Before the pandemic, I was a freshman still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my time at Hopkins. I was preoccupied with my grades, my resume and being the best I could be.
By the start of spring of 2020, I began to volunteer with the Baltimore chapter of the International Refugee Committee (IRC). I thought it was an excellent activity to get involved in, since I wanted to work with international organizations or the State Department in the future.
The IRC’s Welcome Home Project seemed like a good starting point — low commitment and sporadic but meaningful. I had just received a reply from the volunteer coordinator before COVID-19 well and truly hit our school campus.
The pandemic was an eye-opener for me to figure out my priorities. Isolated and paranoid, I experienced many firsts — my first online classes, first academic warning and first therapy appointment. I took a semester off from school to recuperate my mental health.
Fall of 2022 marks my first semester on campus since freshman year. I am a senior now. At the start of the semester, I was once again trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my remaining time at Hopkins. I had quit most of my clubs before taking a break, so I was starting from scratch. This time, however, I was preoccupied with little but my own physical and mental health.
Once again, the IRC caught my eye. When I signed up for their information session, I did so with burning spite towards what the pandemic had taken away from me. While I may have lost many opportunities, I felt a need to prove that COVID-19 could not stop me from at least one pre-pandemic goal.
That spite and stubbornness gradually melted away as I prepared materials with my volunteer partners. The three of us came from different backgrounds. One was an art director with Hopkins, and the other was retired but had a lot of experience in international missions with her husband.
I prepared most of the toiletries and cleaning supplies. My roommates left many of their items to me when we moved out of our apartment last semester, so I had a plunger, a dustpan, hygiene products and more to donate. As an avid collector of soap bars, I had many to spare.
Our project handler told us that the family was moving in from Sudan at 9 p.m. Our group arrived at 1 p.m. on the day of the family’s move-in, which gave us plenty of time to unpack and set up the house.
Moving in for another family was not so different from moving into my own place for college. The IRC supplied us with heavier furniture to prepare, such as the bed frame, mattresses, a couch, a kitchen table and chairs. We brought the rest. I helped set up the bedsheets and the bathroom and decorated the living space.
In other ways, the move-in process was more intimate than when I moved for myself. For myself, I was willing to cut corners and live with some discomfort. I don’t have extensive kitchenware. I skimp on keeping a full pantry. I have one blanket, one pillow and very little decoration around the house.
But when we’re moving for a family that is going through possibly the worst period of their lives, who have already abandoned all the comforts of their old home and community and who traveled across the world to find some semblance of safety, we want to make their transition to their new home as painless and comfortable as possible.
We hung pictures on the walls and fluffed extra pillows on the beds. We ironed the bedsheets, fixed a part of the carpet that was sticking out and dithered over where to put hygiene products, so they were easy to find and access. One of my teammates even brought fake succulents to decorate the tables and bookshelf we set up. We made sure they had a kettle, a complete set of plates and utensils, some puzzles and a vase of fresh flowers on the dining table — things I don’t even consider for my own place but make me realize that personal enrichment and peace can come from the smallest of places.
We stayed for five hours to set up the new home. It was a lot more physical exercise than anything I’d done during the school year, but I felt proud of my work and connected to the community of Baltimore — everything I felt that was missing from my daily activities in the past two years.
I was also proud of how far I had come. I realized that sometimes it’s good to focus on ourselves because I don’t think I could have been in the right place to be helping others without taking the time to make sure I was okay as well.
Perhaps, like the family from Sudan, we are all trying to move forward in our own ways. I hope they had a safe and smooth move that night and that they are doing well today in their new home.
Rowan Liu is a senior from Chicago studying International Studies.