Friday, May 29, 2015

Hopefully Waiting for the New

The following is a reflection written by Joe Ahlers, one of this year's North House Volunteers. He shared this as a part of the North House community's Pentecost Reflections, which took place May 20th.

When I walk into the Marjorie Kovler Center, I’m immediately surrounded by individuals who truly know what it means to grieve for the old but wait hopefully for the new.  The clients of the Kovler Center have experienced and survived the worst sort of cruelty that humankind can inflict on one another; physical and psychological torture.  Even after almost a year of having been exposed to a darker world that I didn’t even really know existed, the shock and hopelessness I feel when I hear or read a client’s torture experience has not worn off.  But there are certain individuals’ stories that really spoke to me when I thought about waiting in anticipation of the ascension. 

One such experience belongs to a survivor that I’ll call “Sean”.  I first met him when he walked into the Kovler Center a few days after I first started there.  Like many of the Kovler Center’s clients, Sean comes from Sub-Saharan Africa; more specifically from the former British colony of Nigeria.  When Sean first came walked in, I will admit that I was more than just a little intimated by him.  To put it mildly, Sean is a “big man”, tall and built in such a way that I wouldn’t doubt him if he introduced himself as the 3rd string middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears.  But when I started talking to Sean about his experience in his homeland, what really caught me by surprise about him was not his physique, but rather how soon into our conversation he started to break down and cry.  Sean explained to me that this was the first time that he had talked about the horrific events in his homeland and he simply could not contain the flood of emotions that he was experiencing.  He went on to say that he was a middle class laborer in his native city in Northern Nigeria, with a new wife and a 1 year old daughter.  He said the trouble started when an Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, started to become active in and around the area in which he lived.  Sean told me that he was a practicing Christian in a part of the country where very few did.  He told me that one night five armed men came to house and started to threaten his family if they would not convert to Islam.  To further scare him, they threw his baby daughter in a tub of water and would not let him rescue her.  Sean said he’s never been terrified or helpless in his life.  The armed men let him go to his daughter after 30 terrifying seconds, where he found her shaken up but alright.  The men then left but warned that they would return.   Sean immediately took his wife and daughter and fled to Chicago to live with his mother in law, where he learned about the Kovler Center a few weeks later.          

Sean left his entire life, culture, customs, and anyone he’s ever known behind, and was severely traumatized by his experience.  But with the help of his family, the Kovler Center, and his own resilience and hopefulness, Sean was able to start to feel whole again.  A few months after I first met him, he told us that his wife was pregnant.  A few weeks ago, his wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy with a huge mop of thick black curly hair that looks like he’ll be just as big as his father one day. 

This is just one example to me of grieving the old and waiting hopefully for the new.  Although I can never imagine what it feels like to leave behind everything and start over in a new world like our clients do, I’d like to think like that serving for two years has been a small taste of their experience.  I think we all feel some sort of grief for the friends, family, and lives we left behind when we entered this weird and wonderful experience called Amate House.  I for one still miss times where the world seemed so much simpler and pure.  Although I still find myself fairly anxious when I think about the impending storm of what staff likes to call “life after Amate”, I know that I will have the countless stories of strength and resilience of people like Sean and the support of eight other housemates to help guide me through whatever comes next.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

New Beginnings

The following is a reflection written by Liz Glasgow, one of this year's North House Volunteers. She shared this as a part of the North House community's Pentecost Reflections, which took place last Wednesday.

I often say that my senior year of college was the best worst year of my life. My family was going through many difficulties with my sweet grandma being sick and eventually passing away but also my brother getting into a destructive relationship and dealing with countless heart problems. With all this going on I was on an emotion roller coaster. Every time I thought okay we are on the up and up something would happen and I would be heading down.

 By my junior year of college all my friend groups had merged into one mega group to make an amazing group of friends that we liked to call “The Framily.” We have a patent on the name and even have T-shirts. Kidding we didn't patent the name but we did have T-shirts. We were always down for an adventure, constantly on the go, and could always be found together. I would walk into the cafeteria and people I would hardly know would tell me where my friends were sitting. Anytime one of the plummeting roller coaster dives got me they would all help pick me back up. They did this with camping trips, weekends in Chicago, watching endless hours of the OC, Frisbee in the park, and late night adventures. They keep me seeing the bright side of life. I was having bad days but I certainly had a beautiful life. As college came to a close I was like “Man there goes the best years of my life.” I knew I would still have those friendships but it would never be quite the same.

My next big adventure was a year of service…in Florida. Many of you may notice that as we stand in the courtyard that we are not in Florida. Through a rather weird turn of events (aka sketchy people) I realized in the very end of June that Florida was not the best idea, so through trusty Google I found the old Amate! I was pumped about living in the city I had always visited and gone a little wild. I was also super excited about making wonderful new friends.

