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Volunteer Spotlight: Jenny Orabona's Story

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Written by Jenny Orabona, IRC in Richmond Volunteer

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the war in Syria weighed heavily on me. I was heartbroken by Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background whose image made global headlines after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and was left lifeless and face-down on the shore. He and his family were Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Later, Omran Daqneesh was photographed sitting dazed, confused, and bloodied in the back of an ambulance after surviving a regime airstrike targeted at the rebel-held Qaterji neighborhood in Aleppo. His photo also tore at my soul as I read this and countless stories of families fleeing violence, sometimes with the lone goal of pursuing safety for their children, with no thought to their own survival. With these tragedies in mind, and as a mother of four young children, I also found myself increasingly horrified at the rhetoric emerging during the presidential campaign.

I desperately wanted to help – somehow – improve conditions for these people, and not just from Syria, but from Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other countries known to be harboring tremendous violations of human rights. I started contacting anyone I could identify who played a role in refugee resettlement in the United States. My youngest child began attending pre-school, and I had, for the first time in a decade, time during the day with which I could dedicate myself to a cause other than daily family operations. I googled “How do I help refugees in Richmond,” and found the International Rescue Committee.

Jenny Orabona, far left, with staff, interns, and clients of the IRC in Richmond. Photo: Keith Mulvin

After finding the IRC, I sprang into action. I gathered a car load of donations, and met with Richmond Site Manager Stephen Allen to learn how best I could help. He told me the IRC was in need of organization for the volunteer program, and although intimidated, I accepted. The year that followed was one of the most rewarding times of my life, and I am so grateful to the IRC for giving me an outlet to do good in the face of increasing injustice. In addition to my duties in organizing volunteers, I filled in wherever else I was needed. I picked up newly arriving families at the airport, helped them set up their new apartments, grocery shopped with them, helped them learn how to use the GRTC bus system, drove them to doctor and social services appointments, assisted with job interviews, helped them get their Social Security cards, picked up and dropped off furniture donations, gave English lessons, helped to get children enrolled in school, and organized social events. I have met the most amazing families from some of the most war-torn regions on our planet, and they are not our enemies. They are unique individuals of all ages who hope to begin anew in a country offering promise and most of all, basic safety.

Earlier this year, the IRC in Richmond was blessed with a grant to hire a full time Volunteer Coordinator, changing the scope of my donated time. I helped establish a “refugee store” of donated items from which our clients can “shop.” Matching donated items to families in need is so rewarding, and also offered an opportunity to give my own children a glimpse into other cultures as they helped me in the summer months to sort donations and set up a child-care room. This exposure to refugee resettlement for my children is an education no book could have ever given them.

At this rate, 2018 will be the deadliest year of this conflict for Syrian children, and other countries do not fare much better. There are also the single men: teenagers with qualifications and faces full of hope; fathers fleeing conscription with plans to send for their children, wives, mothers and cousins from a place of safety. I will volunteer with the IRC as long as there is a need.