Welcome to America Project helps create tiny ambassadors

From left: Abdallah Muya (8) reads to Roland Anderson (4), Kalani Anderson, and his brother Sharifu (5) as part of the Welcome to America Project.

Roland Anderson isn’t your typical ambassador. For one thing, he’s 3 years old.

And while he’s met people from countries around the world, he’s done it all from Phoenix. Roland’s mini ambassadorship comes through his volunteer experience with the Welcome to America Project, a Valley nonprofit that provides a warm welcome to refugee families settling here.

The organization was founded in the wake of September 11 by Carolyn Manning — an Arizona mom who saw a newspaper article about a local refugee family from Afghanistan who had lost a family member at the hands of terrorists, just as she had lost her brother-in-law in the World Trade Center attack.

“She tracked down the Afghani family of six in their Phoenix apartment and saw that they had almost nothing,” explains Collin Cunningham, executive director of the Welcome to America Project.

Roland delivers a toy to the Muya family.

Manning began collecting household items like furniture, lamps, pots and pans to help provide basic necessities, along with a warm welcome. The effort expanded to provide help to additional refugee families, and soon the organization was born.

Roland’s dad, Kalani Anderson, discovered the Welcome to America Project organization at a transitional period in his life. He was completing an MBA and moving into his new role as full-time dad.

“I wanted to volunteer somewhere that could help me develop some of the skills I learned during my education,” he explains. “I wanted it to be something I could do with my son that would help him develop an appreciation for the things he has, and a determination to help people around him when they need help.”

Kalani started bringing Roland along on volunteer outings when he was a baby, so Roland has been serving as part of the Phoenix refugee welcoming committee for as long as he can remember.

“He sat with refugee children from the Democratic Republic of Congo as a volunteer read to them all from ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ ” says Kalani. “He helped set up a car track and then (took) turns racing it around with refugees from Somalia, (and) cried when we had to go home.

“When my wife was able to go with us one weekend, she told me how he played with a playdough set with some children from Somalia. They were taking turns pressing the playdough into the molds and laughing about the different shapes they were making. The interesting thing is that I realized he is just playing with them as peers, while I had started thinking of them as people in need.”

Even at 3, Roland knows more than many about what it means to be a refugee. He understands that the moms, dads and kids he meets on “delivery day” are moving to Phoenix because it is not safe for them to stay in their home countries. His dad says they have had countless discussions about the refugee situations in the world.

“Many of his questions have required me to do my own homework first,” says Kalani, who is currently chairing the communications committee for the Welcome to America Project. “We have learned about other nations. We have learned about other cultures. We have learned about some of the deeper aspects of life and death. We have deepened our sense of compassion for the refugees in the world and in our community. And we have increased our appreciation for the security and opportunities we have in our country.”

As the refugee crisis started to expand in late 2015 and early 2016, Kalani says, the topic of refugees was everywhere — in the news, in presidential stump speeches, in church, in conversations with friends and family. As national conversations continue, Kalani is grateful his son understands the subject on a more personal level.

Roland plays with Sharifu Muya (5) (far left) and his brother Nurru (6).

“He (understands) these refugees as peers and playmates. He knew that they were in a sad and difficult time in their lives, but he could see that, more than anything else we could bring on one of those deliveries, the item of greatest value and meaning that could be brought was friendship.”

In the words of young Roland, “We should be nice to refugees.”

More than 4,000 refugees were resettled in Arizona in fiscal year 2015, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security. (The number of refugees has plummeted locally and nationally so far this year due to new government policies.) When they arrive in Phoenix, refugees receive basic services such as employment help and temporary medical insurance coverage. However, it is organizations like the Welcome to America Project that truly help them feel like they have friends in their new home.

The capacity of government-contracted service agencies is being depleted, yet the international need for resettlement continues to be great, Cunningham explains. “The community support services of organizations like Welcome to America Project are more important than ever, both for filling capacity gaps and for reassuring refugees that they are safe and welcome.”

How to help: Families can volunteer with the Welcome to America Project by holding a donation drive, taking a tour or participating in a Saturday delivery. Call 602-490-0088 or visit wtap.org.