Contributed by Red Cross volunteer, Joanna MacKenzie
Every member of the Disaster Action Team on call was in a deep sleep when we got the call to a house fire on the west side of Columbus early Sunday morning. The roads were slick with ice and accidents lined the streets as we carefully navigated to the scene of the fire. Upon arrival, we were lead to the rear of a 30-year-old neighborhood convenient store with an apartment in back where one of the residents sat in his van watching the fire department shovel charred belongings out his front door. We knocked on his window to offer assistance but communication was a struggle as we learned he was a Russian immigrant, with no family, who needed a translator. Speaking slowly, using basic words and a LOT of hand gestures we were able to deduce that he had friends on the way to help. While we tried to stay warm and waited for the arrival of his friends, the mood was somber and sounds of fire truck engines filled the air… but the moment his friends arrived there were large embraces, pats on the back, and relief began to show on his face. It felt like a family reunion.
With the assistance of a translator, we learned that he lived with a roommate who woke to the smell of smoke. As they tried to figure out what was happening, they saw the smoke coming from a closet and knew they were in trouble. Neither spoke English enough to call 911. So, as he tried to fight the flames with a garden hose, the roommate went to friends to call for help. By the time the fire department arrived there was a full fire.
At first, he was nervous about our presence, not quite understanding why the Red Cross was there. He kindly refused assistance to replace food and clothing lost in the fire stating he was grateful just to be alive. But he had no insurance and nowhere to stay for more than a few nights. As we spoke to him through his friends, he began to understand that the assistance we provide was truly a gift with no strings attached, and that there were people he would never meet who cared. With genuine gratitude, he finally accepted our help and taught us a few key Russian phrases in the process. As we parted we were now part of this “family” leaving with great big hugs, slaps on the back and kisses on the cheek.
Walking away and waving goodbye to my new Russian friend, I realized that I had experienced what it means to say, “it takes a village.” I am truly thankful for the patience and care of my team as well as the financial donors who make it possible to make a difference in the life of a neighbor.
Na sdorvie! (Cheers)!