Housing an Immigrant Family: Creating Meaning, Safety, and Connection
by Lili Shidlovski
In response to our anger and helplessness after the election in November and the need to do more than sign petitions and make phone calls, my partner and I invited a Guatemalan asylum-seeking family that had just arrived in Oakland to live with us for three months. We responded to a plea from Nueva Esperanza, an interfaith coalition that supports immigrants and was looking for immediate housing for a family—a father, mother and nine-year-old boy. While we were eager and excited to open our home to a family that desperately needed shelter, we had worries about what it would involve. I hope that by sharing our experience we can address some of your concerns about taking this step.
Families that receive housing through Nueva Esperanza are supported by an Accompaniment Team, in this case, a group of other Kehilla members, Our team has been wonderful.They have been available to give rides to appointments, provide company, emotional support, fun experiences, and to research resources. Still, we found that when emergencies, problems, needs arose, because we lived together, we were the first to know about them and sometimes chose to step in without the team’s availability.
There were a series of choices we made and structures we set up when the family moved in. The first was that we would invite them to live with us as friends. This meant that they would have access to all the public space in the house and full use of the kitchen. We set up house rules about cooking and cleaning that were structured at first and then became more casual. We found out that we were compatible in many ways, so that made it easy. We cook for each other, and whoever is at home eats together.
Through supporting the family, I began to learn how much it takes to get started in a new country when one has little language, no car, and no familiarity with our particular bureaucracies. Not to mention fear. It has been quite humbling. The first month the family spent here was hard because of the institutions they had to deal with and because of our steep learning curve. I helped them find a school with newcomer services for the nine-year-old, used my privilege to pull strings to get him in to the school they wanted, spent time at Highland Hospital getting care and setting them up with Medi-Cal, giving them rides, finding legal help, and finding free psychotherapeutic help.
The other side of all this is that we have spent many evenings eating great Guatemalan food, playing games that take very little language and result in massive outbursts of laughter. My Spanish has grown by leaps and bounds. And while my partner’s has not, he has become important to the nine-year-old child because of his playfulness and presence.The family has now been with us for over two months, and much of our time now is spent just living together. Since I don’t like strangers, it has been important that we become friends.
There are questions that I wish someone had suggested I think about at the outset, to make my learning curve easier. These are some things to consider if you are thinking about housing a refugee or immigrant family:
- What is your capacity to live with language differences, if there are in your situation?
- How do you understand your role as a host? How will you learn to not make assumptions based on cultural biases and to be conscious of when this is happening?
- Will you deal with the bureaucratic issues? How much involvement do you want to have? How will you know your own limits?
- Do you prefer to house someone who is documented or undocumented, and what does that mean at this stage in our country?
- How will you all navigate needs for time apart/time together at home?
- What kind of role will you create with the Accompaniment Team?
- How will you react to having issues of privilege and power be daily realities rather than more abstract ideas?
I would be glad to talk to any of you who are interested in our personal journey. For us, the experience has been so rich that we have extended our housing offer till the end of the school year. The family isn’t emotionally or financially ready to move on. And we are feeling very attached. We have received as much as we have given.
Feel free to contact me if you are housing or thinking about housing someone. Lili Shidlovski, at email@example.com
For more information about joining a Kehilla Accompaniment Team, contact ImmigrationCommitteeChairs@kehillasynagogue.org
For more information about housing an immigrant through Nueva Esperanza, contact firstname.lastname@example.org