South Charlotte Weekly
Jen Tolbert and her husband, Terry Tolbert, sit around a dining table on their back patio with a Montagnard family in Ballantyne on March 23. They pray, break bread, share stories and laugh over a casual family dinner. The Montagnard are the indigenous peoples of the central highlands in Vietnam.
Hblung Nay and her children Nikhan, 20; Hphina, 18; Yjudah Nay, 14; and Annie Nie, 24, have been friends with the Tolberts and their five children since July 2012. They met through Refugee Support Services Fruitful Friends program.
Refugee Support Services (RSS) is a nonprofit started in 2006 by Rachel Humphries and Lauren Moore that helps refugee families integrate into American life and culture. Humphries said the Fruitful Friends program started at the organization’s inception.
“When we first started working, teaching English classes to refugees, they would come to us with physical needs, like a bicycle to get to class or a mattress, but that grew into the need for understanding America on a deeper level. What they really needed was a friend,” Humphries said.
Humphries said the refugees wanted someone to coach them through everyday questions as well as more in-depth struggles that come with integrating into American culture. They decided to start Fruitful Friends as a way to connect American and refugee families.
Humphries said volunteers are partnered with refugee families and given resources to start their relationship, such as a picture dictionary and a cultural guide depicting the refugees’ native home. She also said an RSS volunteer would meet with the refugees and their host family until they felt comfortable building the relationship on their own. Eventually, the relationship grows organically.
Jen Tolbert said the Nay family is “their family.”
“The children call us mom and dad, and we spend all holidays and special occasions together, as well as just hanging out,” she said.
“They’ve helped us a lot,” Annie Nie said.
Terry and Jen Tolbert and Nie talk about working together on Nie’s federal student aid forms and helping Hblung Nay study for the citizenship test. Nie is going to Central Piedmont Community College to become a nurse, and Hblung Nay hopes to take the citizenship test within a year.
They also discuss the countless doctors appointments, in which, the Tolbert’s have mediated the conversation on medical treatment and insurance. Nikhan has suffered from a degenerative kidney disease since he was 8 years old; he was recently hospitalized and is undergoing weekly dialysis, as well as trying to be on the kidney transplant list.
“It’s been hard on all of us,” said Jen Tolbert, “but we’re glad to be there to help.”
Over dinner, they recount special memories shared together, such as when they attended the Nay’s family member’s traditional Vietnamese wedding in Greensboro and celebrated their first Thanksgiving together with the Tolbert family.
“It’s family with family,” Terry Tolbert said.
He said they decided to get involved with RSS after participating in several overseas missions trips, as well as volunteering for service opportunities in the U.S. He said they were looking for a more personal, life-on-life experience that could have a greater impact on all involved.
“We realized that we didn’t need to leave the country to impact another person’s life who wasn’t from here … and they immediately accepted us as family,” he said. “It’s rewarding to be used and make a difference in this way.”
“It’s a win for them, helping learn about our culture (and it’s) a win for us, having an international experience in our city and giving us a fresh look at our own priorities,” Humphries said. “It’s also a win for Charlotte, helping them to integrate and bring their skills and talent to our city.”
The program currently has 34 fruitful friend units with more than 100 people involved in those connections. She said they are continually looking for more volunteers.
The only requirements are “ to do life together,” according to Humphries. Families can meet over dinner, attend special family events or holidays together, as well as help set up household, medical and school needs as they occur.
She also said they’ve planned Fruitful Friend group outings, such as trips to Discovery Place and the Bechtler Museum.
Jen Tolbert said her biggest fear starting the program was not the language barrier, but the fear of disappointing the refugee family by not being able to commit enough. However, Nie dismissed those fears, saying they’ve done more than enough and that she loves them.
The Tolbert’s commented on how much they’ve grown – Hblung’s English has improved, Yjudah’s performs well in school and Nie’s has ambitions to be a nurse and return to the Cambodian refugee camp, where her family lived before the United Nations assisted their immigration into the U.S.
The Nay family, including the children, was imprisoned, because their father protested for religious freedom. They all escaped and crossed the forest into Cambodia to gain refuge. They haven’t been able to return since.
Nie looked over at Terry Tolbert and said, “They’ve helped me … I want to go back and help my people, to give back to my community.”
Ultimately, Humphries said, the refugees want to learn American lifestyle, so they can become independent.
Visit http://www.refugeesupportservices.org for more information about Fruitful Friends and Refugee Support Services.