New American Voices – AmeriCorps Members

April is National Volunteer Month, celebrating the spirit of service to others. At New American Pathways, our committed community of volunteers and AmeriCorps Members are instrumental in assisting our clients, offering services ranging from interpretation and cultural orientation to aiding with hygiene kits and setting up apartments.

AmeriCorps, a National Service Program, aims to improve lives, strengthen communities, and promote civic engagement through service and volunteerism. Each year, 17 AmeriCorps members join us at New American Pathways, enriching our services and making a significant impact on many lives.

Caitlin Barrow, former AmeriCorps member and current AmeriCorps Program Director, interviewed three AmeriCorps members about their year of service and the impact it has had on their lives. Drawing from their own experiences as refugees or immigrants, these members offer a unique perspective that has shaped their commitment to service.

Caitlin: Let’s start by telling a bit about yourself and where you are from. 

Fardosa: My family left Somalia when my mother was a teenager and war broke out. I was born in a refugee camp and I grew up there for the first seven years of my life, then came to America when I was about eight years old. I lived in Clarkson for a while and then moved to Decatur, which is where I currently live.

Bahga: My family is from Sudan, but I was born in Egypt. I was resettled in 2006 by RRISA and that is when I moved to Clarkston, which is one of the biggest, most diverse communities in the United States. I’ve been growing up here basically my whole life and it feels like home.

Danny: I am from Bogota, Colombia and I moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2000 because my family was being persecuted by the guerrilla groups back home. We moved to Georgia in 2010, and we’ve been living here ever since.

Caitlin: Thanks for sharing. So what inspired you to do a year of service and work within the refugee community?

Fardosa: I would say that I just wanted to give back because I went through the resettlement process, but I’ve always wanted to be on the other side of helping refugees. Refugee-related issues have always been something close to my heart, and I do advocacy work, so I thought, okay, when I graduate from the University of Georgia, I want to do a gap year before going back to grad school, and I thought AmeriCorps would be a good fit. So far it’s really fun helping people and being on the other side of the resettlement process.

Bahga: What I would say motivated me to join AmeriCorps would be my parents, because since we were resettled, all they’ve been doing is going to work nonstop. They haven’t gone to school even though we’ve been in the US for over 17 years. My dad still struggles with English, so I’m always the middleman to interpret things, to read emails and mail, and to deal with Social Security things. And so I thought, why not help others who have the same struggles?

AmeriCorps really helped me discover that part of myself, and it’s been a great experience because I meet so many people, especially on Thursdays at New American Pathways when we have a walk-in day for clients. I learn about new cultures and new languages. I see people’s resilience and the way that they really want to live the American lifestyle. So for me to help them, it feels good, you know, it feels like I am giving back to my parents as well.

Danny: Similarly, service and the topic of immigration has always been around me, and it’s always been a topic of conversation. I also really wanted to give back to my folks because they don’t speak a lot of English. Spanish is their first language and they don’t understand a lot of cultural concepts. AmeriCorps has been a way for me to give back to my community and to really learn about other people and their cultures.

Caitlin: Awesome.  It is really amazing that you are able to use your own experience to help others. Do you feel like there are any advantages to you sharing a similar background to the people that you’re serving?

Bahga: Yes, I feel like since we come from such diverse backgrounds, we can relate to them more, compared to if they go to an agency and are served by people who are predominantly American-born. I just feel like we can understand them and they can understand us, in a way that is very helpful.

Fardosa: I would say that it gives newly arrived refugees a perspective of what life could be like. A lot of the clients that I’ve met ask me questions about what I do and I tell them, “I graduated from college and I’m doing this until I go to graduate school,” and they get a sense of excitement and happiness because they all have children and they want that for them. It gives them the perspective of, okay, my kids have a life here and they can definitely become something.

Caitlin: So they’ve seen your success and it gives them some hope?

Fardosa: Yes, it gives them hope because it’s scary moving to a new country with a new language, new traditions, and new people. It’s a chaotic and confusing world when you first arrive, so to see someone who went through that and to know they’ve had some sort of success puts it all into perspective for them.

Caitlin: That’s really great, what about you Danny?

Danny: I think a lot of the people I serve feel more at ease because I’m the one helping them. They feel like they are able to have someone who’s looking out for them on this side of the fence. A lot of the people I serve feel stressed because they come from areas of high conflict, so it really helps to have someone who understands their culture, their tradition, and their language.

Caitlin: That makes sense. And with that, I’m sure there are also some challenges. What do you all find to be some of the challenges to doing service work?

