We believe that friendships between refugees, immigrants, and those who have lived in the US their entire lives are essential to creating abundant life in flourishing communities. It is through deep, authentic friendships we get to understand what a thriving, diverse community looks like.
Today, we celebrate a team member who exemplifies this goal and the journey to get there: Deanna McArthur. She recently stepped into a new role as the Children’s Teacher Manager at Refugee Family Literacy, where she has served as a teacher for many years. The exciting thing about the role is that Deanna will be focusing on supporting and training the 12 children’s teachers who are all new Americans.
Deanna brings a wealth of experience, empathy, and top-notch skills in forging cross-cultural bonds. As you get to know her a bit below, we’re sure you’ll be as excited as we are for her to be taking on this new leadership role!
Deanna is an Oregon native who received her Master’s in Education in Special Education. She has since taught in various places for seven years before focusing on raising her own small children. Her spirit of friendship and collaboration only grew during that time, she says.
“I did lots of volunteer projects, but once my children began attending International Charter School, I volunteered what could be called excessively,” she laughs. The International Community School (ICS) is a public charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia serving students in grades K-5. ICS was strategically designed in 2002 to bring together refugee, immigrant and local children in an academically challenging and nurturing environment.She spearheaded projects like helping each class plant a garden and healthy food weeks. Through ICS, Deanna became immersed in the refugee community herself.
One of her favorite memories was starting a Brownies troop for her daughters and their friends. “I started it for younger girls since Brownies is for ages 7-9, but I quickly learned that many families would only let their daughters attend if their older sisters came, too. We ended up having a Brownies troop with a very large age range – I think we were one of the odder groups. But we were all Brownies, nobody cared, and we had a great time,” Deanna says.
Deanna heard about Friends of Refugees and Refugee Family Literacy through projects like these and the relationships she formed.
Getting Involved with Friends of Refugees
While volunteering at ICS, she heard about a job opening with Friends of Refugees at Refugee Family Literacy, our education program that builds literacy skills with mothers and children. She started out teaching the children two days a week, where she alternated with a woman named Lorna and was teamed up with a classroom assistant from Somalia named Farhio.
“I learned so much from both of them. Best practice says that children will learn best if we bring their culture into the classroom, and Farhio had the most creative ideas for how to do that. One time we read about camels, and all did an activity pretending to dry camel meat,” Deanna remembers.
When Farhio was preparing to become a lead teacher herself and was about to teach classes at Refugee Family Literacy’s new location at Memorial Drive, she asked Deanna to come with her and keep mentoring her. Deanna agreed.
“Farhio is still across the hall from me,” Deanna smiles.
Be a Friend: Deanna on Forging Friendships
Deanna’s relationship with Farhio is just one example of the kinds of long-term, trusting bonds she makes with refugees. How does she do it? Focusing on friendship first.
“Honestly, it feels normal for me,” she says. Her best friends are refugees, and despite having vastly different experiences and backgrounds, she relates to them as she would any other friend and sees a lot of common ground between them.
Deanna says, “We do things like go for tea and call each other. We talk about our kids, our marriages. My friend, who is from Ethiopia, had a similar childhood and we’ve faced similar challenges.” She finds the differences equally valuable, saying, “One of my Iraqi friends is Muslim. Talking to friends and getting a different perspective from her is refreshing and relaxing. Hearing another perspective on the world is really nice.”
Her Hopes for Her Future at Friends of Refugees
Deanna has loved serving at Refugee Family Literacy because of the connections and impact it makes. “I know what I do makes a difference in that child’s life. Early childhood education is the most important—it’s the basis/what you need to learn how to read.” She continues to be grateful for her experiences. Her greatest joy is being in awe of the resilient women who persevere despite difficult circumstances and watching a child learn year after year.
But more than anything, she loves coming alongside families and connecting after enduring similar challenges with her children. “My son was in special education. He’s now in college but did not speak [early on]. As a mother, having a child who needs speech-language therapy is very stressful. Now, whenever I have a family whose child might need extra support, I can really come alongside them and share my experience, too. I talk about that with them to say, ‘I know what that’s like.’ I think for many moms, it’s really important to see that we’re not here to criticize or label their children or their family, but here as friends who can support them in their literacy journeys,” she says.
Deanna highlights the opportunity to keep learning together as she thinks about the future. “We all have something to learn, no matter how experienced we are. It was fun to figure out what I can do better and what I can do to benefit my children even more.”