The Otter Pass team has a long history of working with refugees in Austin and, when it came time to start our company, we knew refugees would be at the center. 10% of the net profit of every purchase will always go toward supporting refugees. Today, to celebrate Giving Tuesday, Otter Pass co-founder Jessica tells you about one of her favorite refugee organizations, iAct: all proceeds from today’s sales will go to support iAct’s work teaching English to newly resettled refugees in Austin. And we want to celebrate with you: use the discount code iGiving20 today to save 20% off of any Otter Pass purchase!
It was the week before Thanksgiving and the English students came in like they do once a month for the community lunch at iAct. Some moved swiftly, confidently, greeting others happily from across the room; others moved in with wariness or shyness. They settled in at round tables with folded signs on cardstock featuring the languages they speak: “Arabic,” “Spanish,” “Dari,” “Pashto,” “French,” “Burmese.” As they do every month, translators moved into position near the tables and the longtime director, Lubna Zeidan, moved to the front of the room. She greeted the students warmly and simply, as she always does. When she was finished, the room was instantly filled with multiple languages, each table leaning toward their translator to hear what Lu had to say.
It is a ritual that is repeated once a month at iAct and it is one of my very favorite times in one of my favorite spaces. That day, the kitchen was filled with the aroma of roasted turkey and freshly-baked bread as the Soup Peddler finished preparing the meal we would share in a few minutes. Most days, the kitchen has the lingering spaghetti-and-lemonade aroma of most church kitchens. The space at Central Presbyterian in downtown Austin is gracious, but it is well loved and well used. There is no desire to keep the building pristine; instead, it is constantly full of people.
For years, all of the refugees who have resettled in Austin have had the opportunity to take English classes four mornings a week, from 9-12. They come from all over the city, sometimes taking multiple buses for more than an hour each way. They bring children in strollers; sometimes they clutch Medicare or electric bills in their hands. There are traditional Nepali dresses and flowing hijabs. One tall man wears a suit and a purple cowboy hat every day to class.
I first came to an iAct lunch almost ten years ago; I had recently met a group a Burmese refugee artisans living in Austin and was helping them to start a nonprofit to sell their traditional weaving. A decade ago, the mix in the hallways was different, the language make-up slightly altered, but the feeling was the same.
Lu was there that first time and she greeted me as warmly as she did everyone else. It's who she is and what she's done for years.
While many of the refugees come from regions across the world from each other, they often share very little in common culturally. To be a refugee means they were persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion. The thing they almost all have in common is the fact that they have endured trauma to arrive where they are. Most of the refugees that come through iAct have lived through war, often waged against them because of their ethnicity or language or religion. Sometimes refugees were targeted individually because of their gender or sexual orientation, but often they come in waves from Afghanistan or Myanmar or the Congo.
And for all of them, Lu Zeidan and her team at iAct are a pillar within Austin. The first few months are deeply stressful for most refugees: trauma does not mix well with culture shock and economic stress. But Lu and the teachers of iAct understand. They work with students, some of whom were doctors or engineers, and some of whom never learned to read and write in their own languages, much less English.
They teach everyone, giving them confidence and the ability to navigate in their bewildering new world. But they are also kind and warm in a place that feels hostile and alien many days. They empower refugees, teaching them to ride the bus and go grocery shopping. They are friends, hugging or shaking hands when appropriate, but always smiling.
A few weeks ago, at the iAct Thanksgiving, I sat at one of the Arabic-speaking tables and watched as refugees from Iraq and Syria tried dressing and green bean casserole and cranberry sauce for the first time. We laughed at the odd tastes and I listened to their stories: A woman who had been a Chemistry professor at Baghdad University was struggling with frustration at only being able to work in housekeeping at a hotel. Another woman’s son was having difficulty in his elementary school. One man was blind and to learn English and navigate his new country brought of host of obstacles and complications to him every day. Everyone had people they were worried about or people in danger in their home country or other places in the world.
Underneath the warmth at iAct, the trauma never completely goes away. But what I love about being there is no one expects it to. No one thinks refugees should do anything but be sad about the wars that devastated their countries; no one expects them to feel grateful when all they feel is bewildered.
Instead, Lu and the iAct team offer them space to be themselves. They celebrate where these women and men have come from. They give them the tools they need to make it in this new life. They treat them like students and scholars, with respect and compassion and real joy.
As long as refugees are coming into to Austin, iAct will stand as the first line of defense against the stress and grief that threatens to overwhelm them. With knowledge and laughter and good meals, they will continue to give these newcomers everything they need to thrive.
We ate that day until we were too full to move, the mix of languages wafting over us like the blended scent of the Thanksgiving feast, and I was overcome with my gratefulness for iAct and all that they have done in the lives of refugees for years, and all they will continue to do.
All proceeds from today’s Giving Tuesday sales will go to support iAct. If you would like to find out more about iAct’s amazing work, go to their website. You can also donate directly to iAct (if you want the money to support the refugee classes, you can put that into the “Special Instructions” box on their form). Thank you!
*Photo courtesy of iAct and Ashley St. Clair