Serving As an English Language Learning Buddy with the Refugee Development Center 

This week I began serving again as an English Language Learning Buddy. The Lansing area is welcoming several hundred Afghan newcomers.

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on

The Refugee Development Center employs an empathy exercise with new volunteers that contains this scenario:

After anxious waiting,

You are given 20 minutes to leave your home. You don’t know when or if you will be able to return. You will depart on the bus with everyone who lives in your home. You have these last minutes to put together a backpack that contains ten items. What are your ten items?

it’s suddenly time. You are being evacuated.

When I began volunteering five years ago, my list contained:

Clean underwear

Family photos



A multi tool




A favorite book

A journal to write in

The next part of the exercise ramps up the pressure. Makes your situation clearer. It turns out that to make room for more people on the bus, everyone has to share a backpack. Take seven things out of your backpack. What three are you left with? Mine were:

Family photos



I picked family photos because I’m sentimental. I chose medicine because it’s an immediate need and rather more pressing than deodorant. I chose jewelry because it is an international currency that travels well.

As a group, we talk about some of our items. There were hikers who chose things like a water purifier and blanket, only to leave them out later. There were more experienced volunteers who said they would bring birth certificates, passports, and property deeds. Other people, like me, said they knew it wasn’t practical, but in their final three they also included family photos. I was not the only person to have a toothbrush in my top ten.

The last portion of the exercise becomes disorienting.

The other members of your household, all of whom were going to be allowed on the bus with you, haven’t returned. The bus is now leaving in five minutes. Write them a good-bye note to put on the kitchen counter.

And get on the bus.


Published by Sonya Schryer Norris

Librarian :: Instructional Designer :: Blogger

2 thoughts on “Serving As an English Language Learning Buddy with the Refugee Development Center 

  1. Wow. That’s pretty intense Sonya. Most of us don’t stop and think of those things. Their hardships. We have a large population of Arabs here in Coldwater and I learned they are from Yemen which has an ongoing terrible civil war. That is very generous of you to help the Afghans. Bless you Sonya.

    Liked by 1 person

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