While driving through a parking lot Tuesday morning, I spied a small delivery truck with colorful faces painted on two sides — along with the words “Welcome to America.” This is one of those moments my children dread, because they know two things are about to happen. First, I’m going to whip out my camera. And second, I’m going to go in search of the artist. What I call serendipitous, they consider strange.
Jennifer might have felt differently about this encounter, because I ended up introducing myself to a man who was walking towards the truck — only to discover he’s the driver for an organization called The Welcome to America Project, which delivers donated furniture and other household goods to refugees who have recently located to the Phoenix area.
Turns out there’s a United Nations connection that would fascinate Jennifer, an ASU student in cultural anthroplogy who dreams of working for the U.N. one day. There’s a 9/11 connection too — because The Welcome to America Project was started by Phil and Carolyn Manning after Phil’s brother Terence Manning lost his life in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Seems the Mannings were searching for a way to honor his memory by making a positive difference in the community when they saw the photo of a political refugee family from Afghanistan on a local news report. Each “realized this family sought the same things they did – safety, housing and a future free of fear for their children.” Soon they were collecting clothing and household items on the family’s behalf.
To date, their non-profit organization (described by the truck driver I met as a “mom and pop” operation) has engaged thousands of volunteers in helping 1,200 refugee families. This week they’re scheduled to assist two families originally from Bhutan who lived for many years in Nepal before coming to America, plus a single woman from Sri Lanka who survived a bombing that killed her brother and father.
The Welcome to America Project also holds special events that raise funds for aiding refugees. Last year’s “prom” had a Broadway musical theme, so I’m eager to see what they come up with for the 2012 version, taking place April 21 at the St. Patrick’s Catholic Community Center in Scottsdale.
They’re kicking off a 2012 Cultural Dinner Series this Sun, March 11, with “A Night in Havana” at Orangewood Church in Phoenix. The event is “is designed to give Phoenix residents a rare glimpse into the complex history and culture of Cuba.” Think “dance performances, poems, cuisine, colorful clothing and firsthand accounts of the struggles and strength of Cuban refugees building new lives here in Arizona.”
Tuesday’s encounter with Jack Bigus (whose business card simply reads “driver”) reinforces a philosophy I’ve long embraced while exploring Arizona arts and culture — Follow the art, Follow your heart.
Note: Click here for information on refugees to the United States from the Cultural Orientation Resource Center
Coming up: More NYC travels