By Rita Zoumbatlis
Looking around myself at Treetops Collective, I notice each woman I'm seated with – each representing her country and each with a unique background, story, voice, and creativity. We smile as we catch each other’s gazes, looking at one another's name tags.
This Spring Creative Gathering is Treetops Collective’s first Sisters Circles event of 2018. In front of us are watercolor tubes, pallets, and blank papers ready to be filled with designs and colors.
The chairs are arranged in a circle so that all of us can sit next to and across from each other. The big windows on one side of the building allow Michigan’s almost-springtime sun to brighten up the room.
I see women enter the space in pairs; every woman from another country accompanied by a friend from the United States. Countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Congo, and Iraq are represented by women who are now living in Grand Rapids after having to leave behind homes, loved ones, customs, and traditions. Having to speak a language they are not accustomed to is just one significant way their lives have changed.
To start off our Sister Circles Spring Creative Gathering, we all share one thing we like about living in Grand Rapids and one thing we do not like about living here.
Each of the women’s responses reflect adaptability of some sort. Whether she has lived her entire life in Grand Rapids, or moved here just a few years ago, there are circumstances and environments she’s had to adapt to.
A lot of the women express how they found a warm and welcoming community in Grand Rapids, which they are very thankful for. Looking at each one of their eyes as they spoke, I see positivity and great strength.
One of the greatest challenges of living in Grand Rapids, according to the majority of the women, has been getting through the cold, long winters. Coming from relatively warm climates, having four months with very little sun takes its toll.
One of the ladies demonstrates how to paint watercolor flowers. When the painting starts, I walk to the snacks table to get myself some goodies. I look around while eating to see how each woman combines the colors on her pallet and uses her brushes to paint. It is beautiful to see how each paper has different styles, colors, and themes. I eventually finish eating and paint a little card of my own.
On my way back from the event, I think about how challenging it is for refugees to adapt to the United States. Most of these women have spent years on the move—often in refugee camps—fleeing multiple times until they end up someplace they can make a new home. They have to adapt to new languages, faces, traditions, foods, climates, and the list goes on and on.
It's not easy to call a new place home. Some younger girls were born in refugee camps, and don’t necessarily have a particular place they call home. Yet they get homesick for their culture and the landscape of where they grew up.
Others do have a memory of home, especially older teen girls and women, but they’ve been through so much that the initial move to Grand Rapids is often emotional and tiring – even though it is also something they’ve hoped and prayed for while waiting an incredibly long time.
The process refugees have to go through to prove their identity and need for resettlement can sometimes take up to fifteen or twenty years. Fifteen to twenty years of anticipation, patience, and hope.
The women I met and saw today choose to be plugged-in with strong communities of fellowship like Treetops Collective. They love how they have been welcomed and cared for here. Settling in, as well as being content with their move, gradually becomes easier over time.
The next time you meet a sister who has, for whatever reason, left her home country to live in a new place, be genuine and intentional with how you get to know her. She will have so much to teach you, and you will have much to teach her too.