Samuel is 24 years old. He came to Amarillo from the Republic of Congo in Africa in 2017.
Samuel was a young man in a new land and with all the challenges that come from being uprooted from one culture half a world away to a new and strange one.
But he received some one-on-one mentorship, in both the form of a teacher and friend. He went to English classes, but also went to the movies. He got help with a job that hopefully will lead to a broader career. He gained trust with those who helped him.
During the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020, Samuel was called on to be an interpreter between health officials and the refugee community. He was hired at Eastridge Elementary School in Amarillo, where students speak as many as 30 languages. Later, Catholic Charities of the Texas Panhandle hired him.
“Now he is a leader in the Amarillo community and in his culture community,” says Dr. Ryan Pennington. “That transition is what we hope for.”
Samuel is the poster child—or more accurately, the poster adult—for the Refugee Language Project. It is a nonprofit organization that got its roots six years ago, and continues to grow in outreach, volunteers and physically with the opening of The Place, 4,000 square feet of meeting rooms that opened on Plains Boulevard in mid-January.
Pennington is a linguist. Crystal, his wife, is a native of Amarillo. They met at Dallas Baptist University, where they both earned degrees in Biblical Studies and married nearly 16 years ago. They have three children, ages 6 to 12.
The Penningtons moved to Crystal’s hometown in 2016 after living in Papua, New Guinea and Australia. Crystal was not aware how much the city’s refugee population had grown in the nearly 15 years she had been away from her hometown. Approximately 12,000 refugees live in Amarillo, about 6 percent of the population.
“We didn’t settle back here to jump into cross-culture work immediately,” she says, “but just discovered it as we got our feet settled back into the U.S.”
Working with other cultures is part of their training and calling. They began by visiting local churches, which taught English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to refugees.
“We observed early on that there were good educational opportunities in town, but there weren’t a lot of neutral places that allowed long-term relationships to develop organically,” Ryan says. “I would also see times when local programs would think they were sending one message, but actually send another message that would undermine their own goals.
“What I mean is there are a lot of people in Amarillo with a big heart for refugees who now call Amarillo home, but fewer people in Amarillo with the cultural understanding to see the nuances at play so they could be more effective.
“So we decided to launch this, not so much as a long-term vision, but rather an approach to ask good questions. We spent a lot of time meeting with leaders and building relationships with those leaders of different refugee communities and trying to understand who is here and what do they see as the problem, what are they frustrated by.”
A pattern of trust
Ryan soon approached David Ritchie, pastor at Redeemer Christian Church, with what he called an “out-of-the-box idea.” Basically, Pennington wanted to be on church staff, but not get paid. He wanted to use the church to raise support for a nonprofit outreach for refugees.
“This grew out of those humble beginnings from a church that was willing to give something new a try,” Pennington says. “What was really unique about David Ritchie’s willingness was they understood that everything we did was not going to be about Redeemer.
“We were never going to offer an English class at our church. We wanted to leave the church to serve people in the community and not draw people to the church, necessarily. That open-handed spirit served to guide us in this project.”
Pennington began by speaking with ESL leaders at churches, Amarillo College and local libraries to discover what was successful and what was frustrating. Next was to become familiar with the refugee experience.
“Just because I had spent time in Papua, New Guinea, didn’t mean I understood the refugee experience,” he says.
Pennington soon walked into a Somali mosque, but did so with his shoes on. He was asked by a man there to remove them. That led to the breaking down of an invisible barrier.
“I said, ‘Thank you so much for teaching me. Will you teach me more?’” Ryan says. “That launched the two of us into a relationship that continues to this day, where he taught me the Somali language and I coached him through an MBA program at West Texas A&M, tutored his children through STAAR tests in AISD. That trust we established he passed on to other male leaders in the Somali community.”
That started a pattern of trust, which is the engine that drives relationships. Building trust with one person often expands to the community of a nationality like the Karen or newly arrived Afghanis. The next steps are to listen and respond to needs.
