help enroll them in second language English courses and, if they are minors, primary or secondary schools. Self-sufficiency is the end goal, and LSS helps those of working age find employment, as well.
Mary Strickland, president and CEO of LSS, says that Jacksonville has a long history of welcoming refugees and LSS aims to continue that tradition.
“Refugees are not illegal immigrants. These are stateless people who have been invited to resettle in the U.S. because they have been forced out of their home country due to political or religious persecution,” said Strickland. “Many of these refugees have spent years in camps, where there is little food, shelter or water and where the threat of violence is always present.”
“Not only are they thoroughly vetted by six national agencies, including the FBI, Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, they are so grateful to be invited to the U.S, they become hard-working members of the [Jacksonville] community.”
Lutheran Social Services is currently looking for both volunteers and donations for some of the many programs it provides. If you are interested in making a difference, visit LSSJax.org for more information.