One of my greatest experiences while being at Virginia Tech happened one day when I joined a friend to volunteer for the Pilot Street Project in Roanoke. She rented a van and we took four young children to see “The Princess and the Frog.” So? You might wonder, “What was so special about that?” The answer is that the children were refugees from an African country and they had never been to a movie theater.
Besides plodding through school, adjusting to American life in Roanoke and the interaction with my friend who sees them every week, I think it is safe to say that they don’t get to see the bright side of a privileged life very often — even the simple privilege of going to the movies.
Roanoke has become home to more than 5,000 people in similar situations from Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Bhutan, Nepal, and Myanmar — to list a few countries (Court Reporter 2009). They are refugees trying to adjust to American life, cross the language barrier and learn to pick up the pieces from the circumstances they have come from. I was surprised to learn that Roanoke is one of the places that receive the most refugees from relocation programs, especially larger families, since the cost of living is relatively low. You would think there would be a network of resources for people to get on their feet.
However, the stark reality is that there are no such networks. Refugees who arrive in Roanoke do fall under the wing of Refugee and Immigration services, but are cut off from the system after only one year. This means that before being familiar with English and mundane tasks such as navigating a grocery store, the families are on their own with little knowledge of the cultural terrain. There are no other agendas that will help them and no government aid programs.