“Ryan is one guy. He can’t meet all people in all communities,” Crystal says. “Trust takes time. Relationships are at the heart of who we are today and who we were in the beginning. We started connecting in non-traditional ways—not as teacher and student in an ESL program, but a space for people to meet in a way that was not intimidating.”
In its infancy, the Penningtons and a few volunteers scheduled Saturday gatherings in the Margaret Wills Elementary School cafeteria. They provided food and invited refugees to a neutral setting that was not a church or refugee home. Called “Table Talks,” they would pick a topic and discuss. A membership coordinator eventually was born from those meetings.
The first two years, Ryan says, were lonely and hard. It was difficult to gain traction and make progress in the way he thought could happen. It was trial and error.
“No one really understood what I was doing,” he says. “Churches at times felt threatened because they didn’t understand why I was trying to do something they were already doing. I just failed a lot. That was the model we followed—fail quickly and learn. I would get overwhelmed, put something on my shoulders and it would use me up and then go back to the drawing board.
“It took a long time to build up credibility in our city and believe that what we were after would actually work. Once we did start to see fruit from our work, it really did begin to snowball.”
‘The Place’ is a significant step
The pandemic in 2020 was a turning point. That’s when city and health officials, as well as meat packing plants, relied on interpreters to get vital information to refugees. That opened up a new avenue.
It was in 2020 that the Penningtons broke from Redeemer and transitioned into a stand-alone organization. The Refugee Language Project sharply defined its focus, which is to remove language barriers while continuing to cherish respective cultures. If that occurs, immigrants can better integrate into Amarillo without sacrificing their heritage, all the while honoring God.
In September 2020, the RLP started separate funding, created a board of directors and hired a staff of five. Ryan is executive director, while Crystal is marketing director. There are 250 volunteers loosely engaged, and about 50 active mentors working with refugees each week.
The RLP has partnered with other similar groups, most notably We Find In Love, which looks to find and maintain community centers in the Texas Panhandle for refugees, and Square Mile Community Development, which works to build thriving neighborhoods in Amarillo.
“We don’t claim and we don’t want to claim a monopoly on transitioning refugees,” Ryan said. “This isn’t just us. This is a team of a lot of people.”
The RLP took a significant step in January with the opening of The Place, located on Plains Boulevard between Georgia Street and Western Street. It’s 4,000 square feet that had been empty for nearly five years, which now offers classrooms, offices, a computer lab, Wifi access, international television programming and a casual meeting space.
Open five days a week, The Place is within walking distance of 70 percent of those the RLP serves. One recent Tuesday saw a Somali literacy class in one room, Afghanis in another, one student on the computer on a job search, another studying for a driver’s test and another making Persian tea to socialize.
“Where do you gather with people from your own country to just talk?” Crystal says. “We want to establish what was missing, what made communities vibrant in their own country and make it available here. There was that gap that was a lack of a neutral space.”
The couple wants The Place to evolve into a beacon that attracts a blending and understanding of cultures. Pennington believes that lack of understanding remains the greatest barrier between refugees and their new and often forced-upon home.
“The thing we often assume is the greatest barrier is language,” Ryan says, “but having done this for a few years, I disagree. The greatest barrier is understanding culture. Language is just the cloak that wraps around culture.
“A refugee who comes to Amarillo and has been here multiple years understands English, but can’t understand why we make decisions the way we do. Maybe the type of leader they pick is different than the type of leader we pick, how we do conflict is different, or the way they value elders, how they spend their time, the difference between shame and guilt.
“These things take longer to overcome. These are the things that keep refugees, not just from integrating, but thriving as leaders contributing to our community in profound ways. Because when you try and fail a few times with those cultural nuances you don’t understand, it’s discouraging and it causes many refugees to settle into their own isolated communities.”
More Samuels are what the Refugee Language Project and their partners seek. Having the resources, filling the gaps, can only help.