Portlanders don't deal well with snow. An inch or two can shut the city down for days, and as it ices over, life comes to a standstill until the thaw.
Except at Portland International Airport. At the airport, flights arrive, flights depart, and the hustle and bustle inside pays no mind to the weather outside. And for the family of eight Somalis, arriving at PDX after over a decade spent in an Ethiopian refugee camp, the snow and cold is a harsh and foreign welcome to their new home.
On Monday we learned that we would be greeting the first family our Butterfly Boxes would serve on Wednesday afternoon. Even as the threat of snow became more and more of a sure thing, we finished up assembling the bags and made plans to be there. As we loaded the car and picked up our mini-helpers from school, we watched the snow start to accumulate and briefly considered postponing. Traffic was already snarling, and we had no idea what conditions would be like in a few hours as we would be attempting to get home. But this wasn't about us, and frankly, we had alternatives if it became truly unsafe to travel home. This family we were meeting, arriving with two large suitcases filled with all their worldly possessions, had no alternatives. They were landing no matter what our weather had in store, and they would be thirsty and hungry and ill prepared for the weather.
We arrived shortly after their flight arrived, but saw no sight of anyone we knew from the resettlement agency. Not wanting to insert ourselves in a situation and process we were unfamiliar with, we hung back for a bit before getting a text that both case managers were stuck in the awful snow storm traffic and were still quite far from the airport. Luckily, the family had a US tie (someone they know who already lives in Portland) with them who could interpret for us, and we were able to greet them and introduce ourselves as volunteers. We showed them where to find their luggage and waited with them while our phones lit up with texts from the stuck case managers.
All Butterfly Boxes include a reusable water bottle and snacks, and we were able to pass those out while we waited. Our mini-helpers (aged 6 and 3) were a big help with this, and then made it their job to entertain, teaching the children songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It" and "I'm a Little Teapot". The wait was long, but those few comfort items, and some kid humor, seemed to help tremendously.
The first case manager arrived during snacks and the kids' performances, and as we waited for the second case manager and the van that would take the family and their luggage to their temporary home, one of the older sons showed us pictures of the family he had had to leave behind in Ethiopia. A wife, two beautiful little girls, and twin boys, abut the age of our youngest mini-helper. He had a stack of photos, but what he must have been feeling having had to say good-bye is unimaginable. We send all the hope and good thoughts in the world that they are reunited soon, and that their continued time in the refugee camp is short.
After waiting a bit longer, we received word that the van was still stuck and having difficulty in the icy weather. She was still an hour out. The case manager had only a small car, and he said he could take the family to their temporary home, but not their luggage. So, we agreed to store the luggage in our car and meet up with the van later, either at the airport or back in town. It was at this moment we saw the absolute need in what we are trying to do with Butterfly Boxes.
Just imagine for a moment you have just finished a multi-day journey with your entire family. You have arrived in a city you have maybe never heard of before. You are in an airport you have no hope of navigating on your own. You are on your way to a home you have never seen, a home that already houses a family, a home that is not even the one you get to call yours yet. The weather is freezing and slippery and dangerous. Everything you own in the world is in two worn suitcases. Because of bad weather and crazy circumstance, you can't take even those with you. You hand them over to complete strangers and trust that you will see them again. And in return, the strangers hand you bags and backpacks. There are snacks, maybe not food you are used to, but Goldfish crackers are pretty darn good at the end of a long trip. There is a hat and gloves. There is shampoo, conditioner, soap, and a towel set. You can wash the journey off of you, and end the night clean and dry. There is a stuffed animal for a little one to snuggle, and books and crayons to keep them entertained. You may not have your things, but you have something. And when all you own is in two suitcases in a stranger's trunk, something is everything.
We all walked out into the frigid air toward our cars, the family hurrying to zip up their thin coats and us passing out the hats and gloves from the Butterfly Boxes. We walked carefully along the frozen sky bridge, wheeling suitcases and carrying Butterfly Boxes. Their US tie scooped up my struggling 3-year-old. We said goodbye at the car, packed their suitcases in ours, and headed back inside to wait for the van and the second case manager. She arrived, four hours after leaving her office 11 miles away, and we handed over the family's luggage. Three more families were arriving later that night, so she settled in to just stay put until they were all here. We left with sleepy mini-helpers, and made the harrowing 4 mile drive home. We received word around 9 pm that the family had made it to their home as well, nearly six hours after their arrival in Portland. Their journey was one step closer to being complete, but for the three families still to arrive and the countless others waiting to leave, there is still so much time to wait.
We helped one family last night. Our first family. And the fact that conditions were so far from ideal made the fact that we could help that much more poignant. We are so thankful that we were there, and that we had real help to give. But there is so much more need. There are another 50+ refugees arriving through Catholic Charities between now and Christmas. And the need continues after the new year, and will likely not slow. We may not be able to gift all of Oregon's refugees with Butterfly Boxes, but we will gift as many as we can, and we will come as close to meeting the need as we possibly can. We can only do that because of the help and generosity from those who have supported us and who continue to support us. We say it over and over because it is true - none of this happens without all of you. Thank you.
- Alysson and Adrienne