Internationals find community in Knoxville

It’s warm out, the sun is shining and there is a nice breeze. The sidewalks and roads are busy and people are happily going about their days. Everything is full of life and color.

But as you look around you realize that you don’t understand what anyone is saying. You can’t read the street signs and you don’t know how to ask for help. You’re an outsider, without a community. You’re alone on a city street full of people.

This is what Carol Waldo experienced when she lived in Singapore, and what many refugees and immigrants experience every day here in Knoxville.

For Waldo it was especially difficult.

“I’m an extrovert and I was isolated, even in a city-country of  four and a half million people I felt alone,” she said, “We were expats, so our company provided our housing and our work and so forth, and we had all of our needs met, except for the socialization.”

Carol Waldo welcoming students to Culture Class at West Park Baptist Church.

Living in Singapore for her was difficult, she didn’t speak the language, she didn’t know the culture and she could not socialize. But eventually she was connected with a local church that was able to teach her these things.

Singapore was not going to be her forever home and Waldo said eventually God called her family back to Knoxville.

Waldo said, “When we came back to Knoxville I really wrestled with God and asked ‘Why did you take me and show me all of this and bring me back to Knoxville?'” she said. “That made no sense to me and I had reverse culture shock.”

Waldo said her time in Singapore changed her.

“When you go overseas you expect things to be different, but when you come back you expect things to be the same,” she said. “But you’re different.”

Waldo went on to say that she had this emptiness in her heart, this need for something more.

“Then I got involved with being an encourager in an ESL class,” she said. “And God burdened my heart that He’s bringing the nations here.”

Waldo said she realized she could help refugees who are coming to Knoxville.

“How he (God) provided for me when I was adapting to the culture in Singapore, now I had the opportunity to welcome the nations to Knoxville who don’t know how to navigate the employment, who are refugees that come here with just the clothes on their back and their passport.” Waldo said, “Knowing that they don’t know how to navigate the housing system, the health care system, the language, God gave me a burden for them.”

In 2011 Waldo began to work for Knoxville International Network. KIN works to rally the body of Christ in Knoxville to welcome internationals to Knoxville. Their ultimate goal is to see the nations become one city; many nations and one family.

Waldo works with many organizations through KIN, helping to teach international people and refugees the English language, and helping them with the new culture that they’re experiencing.

“The official language of Singapore was English, but the majority spoke Chinese, and I struggled adapting.” Waldo said, “I wouldn’t answer my cellphone because I couldn’t understand the accent, and it took me several months to be able to adapt to that.”

Waldo says that because her experience, she is now able to train others to help refugees.

“I’m able to train our volunteers when they complain saying, ‘Well, I called them and they wouldn’t answer my calls.'” she said. “[I tell them] text them, because then they have a translator, or email them because it’s very challenging, especially with an East Tennessee accent.”

Waldo said she fields a variety of complaints from people who are trying to serve the refugee community.

She went on to say that she often had to explain that many refugees do not understand some sayings such as ‘a quarter till four’, therefore one must use more common terminology when talking with refugees.

Waldo said that she enjoys welcoming these foreigners into our land, but also teaching others how to welcome and interact with these people as well.

Waldo said she enjoys watching internationals come in who are afraid or won’t speak very much, change to be more sociable and comfortable enough in their environment to ask for help outside of the classroom setting.

Waldo said that this is what they are really working toward in KIN; getting internationals to interact with the community and become confident in themselves.

Waldo said that much of working with the internationals isn’t necessarily evangelizing, but just helping them survive.

“We seek to come along side as friends, that they would not only survive in this new homeland but they would thrive, and they would find hope, dignity and purpose, and really their purpose in Christ and why he brought them here,” she said. “You have to truly love your neighbor.”

“Whether or not they come to love and accept Jesus Christ as their savior, will you love them? I think that’s the mandate that God gives us. That we will love them no matter what,” she said.

Culture Class at West Park Baptist Church, with students from Germany, Jordan, Arabia, and Mali.

You walk into a church building, you still can’t speak the language fluently, and you worry constantly about how others will perceive you. But you walk into this church and are met with smiling faces, many of them not your own nationality, but it’s OK, because they are your community.

You are no longer alone in a city of one hundred eighty thousand.

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