Elizabeth* and her husband, Zach, had given up hope. They had a good life in a middle-eastern city that’s been around since the Old Testament, but after several years of marriage and many doctors’ visits, they accepted that, short of a miracle, they wouldn’t have children. So Elizabeth set her sights on a different kind of hope. She would study for a masters’ degree from an American university. When she was accepted to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, they began making travel plans.
But three months before their scheduled departure date, Elizabeth’s doctor gave her another date: a due date!
Nate* could have chosen any city when he immigrated to the USA, but he chose Knoxville. He had friends, he says, who were “giving me good words about Knoxville.” They said his children would have a good future if he moved here, and the cost of living was reasonable.
Three years later, Nate is “giving good words” about Knoxville himself! He wants to buy a house and see his children grow into adulthood here.
But getting to Knoxville wasn’t easy.
He walked into the large room with no expression on his face. After a full day of kindergarten in a new classroom, in a new school, in a new country, he had nothing left to give. If anything, there was a bit of fear in his eyes. Three other children—two first graders and a second grader—entered with him.
An American lady approached him. Was she another teacher? She told him something in English, but he didn’t understand even the first word.
Last week, Knoxville Internationals Network (a.k.a. KIN) did something we’ve never done before. We had a volunteer appreciation dinner. Why do such a thing now? Because we’re celebrating five years as a nonprofit, and it was only natural to celebrate our birthday by celebrating those at the heart of our organization: our volunteers!
In the past five years, more than 500 volunteers have passed through KIN.
Sherry moved to Knoxville in time to attend two sessions of an English class before Christmas a couple of years ago. She spoke English at what our lead ESL teacher calls “the blink-blink stage,” meaning she could say little beyond “hello.” But she persevered.
Afternoons in southern Iraq are hot. Working in his university’s research gardens, Safaa Alshuwaili was sweating when he noticed an interesting ant and followed it back to its hive. That ant belonged to the first of five ant species he found, classified, and named while studying there. In 2010, Safaa graduated with his master’s degree in environmental science.
He took a position at another university, where he taught insect taxonomy and classification for seven years. Then he received a scholarship to continue his studies in the United States. Safaa left his parents and five siblings in Iraq, landing in Cincinnati, Ohio, at Christmas time in 2013. He spoke almost no English.
Orange shirts were everywhere, and we weren’t at a UT football game! The shirts welcomed everyone who entered in their own language. Drums echoed beyond the doors, beckoning us all into the space. Smiles played across every face—volunteers and visitors.
Where was I? At this year’s World Refugee Day celebration: one day marked to celebrate people from many nations who have immigrated to the United States, escaping violence and oppression while bringing beauty and creativity to metro Knoxville.
Clapping and cheers erupted from the middle of the gym. Another assembly line had completed another box of mac-n-cheese packs. Another table wasn’t far behind. Their assembly line of ten people completed a box—192 individual packets—with high-fives and cheers. Then they immediately started another box. The boxes were stacking up against the opposite wall, coming from ten assembly lines, and it was only 10:30am. By the end of the day, there were 45,000 meals in more than 220 boxes.
When Chester Pun-Chuen immigrated to Knoxville in 1983, he didn’t expect to be an English teacher. He grew up speaking Filipino and English, with a bit of Cantonese from his father. In high school and college, he studied Spanish.
A couple of years ago, while leading his church’s Unity in Diversity ministry, Chester’s pastor asked him and his wife to assist a refugee family from Burundi. He didn’t expect to build such strong relationships with this mother and her four kids. The mom depended on the children to translate for her. Chester knew that was no way to build a life here in Knoxville, but what could he do?
Esther’s kids walked six blocks to and from school every day. It was less than a mile each way. As a child back in Africa, Esther and her siblings had walked much further without giving it a second thought. There were homes along the way, so Esther never imagined her kids were unsafe.
Last week, a refugee family of nine arrived in Knoxville. It’s hard to find rental property to fit nine, so they had to wait in a hotel for a few days.
Cindy Hood doesn’t want that to happen again.
Yasmin was upset. She handed her quarterly inspection report to our culture coach, wondering why she was on the verge of being evicted. It said “uncleanliness,” but she kept her house clean and tidy. Our culture coach went to her apartment and found everything else clean, but the two bathrooms covered with mold and mildew.
Mold and mildew don’t grow in the dessert. It’s too dry. But here in East Tennessee, they can grow in a couple of days--just one of the thousands of things to which many immigrants and refugees must adjust!
Read the stories of Knoxville's local internationals and the volunteers who have impacted their lives. Get a first-hand view of what it's like to move here and/or to serve those who've moved here from other countries. Discover how KIN has impacted life and culture in metro Knoxville.