Volunteer Profile - Christi Kancewick

Volunteer Stories 
  • Volunteer Profile of Christi Kancewick
My favorite thing about helping at NSC is to be a welcoming and warm presence for our clients and being a link in making their lives more joyful, peaceful, and filled with possibilities. We are all interconnected!

In July 2016, I returned to Philadelphia from a year in East Africa.  Deep concern and compassion for people who are marginalized has been a part of who I am since I was a child.  I am aware of very difficult and life-threatening situations refugees face in Kenya, and around the world.  My heart embraces and welcomes refugees and immigrants and hopes for positive opportunities and new beginnings for a joyful life for all of them!  I am a Medical Mission Sister, part of an international congregation which is involved with refugees and immigrants in many countries across the world. Here in Philadelphia, I discovered Nationalities Service Center.  I am so happy to be involved here at NSC!

I often work with people during the first week of their arrival in the United States.  The role I most frequently find myself in is one of “accompaniment”.  A few days after arrival, the refugees are in need of food and some cash assistance to carry them through the next steps of getting settled.  The first stop is the Social Security Office and then on to the Department of Public Welfare.  Here they can register for food programs, health insurance and help with employment or school.  There are also visits to the electric or gas companies, and to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for state IDs.  When families have children, we help with School enrollments too.  This can involve rides on the buses, trolleys, subways, trains and walking.  It can be one more “scary” experience – especially for children – to ride a fast-moving subway car underground, with sometimes loud crowds of people pushing around them.  Sharing a simple storybook during the ride and a reassuring smile can go a long way!  When one has not yet learned English, it is daunting to make one’s way through the maze of transportation connections along with the muddle of where to stand in line, what “window” to approach and the paperwork and documents required at the agencies we visit. 

It is important to be alert and an advocate – to think “outside the box”.  For example, after hours in several offices with one family, I kept asking if they needed to use the toilet.  I asked both in English and in their native language.  However, it was not until later in the day that I came to realize the impression was that we needed to go outside to another building for the bathroom and it was cold outside!  When I could explain that it was inside and close by, the children were able to have a new adventure – figuring out how the toilet flushes, how the soap dispenser works, how to access the sink water (through an automatic “sensor”) and not to be startled by the intensity of the hand-dryer.  It was a “fun” experience!

Once we arrive at our destination, we often spend several hours waiting.  Although we do use phone apps and “call in centers” for translation – much of the waiting time may be in silence.  I have become particularly aware of trying to emanate a positive and loving energy, of having a smile on my face and an attitude of engagement, even in silence. If there are children along, we try to provide some snacks and activities – to have some fun while waiting. I also try to be a positive presence for the employees I interact with in the various agencies.  With all the personalities they deal with on a daily basis, they need “healing presence” too!

When the new refugees see the “poor” of the United States – including the homeless, the jobless, the addicted … and encounter people who are employed and yet cannot cover their expenses, they are confused.  They have many questions as to why our government is unable to help these people, and questions as to why the individuals do not seem able to access or create educational opportunities.  They are puzzled that these kinds of problems exist in the United States.  It does not make sense, from what they know of the U.S., to hear there are issues of hunger and lack here too, and that these issues can provoke anger and despair.

On the other hand, I had the joy of accompanying four young women from Afghanistan – orienting them to transportation systems near their new home and showing them where to find fruit and vegetables and to introduce them to other stores.  They had such fun being “girls” and window shopping!  It was wonderful to hear their excitement and dreams for the future! 
When sitting in on a “health orientation” with a family, I became acutely aware of the stress of so much information coming at once and so many decisions to be made early in their arrival. They are hearing about the need for medical insurance, appointments with new doctors, dentists, and co-pays (before they even have jobs).   Sometimes the physical trauma endured needs particular care and there is worry about addressing these health issues without delay.  Psychological trauma has its impact too.  Both professional services and peer support groups are offered as opportunities to reduce stress.  Intense and sometimes distraught expressions on faces tell a poignant story.  The joy is when we can remind the families they are not alone, and when we can share laughter and lighter moments midst the thoughtful discussions.

I am now just starting to help with a “walk in” program, where the refugees can come, without an appointment, to explore how to handle anything that is confounding them – bill payment, check writing, or anything else that might come up.  It is also an opportunity to have questions explored or even to practice conversation or learn how to access resources for whatever else interests them. 

My favorite thing about helping at NSC is to be a welcoming and warm presence for our clients and being a link in making their lives more joyful, peaceful, and filled with possibilities.  We are all interconnected!

For those looking to support refugees:  open your heart wide, reach out and ask how you can help and be flexible!  Let the refugee take the lead in expressing what help they need.