By Mindy Pham, PAIR Volunteer
As a freshman in college, I was looking for many things. I wanted friends, a place that I could call home, and, most of all, a worthy purpose to devote myself to outside of school. I was fortunate enough to find all of these things with PAIR. Throughout high school I was actively involved in the DeBakey American Red Cross Club. After graduating, I searched for an activity through which I could dedicate myself to making a difference in the lives of others. After hearing about the University of Houston PAIR chapter from its president Cecilia, a longtime friend and a graduate of my high school, I knew it would be the perfect place for me.
Through the PAIR training process, we were introduced to the ways in which we should approach and interact with young refugees. We were told that we could not generalize the backgrounds of these children because they were from all over the world and had been through many difficult, possibly traumatic experiences. We were not to assume that the norms of our society could be imposed upon them so readily. After all, many of them had only recently come to our country. We were instructed that there would be language barriers to overcome as well as potential tensions between children who could come from different sides of the same conflict.
In short, as volunteers, we did not know exactly what kinds of issues we would encounter upon meeting these children. For me, a strong sense of my own roots confirmed that I wanted to be part of PAIR. My parents were refugees from the Vietnam War. They arrived to the United States in 1975. Although I am of the second generation in my family, I felt that upon meeting these children there would be a connection because I still carry the hopes that my parents had of fulfilling the “American Dream.”On my first day as a volunteer at Las Americas Middle School, I was very excited to finally see the faces of our kids. There were about ten children of a variety of ethnicities. Ryan and Francesca were from the Congo. Amiella was from Burundi. Alex was from Chad. Fatima, Dema, and Abdullah were from Iraq. As the volunteers and refugee students stood in a circle, I could see the apprehension and ice melting with each smile, laugh, and giggle from volunteer and student alike. We were playing a name game. I introduced myself as “Monkey Mindy,” to which a number of the children giggled at the ridiculous reference. We soon met Jaguar Jenelle, Tiny Thu, Rainy Ryan, Apple Amiella, and Antelope Abdullah as well as others. After the icebreakers, the volunteers and students split up into small groups in which we got to know each other and play games.
The biggest disappointment of the day was that it had to end. It felt like an hour had crept past all of us quite stealthily. As I looked around at my fellow volunteers, I saw all of the things I had been looking for upon entering college. These were the people with whom I would work and have fun with. The kids that were leaving with smiles on their faces were the purpose I was searching for and our reason to come back every Tuesday. PAIR was home.