Why We Serve – The Perspective of a First-Generation TMA AmeriCorps VISTA

By Michalina Kulesza

Growing up, I’ve always had an interest in working with immigrant and refugee populations. I was raised as a first generation Polish American in a small conservative town in upstate New York. While growing up I didn’t have the words to describe a lack of integration and cultural connection, I now reflect on and understand the importance of inclusion and community-building efforts for newly arrived immigrants. I am happy to serve as a TMA AmeriCorps VISTA member with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Silver Spring where I'm able to support such efforts.

I remember growing up and asking my mom how she identified culturally, having received her U.S. citizenship, and not living in Poland for 30 years. Her response surprised me, saying that she felt she was in between cultures; on the one hand she had basic English language skills and never truly blended in as an American, yet on the other hand, when returning to visit Poland, she found that so much had changed in the country she associated as her home that it looked nothing like what she carried in her memories.

In understanding the challenges that displaced individuals, immigrants, asylees, refugees and many other migrant families experience coming to a new country, I recognize the trauma, loneliness, fear, and anxiety that follows them. I am proud to be able to serve at the IRC doing my part to mitigate some of the difficulties these resilient individuals who are fleeing persecution experience who are in between homes.

Serving at the IRC in Silver Spring, one of my tasks is to assist with the administering of the Family Mentor Program, a 6-month mentorship program where client families are matched with volunteer families that assist them with English language learning, cultural integration, and socialization. This program is one of the final services that the IRC offers its clients to ensure that they can act self-sufficiently, for instance in navigating their community, making connections and friends, and understanding the resources available to them.

In addition, I also lead our office’s communications efforts, sharing stories of clients who are willing with community partners, donors, volunteers, staff, and the general public. Elevating the stories of our clients allows us to humanize the experiences of refugees being resettled in Maryland and to educate the community on how a global circumstance, such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 or the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, can affect them in their local community with migrants arriving in their own neighborhood.

The decision to leave everything you know behind to flee persecution and war involves a steep leap of faith. Given the sheer quantity of 20 million refugees globally seeking resettlement and security, it is a no-brainer for me to make the decision to serve by uplifting the work of an organization like the IRC, in my role through storytelling on behalf of our clients, and long-term integration support to improve the experiences that families, like my parents, have in coming to this country.

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