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Wesleyan Accent ~ Interview: What I’ve Learned Working with Refugees and Immigrants

Recently Wesleyan Accent was able to chat with Youth Specialist Josh White about his role in caring for unaccompanied alien children who arrive in the United States. He also operates EQ Roasters, a small fair-trade coffee roasting enterprise aimed at encouraging economic stability in nations from which many unaccompanied minors come. An avid musician, his work can be found here.  He and his wife attend City Life Church, a multicultural Wesleyan church plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Wesleyan Accent: You have a degree in music. How did you get involved with working with immigrants?

Josh White: I majored in music theory and composition at Indiana Wesleyan University, which I knew was more of a career/life-style degree than a “job” degree. For about two and a half years after graduating, I worked in the shipping department of a crafting goods warehouse, and was absolutely miserable. One of my close friends knew that I was looking for a new job, and put in a good word for me at a residential home that served UAC (unaccompanied alien children) teenagers. I interviewed, got the job, and started working.

That’s how I got into working with immigrants, but what kept me there was the fact that it allowed me to live out the values of Christ every day. I was able to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the orphan, and welcome the stranger! What more could you ask for?

WA: What’s the general age range of the immigrants or refugees with whom you work? Where are some the places they’ve come from? What are some of the common reasons they’ve arrived in the United States?

JW: I mostly work with 16 to 18-year-old boys that come from all over the world. Our largest demographics are Central American and African teens. Most of the boys who we serve are fleeing gang violence or extreme poverty. Typically, the boys from the cities are fleeing violence, whereas the boys from the rural areas are fleeing extreme poverty and coming to the United States to work and send money home to their families who are struggling to survive.

WA: What’s a “typical” day like with someone who is really only a kid but who is living in a new country away from their family members, language, etc.?

JW: Most days it is easy to forget what most of these young men have been through in their short lives. They are teenagers and often act like teenagers, but rarely if ever show any behaviors that aren’t commonly exhibited by domestic teenagers. The language barrier is a universal theme within the home, but some boys handle it well and view it as motivation to learn and grow, and others can become discouraged because learning a new language is very difficult and takes a lot of work.

The family issue is one that really breaks my heart and that I wish more Americans could understand. Generally speaking, a lot of immigrants do not come to the United States because they just want to become rich or have a better life for themselves. People do not just leave everything they know and love for no reason. Immigration is not the problem. Global instability is the problem. These teens would never have left their families, their homes or their countries if they did not have to leave to survive or to provide.

This is why I have started a coffee company called EQ Roasters, and it is our mission to help stabilize communities around the world by paying them fair prices for their coffee and helping them become economically stable through their work, not through foreign aid. All coffees that we offer were purchased from the farmers or co-ops at at least 150% of Fair Trade prices.

WA: When unaccompanied minors age out of your care, where are they able to land, so to speak? Where do they go from there?

JW: Our program’s entire purpose is to teach our boys independent living skills so that they can survive on their own in the United States. Once a boy graduates our program, he is able to go to either independent living or semi-independent living which is somewhere between living on your own and living in foster care. Once they leave our program they stay within the larger program and still have a case manager who follows up with them on things like school, health, legal status, etc. The boys receive small stipends to help pay for housing and food as long as they continue to go to school or get a job in which they work full-time.

WA: What’s been one of the most surprising things about the work you do? What are the most common misconceptions? Have you ever received negative feedback about helping immigrants?

JW: The most surprising thing to me should not have been surprising at all, and that is that these boys are incredibly resilient. Oftentimes, they have lost everything, and yet they keep going. They keep fighting to make a new life. They are driven to make the most of the opportunities that they have been given.

I think that one of the most common misconceptions is that people who came over illegally are criminals. The sad truth is that emigrating to the U.S. legally is incredibly difficult for most, and simply impossible for others. When you have a gang that tells you, “Join us or die,” what do you expect them to do? Do you want them to be another teen forced into the gang life? Or should they just sacrifice their life for refusing to join the gangs?

I have never personally received negative feedback for working with this population, but I know that we have received some negative feedback from the community for the work that we do. I have had to have a lot of educational conversations with people, because most of us are just misinformed until we start working with the issues directly.

WA: What about young immigrants and refugees gives you hope?

JW: The characteristic of young immigrants that gives me the most hope for the future is their desire to give back. In a nation full of people who are concerned with getting their share, there is an entire group of young people that already has more than they could have ever hoped for, and now they want to use what they have been given to help others.