Bahga: I would say that sometimes the people we serve don’t understand the procedures and the processes here in the United States. We are helping them to get their food stamps or Medicaid, and they don’t know that it takes a substantial amount of time to get everything processed, so, you know, that can come with a lot of frustration. I understand they want their benefits when they really need them, but at the same time, there is only so much that I can do as an individual. 

Danny: The challenge for me has been that we’ve had a large increase in Spanish-speaking clients over the last year, so that’s led to an increase in my responsibility of supporting Spanish-speaking families in our afterschool program. There are a lot of needs for these families, so they call me to help them with many things, and that can be overwhelming. I sometimes feel like I need an army of myself to get everything done.

Fardosa: The number of new arrivals has increased drastically this year so it’s hard to keep up with teaching people to ride public transportation because there are so many people, and everyone lives in different places around Metro Atlanta. Since there is only one of me, I can’t go to every single apartment complex and finish everyone’s MARTA orientation within their first 90 days, so that’s the challenging part. I’ve never had any challenges with the people we are serving, it’s more so a capacity issue and expectations around what we’re able to do as an agency.

Caitlin: All of that sounds challenging and points to the need for volunteers at New American Pathways to try and help with some of these capacity issues. Speaking of which, were y’all involved in volunteerism or community service before you became AmeriCorps Members?

Fardosa: I have participated in a lot of community service over the years. One thing I did for almost three years at the University of Georgia was I worked with an organization called You Lead. It’s an Athens-based organization that is dedicated to helping undocumented immigrants. We worked with high schoolers providing tutoring, homework help, and then applying for colleges and looking for scholarships since a lot of undocumented immigrants can’t go to certain schools, including UGA, because they’re undocumented. So we helped them find outside scholarships that would cover tuition for the schools that they’re able to attend.

Caitlin: That is really cool and directly relates to some of the advocacy work we do here at New American Pathways, with trying to get refugees and DACA recipients in-state tuition. What about you, Bahga?

Bahga: I didn’t have a ton of experience in community service before this year, but I’ve been tagging along with my older sister who has been involved in a lot of community service ever since we came to America. She has always been really involved in the Clarkston community, so I grew up seeing her passion for helping refugees. I’m grateful that I could experience that through her. She also guided me and encouraged me to apply for this year of service through AmeriCorps.

Danny: I used to volunteer at Global Village Project, a local school for refugee girls, and that experience led me to apply for AmeriCorps. Now I am completing my second year as an AmeriCorps member at New American Pathways.

Caitlin: So how do you feel that this year of service has informed what you want to do with your future? Has it changed at all through this experience?

Danny: I originally thought I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, but then I realized I really like working directly with people, so now I really want to become a case manager and stay in the field of social services.

Bahga: So similarly, I actually went to school to get into the tech field, and I was really money-motivated, but this experience as an AmeriCorps Member made me realize that I want to work for a company that makes a change. I’ve realized that money is not everything, it’s the quality of work you put in and the amount of change that you get out. So I would say that this year of service really gave me a new perspective on life and what I can do to make a change and a big impact on the world.

Fardosa: I would say kind of what Bahga said. It opened my eyes to the kind of impact that I can have within the work that I do. When I joined the program, I didn’t know what I was going to do after my gap year, I just knew that I was going to go to graduate school. Now I do know what I’m going to do, which is Foreign Service Officer with the State Department.

I think this decision shows my love of helping people, whether it’s immigrants or American citizens who live abroad. Through my year of service, I have learned that I am a people person and can’t do work that’s just behind a desk where I’m not communicating with humans.

Caitlin: That’s really awesome and I’m really excited to stay in touch with you when you finish your AmeriCorps year. I can’t wait to see how y’all will continue to make that impact that you talked about, because I know all three of you will be people to look out for!

Okay, last question. If someone was interested in volunteering at New American Pathways, what kind of advice would you give them?

Fardosa: I would say, don’t be afraid to ask questions, because everyone is very sweet and most people who work at New American Pathways have a lot of experience and have been doing this work for many years. They have a certain expertise that you may not have, so you want to learn about their experiences and the challenges that they have faced. I would also say to stay curious. I’ve always been a curious person, which I think is a great way to step out of your comfort zone and experience new things and get new information.   

Bahga: I would say, don’t be afraid to let loose, dive in, and sometimes crack a joke here or there. This type of work can be stressful at times, so you must make sure that you don’t get bogged down in the day-to-day. I see people at New American Pathways share food with one another all the time. It’s those little moments that can really make a big impact and it could really change somebody’s day.

Caitlin: What about you, Danny? You’ve worked with a lot of volunteers over the past two years.

Danny: I would say, stay open minded and let the experience change you. You may be surprised how serving the refugee community can make an impact on you, so be open to that change.