Jenny Nakata isn’t like the other mums at Parents' Evening. At 30, she is by far the youngest parent to have a teenage son. But even though Karim*, 17, and Hamid*, 11, were born on the other side of the world and have only been living with them for a few months, Jenny and her husband, David, consider the boys their children.
“We don’t speak the same language, we don’t look alike, we don’t share the same cultural background, but we can still be a family,” Jenny told Refinery29. “I never would have imagined that four months ago, when we said yes to having these kids on a temporary basis, that I would feel this way about these boys. They’re everything and they’re just so wonderful. Every decision we make now is with their best interests in mind.”
On 19th June, Jenny and David opened their home outside of Seattle to two refugee foster children from Afghanistan. The boys – who Jenny asked be referred to by pseudonyms for their privacy – arrived around the time that President Trump signed his first executive order banning refugees from the US. Along with their three other siblings, Karim and Hamid entered as part of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Programme, which gives a small number of children the chance to be resettled in the US each year. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the programme served 1,804 children in 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available.
Now, four months later, they have settled into life as a family. Jenny recently left her full-time job to take care of them. And she and her husband, who is also 30, have learned a lot about parenting, she said, and documented it on their blog, Two for the Time Being.
“Our lives have changed so much. Now I plan our days around what’s best for our kids,” Jenny said. “That perspective shift – being a mom, particularly to these boys – was so unexpected for me, particularly as a woman who always thought my career would be the most important piece of my future. Being able to change that perspective and realise that while jobs come and go, these boys are only with us for a short period of time. I want to do everything that I can to make sure their experience is a great one, and do all we can to love and support them and nurture them.”
It hasn’t always been easy. The boys did not speak English when they arrived and are the only refugee children in their schools. They lived in two other foster homes prior to being placed with Jenny and David. And the first refugee foster child the couple parented ran away to Canada amid the anti-refugee political rhetoric. But Jenny said she is determined to give these boys the childhood they deserve.
“On hard days, which we have a lot of, I just think of the first time the younger one called me 'Mom',” she said. “The other day, he taught me how to say, ‘I love you’ in his home language. Those are the moments that make it all feel really worth it.”
Ahead, Jenny shares what the family’s life is like now and why she hopes others will welcome refugees into their communities.
How did you start the journey of becoming refugee foster parents?
We started this journey last year. I was interested in the programme and had worked with refugees for a number of years either in volunteer programmes or professional capacities. We started attending some information sessions and started taking classes to be licensed as foster parents, particularly for the refugee programme. As it came closer to election day here in the US, we felt an urgency to become licensed in this programme. We became licensed last autumn, and we got our first refugee foster child in May. So it took about a year. There were lots of ups and downs throughout the process, but we are really thankful it worked out how it did.
What is it like becoming a foster parent to refugee children in the current political climate? How have President Trump’s executive orders aimed at limiting refugees impacted your path to parenthood?
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Our two children that we have in our home now arrived in the US the day before the first travel ban was enacted. They were rushed here because one of their siblings was about to turn 18, and once you turn 18, you’re no longer eligible to be resettled in the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Programme. So our boys’ story of resettlement here in the US is deeply entwined with the current administration’s policies. To me, it’s clear that these are children who have lost their parents and who are fleeing their home countries because of war or disaster or persecution, and then they’re faced with hatred or xenophobia when they arrive here. As foster parents, my husband and I are trying to model compassion and inclusivity and show our kids that not all Americans have the same hateful beliefs as our president.
But it’s definitely been tough, emotional and heartbreaking. For instance, we recently learned that a child who was supposed to be placed in our home this February, also a Muslim youth, was recently resettled in a different country because there is so much uncertainty about the future of what refugees’ lives might look like in the US. It’s heartbreaking, because we will never get to meet this boy, we will never get to have him be part of our family like we had been planning for since February. But I am glad he is safe and in another country that’s more welcoming and accepting to refugees than our own.
Are Karim and Hamid the first refugee children you have fostered?
We had a boy, John*, who was our first foster child in our home. We had really high hopes that he would be a part of our family. He is a 17-year-old Muslim youth from Somalia. He came to our home and we had a pretty good first few weeks with him. It was our first time being foster parents, so we were learning a lot about setting rules and boundaries and also what it’s like to be parents to a teenager.
After a little over two weeks of him being in our home, he ran away, which was incredibly challenging and sad and heartbreaking, especially during the days when we didn’t know where he was. We were worried something terrible had happened and we were just really confused. We were involved in a number of different procedures because he was in foster care, including talking to police and statewide networks that help find missing children. It was awful and confusing.
We eventually found out that he had crossed the border into Canada and been picked up by border patrol there. When we found that out, we instantly felt really relieved that he was safe and in a country that is welcoming to refugees. But in other ways, we were so heartbroken that the reality of our country is that children, particularly from other countries that are Muslim and who might feel threatened here in the US, have to flee this country. It was just so shocking and heartbreaking and tragic that he felt he had to leave.
Do you know if John reunited with family in Canada, or is he there on his own?
Those are all questions that have gone unanswered for us, and that’s one of the challenges – not knowing anything about his future. We know he was given the opportunity to go into foster care in Canada. But as far as how he’s doing now or whether he met up with family there, those things are unclear for us. We have not been able to communicate with him since he left, which has been really hard. We had expectations in our mind for one thing, and he had expectations in his mind for another. He was feeling fear and uncertainty about his future and about a country that is really unwelcoming to refugees and to Muslims. We have done a lot of reflection since he left about whether there were signs. Were there things that he said that would have warned us that he was about to flee to Canada? But there was really nothing. It was just such a shock.
Some people would have given up after that. Why was it important for you to open your heart and your home again?
