Posting Date: Sept. 20, 2018
Welcoming Week allows us to reflect on why it is important to welcome neighbors of all backgrounds into our community. It is important for a large organization like the Y to demonstrate inclusion so that we can show our youth the importance of accepting new people. This summer, YMCA of Florida’s First Coast did just that. We had the unique opportunity to work with a 16-year-old refugee from Sharaz, Iran during our 2018 summer camp in Jacksonville, Florida at the DuPont YMCA. Our youth development site started a Counselor in Training (C.I.T.) program and invited Vahab to be a part of it.
Vahab Rahavard and his mother are originally from Iran, but fled to Turkey because of religious persecution in 2015. Vahab was only thirteen when he was forced to leave his home country to seek refugee asylum. He was forced to leave because his religion, Bahá'í, was not accepted in his hometown. In Turkey, he was not permitted to go to public school due to his refugee status, and his mother could not afford to send him to private school. This left Vahab without any school options.
Finally, on May 31, 2017, Vahab and his mother were granted permission to move to the U.S. They were placed in Jacksonville, Florida by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and Catholic Charities, a refugee resettlement nonprofit, began to manage his case. After some difficulty at his local school due to the large size of the school and some bullying, he started going to a charter school. He began to thrive with the small class size and individual attention. He even got a scholarship to a rowing team, which he enjoys being on.
Catholic Charities reached out to our Y to see if he could be a camper, but because of his age, he had to be a C.I.T. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as he gained leadership skills to help him become a productive member of his new community. He inspired his peers and opened their views to cultural diversity, showing them that just because you may seem “different”, that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference.
His camp project this summer was to build a Reader’s Theatre for the kids. They loved it! Vahab speaks three languages: Farsi, Turkish and English. He said he learned Turkish after one year of being in Turkey and he knows he will learn English in one more year while living here in the U.S. He loved being able to speak English all day while helping with the younger campers.
Vahab is continuing his hard work at our DuPont YMCA’s Welcoming Week event, which will consist of outdoor games and activities for youth, multicultural entertainment and over 25 partners that will provide resources for the community. The Y often receives praise for being welcoming to all families, but in particular to refugee families. It really shows how the slightest bit of help goes such a long way. It is important to always think of how to be a “better us” by creating a more welcoming and cohesive environment for all.
We hope Vahab will stay active in the Y community and that he and other refugee families continue to feel welcome at any Y. We are lucky to have had the opportunity to work with neighbors like Vahab as we work to expand our social impact in our local community.