By Andrea Castillo
It all started in January 2017, when federal policies were enacted to reduce the number of refugees allowed to enter the US and to ban refugees from specific countries. As an immigrant to this country, I felt an urgent need to help and to do something with my time and resources. There were so many who had helped my family and I along the way when we were new to the US, and I felt a strong desire to give back, especially now when it seemed like it was really truly needed. I also wanted to help LGBTQ refugees in particular, since the battle seemed especially tough for them.
The hard part was figuring out how to help. My husband and I did not know where to start looking. Fortunately, in March 2017, the answer presented itself. We went on a hike with two friends who told us they were hosting a refugee couple from Iraq in their home. Our friends were working with a refugee resettlement organization in the East Bay, and shared that their hosting experience had been transformative, both for them and their refugee guests. We immediately told them we were interested, and asked them to introduce us to the organization.
After a few email exchanges and only three weeks, we learned that the agency had an immediate need for a host and was looking for a home for a refugee from Uganda for at least three months. We felt a little nervous about how fast it all happened, and felt we weren’t quite ready.
But what did being ready mean anyway? We already had a free room in our home we weren’t using. My husband works from home so there was some hesitation on how disruptive it would be to have a roommate. We had not lived with anyone else for 10 years, and it would be a big change. We have one full bathroom that we’d all need to share, so how would the showering schedule work? And there was our dog too. Sweet little Claire. We were clear with the agency that we had a dog, and they had said that they’d pair us with someone who wouldn’t mind living with a dog. Were they sure they wouldn’t mind? In the end, amidst the questions and concerns,e we figured that if it didn’t work out, well, it was only for three months. Besides, hosting was something we both felt we really wanted to do. After realizing we were as ready as we’d ever be, and focusing on our intention to host, we decided to go for it.
Once we decided that we were ready, our agency partner came to our home for a preparatory, pre-host meeting where they evaluated our home and talked to us at length about roles, expectations, available supports, and answered all of our questions.. We were impressed by how well set up and organized the program was, and any anxiety or nervousness we had, melted away by the end of our meeting. The case manager set very clear expectations, which is a great start to doing something new, and he patiently answered all of our questions. Would our guest really be ok with our 60 pound dog? Yes. What if we hadn’t asked something then and we remembered later? Our case manager was the main point of contact and would be available to personally respond to our questions by end of day at the latest. What if we felt like we had overcommitted after accepting to host? Our role as hosts, he explained, was exactly that: to host. We were expected to provide a safe and welcoming home, and that’s it. They had many other volunteers who help the program’s refugees with finding jobs, immigration paperwork, paperwork in general, answering questions about healthcare, etc. If we wanted to help in addition to hosting, that was completely fine, it just wasn’t expected. The worst that could happen was that the situation could end up being a little too disruptive and more than we thought we could handle, but it would only be for three months. And we’d be making a huge difference in someone’s life.
In the early stages of the process, my personal desire to help a refugee was my guiding light. When someone has lost nearly everything and gone through some of the worst experiences a fellow human could go through, a three-month commitment on my part as well as my husband’s really felt like nothing. We were as ready as we’d ever be. Plus, we were really excited that it was now actually happening.
It was only three months from the time we first learned about the hosted housing program to when we welcomed our refugee guest. In June 2017, we officially became hosts and welcomed Peter* (*name changed to protect privacy) to our home.It was a really exciting day for us, and we were delighted to meet him. Claire was the most excited, and, understandably, Peter was a little nervous around her. He settled in quite well and day one was really easy. The following day, our new roommate was doing well, but still a little quiet and nervous around Claire. He was scared that she was going to bite him, but we reassured him she would never do that. By the next day, Claire and Peter were best friends. Soon, Peter was blowing her kisses and inviting her to nap in his room.
It took my husband and I a little longer than Claire to get as close to Peter – after all, human relationships can be a little more complex! But within a month or so, it started to feel that Peter was now a part of our family. My husband and I quickly decided we wanted to do more than just host, so we had a great time bonding with Peter over new foods — homemade carnitas tacos and lasagna quickly became some of Peter’s favorites, watching David Blaine and SpaceX rocket launches on YouTube, and learning more about what daily life was like in Uganda and then in a refugee camp. We shared personal stories with each other and sat around the kitchen table for hours. I tried hard to hide my tears sometimes. Peter was curious about many new things and felt comfortable asking us lots of questions. My husband and I explained the science behind an eclipse, how to apply for a new job and go through the long interview process, the expensive consequences of going to the ER for a non-life threatening non-emergency situation (e.g. a cold), and the basics of the stock market among many others.
The more we connected with Peter, the more I realized how privileged we are. To be married. To have gone to graduate school. To be heterosexual. To live in the Bay Area. To know how to drive. To have a job during normal hours when public transport still works. To have a family that does not judge us and loves us. To know to to use a laptop and create a resumé. To have the freedom to express ourselves without fear. Hell, just to live without fear of being killed just because of who we are.
These realizations wouldn’t have happened if we had never signed up as hosts and created such a close relationship with Peter. My experience as a host was absolutely life-changing. I shifted some priorities in my life and re-evaluated many of my own personal fears. I became braver and more grateful. I complained less. I learned what it’s like to welcome a stranger into my home and to love that stranger to the point where I care about him, his well-being, and happiness just as I would a family member. Peter is family now.
I can only write about my personal experience with this program, and so far I have only focused on what it was like for me. However, I don’t want to detract from how big of an impact the program had on Peter. When Peter left our home, he was a much more confident person and was actually able to start a new life here. We enjoyed Peter’s company and he was easy to live with so we chose to extend his stay with us twice. All in all, we lived with Peter for nine months.
Those nine months were some of the best nine months I’ve ever had in my life. I’m so proud of all that Peter has accomplished and how brave he is. He now lives completely independently, has a stable job with excellent benefits, and is quickly becoming a leader where he works. We miss him and check in with him regularly. He stops by every once in a while to say hi. But mostly to Claire.