Part of it is that there is such a drastic need for foster homes in our state and in our country, particularly for refugee programmes. We felt uncertainty and doubt about whether or not we could be foster parents again, especially after John had just left. It was such a heartbreaking, emotional drain for us to go through that whole process. We weren’t really sure if we could be foster parents again.
Then we got a call from our foster care agency just a few weeks after he had left, which also happened to be a few weeks after we got married. After planning a wedding and going through this tragedy with him, we wanted to take a break from foster parenting for a few months because it was just so emotionally and physically exhausting to go through it all. So we had decided to take a break for a few months when our foster care agency said, "We have a bit of an emergency: there are five siblings who are being pulled from their current foster home." We understood that we couldn’t take all five of them but they asked if we could take two of the boys. We hesitated and thought about it, and then decided that this is why we got licensed. What happened with John was a tragedy but it also wasn’t the norm. We should give it another try. So we said yes to a placement for a few weeks.
They came to our home, and the first few days were really, really hard. These boys had been in the country for a few months and this was their third foster home. They had been separated from the rest of their siblings due to a lack of available homes, and they were rightfully angry. After those first few weeks passed, what we thought was going to be a temporary placement is now a permanent placement. So we have these boys staying with us for the foreseeable future.
What is daily life with the boys like?
They are the most kind, resilient, caring kids I could have ever imagined. When I think about what our lives were like a year ago versus what our lives are like today, it’s amazing how normal our lives feel. Today, I got the boys ready for school in the morning, and after school we have football and tutoring, music lessons and drivers’ ed. One thing we always do is have dinner as a family together and talk about one thing that we’re grateful for. We have also learned how to cook a lot of Afghan food. We’ve learned they don’t like a lot of American food besides hamburgers and hotdogs.
We always do homework together at night, and then I read a book to the younger boy before he goes to bed. Right now, we just started reading Harry Potter, which was one of my favourite books when I was younger. So it makes me really happy we can read it together. It feels like our lives are just the lives of an average family, and there are sometimes language or cultural barriers, but for the most part, our lives just feel really normal.
The other night, I was talking to the older boy, and I asked him, "What are your hopes and dreams for the future now that you’ve been in America for a few months? I’m curious to know what you want the future to hold for you." What he said to me was that he just wants his life to be normal, and I think about that often. Because that’s what David and I are trying to do as foster parents: give the boys the opportunity to have a childhood, to play, to have fun, to be normal. We recognise that their past has been incredibly traumatic, and trauma manifests itself in different ways. But these kids are so kind, resilient and strong, and really wise and fun.
It’s been a lot of fun to be able to experience their firsts with them. For instance, their first time seeing the ocean, or the first time we went to pick out Halloween costumes. Last week was the older boy’s homecoming week at high school, so explaining what homecoming was and why people are dressing up. This past weekend, we took all of the siblings camping and taught them how to make s’mores over a campfire, which was really fun.
What have the boys taught you?
They have definitely taught me a lot about myself and about parenting and about our life here in the US. When I see them interact in the world, I am reminded about the ease in which I navigate our society. For instance, the ease with which I can read and speak English gives me so much freedom. They have definitely taught me a lot about parenting, and as a first-time parent who is only 13 years older than them, I had no experience parenting teenagers, which can be a challenge. But they have taught me to see things through a different set of eyes.
How has parenthood changed your relationship with your husband?
I have learned to rely on David a lot more for support. I knew that being a foster parent was going to be hard, but I didn’t know it was going to be this challenging. Now, we’re making decisions based on what’s best for the children. For instance, I recently left my full-time job so I could spend more time with the kids. They are integrating into society so well and they are so resilient and adaptable. But they also need a lot of support. So I need to be there to advocate for them in their school and medical appointments and in life. We made a decision as a family for me to leave my job in order to give them the support they deserve. That has been a big change in our family and my relationship with my husband. As challenging as it is and with all of these big changes that have happened in my life that I never would have expected a year ago, I just reflect on how rewarding it also is to be able to be their foster mom.
What is your biggest hope for the boys as their foster mother?
My biggest wish is for them to be able to experience their childhood and be able to develop a sense of playfulness; to have fun and not worry about some of the things they had to worry about when they were in their home country. For instance, they don’t have to ever worry that there won’t be enough food on the table or a warm house to come to or foster parents that love them. I think that’s my biggest wish for them; that they get to have the childhood they deserve and know that we care about them and support them through whatever challenges may arise.
I also wish for them to have a good future here and for them to be able to thrive and succeed here, whatever that definition of success looks like for them. It’s our hope that we can be part of their lives forever, and that part makes me so happy. The older boy jokingly said to me the other day, "When I have kids, you’re going to be a grandma. I’m going to get to call you grandma." I’m so hopeful that I will get to experience those big life events with them: when they go to college or have kids or whatever big milestones they experience. I feel lucky to be able to be part of their lives and I hope that continues forever.
What is your advice for other people who may be considering becoming foster parents to refugee children, or who want to help refugees in some way?
Despite the challenges, it is so worth it. The little everyday moments of laughter and of learning are incredibly rewarding. So for people who are interested in learning more, I would encourage them to look into foster parenting programmes, particularly with refugees. I think right now, there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding about refugees. But what we found with having our boys in our home is that they are just normal kids who need a caring environment and loving, supportive parents and caregivers. There is such a drastic shortage of foster homes and foster parents in our community that for anyone who is slightly interested, I would really encourage them to look into it and learn more. But if that feels like a really big commitment, there are other volunteer opportunities with other refugee resettlement organisations. Do what you can to support refugees in your own community.
*Names have been changed to protect the children’s privacy.