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Building a Cross-Cultural Relationship as a Volunteer

Whether you’re a seasoned volunteer or just starting out, Whitney Renfroe agrees that uncertainty can often accompany a cross-cultural relationship. After all, Whitney is no stranger to helping immigrants.

During her college years, this occupational therapist spent a summer month in Greece serving and walking alongside refugees. And it’s the passion that brought her to the Chicagoland area. Being closer to a larger immigrant population meant more opportunities to build meaningful relationships.

As Whitney shares about her friendship with Afghan Paralympian, Farzana, she addresses several uncertainties that often crop up as a cross-cultural volunteer. Following are a few insights to help you get past some of your own doubts and move you closer to building a relationship that can change your life.

God will use you exactly where he needs you. Even if it takes you a little longer to get there.

A simple invitation over a cup of coffee brought Whitney to World Relief Chicagoland in August 2021. Her meeting with an acquaintance who belonged to a church that was a World Relief partner opened her eyes to a new opportunity. They needed volunteers to walk alongside Afghan refugees arriving in the United States.

Whitney logged on to the application, eager to get started. But instead of volunteering, she found herself waiting.

Good timing has a reason.

Coming off the cusp of the Covid shutdown, many non-profit organizations were navigating the sudden broad changes in society – and World Relief Chicagoland was no exception. Volunteer opportunities came Whitney’s way, like setting up an apartment, but the timing didn’t work with her schedule.

As weeks passed by with still no fit, Whitney remained patient but held some doubts. Was this going to happen? Then came the call from World Relief about a role she hadn’t heard of.

“They were pretty open like ‘We recognize you’ve been waiting a really long time to be matched with someone. And we’re sorry it’s been so wild. But we’re wondering if you’d be interested specifically in being a health advocate?’”

A new individual had arrived at the Chicago office. A single Afghan woman who was close to Whitney’s age had a disability that required an extra level of healthcare support. With Whitney’s medical background to help navigate the American healthcare system, Farzana and Whitney were a perfect fit.

Whitney was impressed by the degree of thoughtfulness that World Relief had put into selecting her partner. “They didn’t want it to be just a random, ‘Let’s throw these people together.’ When I realized that, it made me appreciate the amount of time.”

Don’t hold onto assumptions. Someone will always turn them upside down.

“She has taught me a lot about not assuming. Farzana is one of the most go-getting women I’ve ever met in my life.”

Whitney Renfroe

Whitney recognizes how easy it is in our Western culture to draw conclusions or build stereotypes about other cultures based on what’s portrayed in various news and media outlets. But when you take the time to get to know someone, it’s amazing how these portrayals are quickly shattered.

And being a volunteer enables you to experience it.

As Whitney grew closer to Farzana, she found an incredibly educated, resilient, and independent woman who for all practical purposes amplified the American dream. Farzana eagerly grabbed hold of every opportunity given to her. She went from speaking little English to growing exponentially in her usage of it. She began working a job and attending school. And she continued to pursue her passion by getting back onto the basketball courts.

In fact, the nature of their relationship wasn’t exactly how Whitney envisioned it either.

Whitney’s plan was to be a valuable resource for Farzana. Although she took Farzana to her doctor appointments and helped out where needed, much of their time was spent in a different way. “The majority of the time I think was honestly Farzana showing hospitality to me.”

When Whitney came to visit, Farzana was intentional about making her a cup of coffee and spending their time together talking and practicing English. To Farzana, this is where the value lay.

The small things carry weight. Sometimes more than the bigger ones.

Time and location didn’t always make it convenient for Whitney and Farzana to meet regularly. And often it’s this concern that can prevent someone from taking on the role of a friendship partner, health advocate, or youth tutor.

But when they couldn’t meet, Whitney found a number of other things that were just as meaningful. Weekly check-ins were made using WhatsApp, voice messages, or video calls to see how Farzana was doing and to let her know, “Hey . . . I was thinking about you.”

“I think those weekly quick check-ins were really important. It was something small and it didn’t always feel sufficient to me. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a connection made even in those things.”

And with World Relief’s staff partnering with her, Whitney understood she was one piece of a bigger puzzle to help Farzana rebuild her life. “That took a lot of pressure off of me in terms of not feeling like I had to carry the weight of the whole thing. My job was to show up and to be there – to be a resource.”

Addressing the Awkwardness

What about the awkwardness that often accompanies the language barrier in cross-cultural relationships?

Whitney assures others it’s okay to feel awkward. In fact, count on feeling awkward because it will happen. But given what it took for that person to get here, “The least I can do is meet them in the awkward.”

In the meantime, as Farzana learned English, Whitney fell back on nonverbal communication and other small expressions. “You can make a connection without even having words, too. People appreciate a smile, kind gestures like little gifts.”

Sometimes it’s about letting whatever needs to happen in that space, happen.

Being the Bridge

Ultimately, Whitney believes that what it takes to build a cross-cultural relationship is what she strives to be for Farzana. A friend who serves as a bridge between two cultures.

“I would say the reality is, a lot of people come to this country and wonder, ‘Am I going to be accepted? Am I going to make friends? Am I ever going to learn English?’ I think having someone who regularly shows up . . . and just be a kind presence goes a really long way.”

With a higher number of immigrants and refugees arriving in the United States, World Relief Chicagoland needs more volunteers to walk alongside them. Unfortunately, for nonprofits across the nation, volunteering rates have been decreasing. You can be part of the solution — whether it’s becoming a friendship partner, tutoring a young student, or driving someone to a job orientation — there’s a volunteer opportunity to fit your interests and lifestyle. Find the part you play today!

Where can you serve as a volunteer this summer?

Become a Youth Tutor: Read How to Have Impact as a Volunteer Tutor

Serve in a Youth Club or Summer Camp: Read Summer Camp: Fun, Fellowship and First Responders

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