Saturday Tea: A Volunteer Meets a Refugee Family

May 09, 2016
By Lauren Greenberg

It was nearing eight on a Saturday evening when I received this text: “My heart is full.”

The message was from my friend Michal Tannenbaum, 27, who had spent the afternoon getting to know a family of refugees from Afghanistan she would be volunteering with.  Four hours earlier, Michal and I waited beneath a giant palm tree in Hayward, where we were greeted by Kathryn Winogura, JFCS East Bay’s Volunteer Services Manager, carrying a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. “This is the place!” announced Kathryn, motioning to the second floor of an apartment building. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“I don’t really know what to expect, but I’m excited,” Michal answered honestly.

We followed Kathryn up the stairs, immediately hearing the giggles of two small children scurrying to open the screen door for us.

“Salam!” sang Kathryn, greeting Aimal and his wife, Sahdia, “so good to see you all!”

“You too,” said Aimal. Sahdia embraced us one at a time, kissing our cheeks the customary three times. We were invited to sit around an intricately patterned rug they had brought from Afghanistan, a rare and deeply valued possession. Sahdia served us saffron-flavored hot tea and special candied almonds, the children’s eyes widening at the sight of a favorite snack. The family had been in the U.S. only twenty days.

Aimal and Sahdia met at university where he was studying adolescent psychology and she was focusing on obstetrics and gynecology.

“I am very intelligent, but my English . . .” Sahdia explained, shaking her head wearily “I understand better than I can speak.”

“Ours is a love match,” Aimal said proudly, sharing an affectionate glance with Sahdia. “Our kids are very clever, every day they ask ‘when do we go to school?’ They loved going to school, it has been very hard. This last year has been very frightening for us.”

Lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan means that social services are sparse and there was no work for Aimal as a psychologist. He worked instead as a translator for U.N. personnel. For this, the Taliban targeted him and his family. They received threats on their lives and Aimal worried that one day he would come home and find his children gone.

“So we had to leave,” Aimal said.  It was a matter of life and death. Luckily, they were able to obtain Special Immigrant Visas to come to the United States. As we thought about what it takes to start your life over in a new country, Sahdia served us fresh tea and oranges, and Aimal asked us about ourselves.

“I was born in Israel and grew up in L.A.,” began Michal. “I studied fine art and painting in college, now I do social work with children and families.”  She paused and reached into a paper bag. “Actually, I brought you some things.” Michal pulled out watercolors, pens, pencils, beginning English worksheets, and a Spider-Man coloring book—engaging the children in an impromptu art project while their parents beamed.

Kathryn also came supplied with two brand-new backpacks filled with school supplies, water bottles, and stuffed animals. They were donated to the agency by Soulpacks, a local nonprofit; the supplies would be perfect for the children’s first day of school on Monday.

As Kathryn and I said our goodbyes, Michal was cheerfully painting and chatting with Sahdia, making plans for Michal’s return in two weeks. When I got Michal’s text hours later, she told me that she had only just left their apartment, that they had spent the afternoon talking and getting to know each other.

“So what do think?” I wrote back.

“My heart is full,” she said.

—Lauren Greenberg is JFCS East Bay’s Marketing & Development Assistant. Please join us in welcoming refugees with our #RefugeesWelcome campaign.