The main difference about college and Amate is college you pick your friends and Amate the staff picks them for you. There were times those first couple months when I wondered what had I gotten myself into. There were what felt like endless conversations about groceries, how to handle conflict, and how we should handle chores. I would call my friends from college and of course my mother, and tell them how strange these new people I was living with were.  However, slowly but surely I found myself calling to tell them about how amazing they were. I would tell them about our drives to Sonic, our walks, trips around the city, and endless nights giggle in this place I now call home.

When I have a bad day I look forward to coming home and encouraged by my homies. When I have an embarrassing thing happen to me or a funny story I can almost picture how each of them will react now when I tell them the story. They became the people riding the roller coaster along with me and helping through my ups and downs. We enjoy the ride of life together, and honestly you can never have too many people doing life along side you. I’m happy to say that my Easter Sunday came in form of 8 other people. 

Friday, May 08, 2015

Looking Back on Two Years

The following is a reflection written by Mary Kate O'Connell, one of our five second year Volunteers. She currently lives in McKinley Park in our South House Community.

When I think about the last two years that I've spent as an Amate House volunteer, one word really jumps to the forefront: gratitude. I'm so grateful in so many ways -- to my family for supporting me when I told them that I wanted to work for no money and live eight hundred miles away from them for yet another year; to my site supervisors and coworkers who taught me so much about the importance of helping people find a safe place to call home; to the refugees and immigrants I've worked with who have taught me a profound amount about resilience and keeping your face towards the sun in the toughest of times; to the Amate House staff and various spiritual and professional development mentors for being beyond supportive and committed to helping me become the person I am.

Mostly, though, I am thankful for the nineteen people that I have lived with in these last two years. I'm so lucky to have been thrown into communities with nineteen people that have challenged me, made me examine myself, and made me better. An Amate House alum who had since moved on to another program where he lived in community told me that while other volunteer programs try to build community, Amate House actually does it. And while it’s true that Amate puts many things in place in the hopes of fostering community, all the work is not done for you. It is so easy to check out and coast through. The really important moments are not picturesque and beautiful – posing for a picture in front of the skyline all dressed up during Amate Magic, or cruising down the Chicago River on a warm night in August. The important moments are had around the dinner table after an exceptionally tough day, or when someone is giving their lifeline and can’t quite get through the rocky parts. There’s an Arab proverb that says, “Sunshine all the time makes a desert,” and I've learned to be thankful for the rain.

Now, dear Amate House blog reader, if you could do me the kindness of letting me address my nineteen current and former housemates directly, I would continue to be endlessly grateful. If you’re an Amate House Alum or if you've lived in a community at all, I’m sure you've wished for this public opportunity to say some things to your community members. I’m just fortunate enough to get the chance and I’m taking advantage of it:

To the first community I was a part of: I really just can’t thank you guys enough. When I first started Amate, I kind of thought that I had it all figured out. I was here to work with refugees because that was the coolest sounding option that I had and, sure, I would live with, like, a thousand other people, but that’s a drawback I could overlook. On my first day with the eleven of you, I thought, “Oh God, this is not at all how I pictured my year in Chicago to go.” Turns out the sweetness of the Midwest has not at all seeped into New Jersey, and the cultural shift was overwhelming. So while I was kind of floundering and trying to get my grip on how I would fit in to this new strange group, you all just accepted my roughness around the edges. I think that we could all agree that community didn't necessarily come naturally to us – we were always working at it. However, this is one of the reasons why I love you all so fully and you’re all so dear to me. The fact that we were always working over it and sweating over it made the year so much more meaningful. We all knew how important this group of people would be to us, and we all decided to get our hands dirty with the effort of making it work. I've said this to you guys a thousand times and I’ll say it a thousand times more: Thank you, I love you.

To my current community: I also can’t thank you guys enough… There’s a theme here. Off the bat, I knew I would love you guys. I fell in love even from some of your introduction emails. On the first night that we were all together, I remember looking around the table and not believing that this is who I would get to live with for the next year; I remember being astounded at my luck. And I have been so thankful every day that I decided to do another year of Amate. I can’t imagine my life if I had never met you all. Throughout these past ten months, I've had to stand back and catch my breath because we have had our fair share of beautiful and picturesque moments. I can’t count the times that I've turned to one of you and said, “Can you believe how lucky we are?” And, of course, we've had some rough moments, but those have been a small price to pay for the privilege of getting to spend the year with you all. So thank you guys for sharing your lives with me, you all are something else entirely and I’m lucky to experience this year with you.

To both of these communities as a whole: Thank you for hearing the dumb phrases that I say and adopting them as your own. Thank you for inquiring about my day when it’s probably clear that I had a very bad one. Thank you for asking me for advice when you’re not quite sure what to do. Thank you for eating the stuff I make for dinner even though it tastes the same every week. Thank you for bravely opening up about the big and small things in your life. Thank you for making me laugh – and I mean throw my head back, eyes closed laugh – every day for the last two years. Thank you for giving me a home and a family when I’m so far away from my home and family. Thank you for helping me be the person that I've always wanted to be.

Are you or someone you know looking for an experience like Mary Kate's? Amate House is still accepting applications for the 2015-16 Program Year! Download the Application here!