Alumni Focus

Home Sweet Home

Carolyn Manning, ’92 MPA, brings a sense of community and normalcy to refugees

by Tina Potterf2009_summer_home_main

With the support of a collective of volunteers Carolyn Manning, ’92 MPA, seen here with some of her many donated household items and furnishings, is providing a sense of normalcy and community for refugees who now call Phoenix, Ariz., home.

Photo courtesy of Rick D’Elia

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When new families move to Phoenix, Ariz., the city Carolyn Manning calls home, she leads the charge of a unique welcome wagon. But Manning, a 1992 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program, doesn’t come bearing a home baked pie or casserole. Those new to the neighborhood are not your typical transplants—they are refugees who have fled their home countries for fear of persecution or terrorist threats and find themselves in a foreign country, with little means and even fewer possessions. In an effort to ease the often-challenging transition into their new lives in the United States, Manning, with the support of a coalition of volunteers, provides housewares and furniture to transform their sparse digs into real homes.

The work is part of the Welcome to America Project, a nonprofit Manning founded in 2001 to bring donated furnishings and a sense of community to refugees who are placed in Arizona.

The origins of the Welcome to America Project started with a newspaper article Manning came across about an Afghani family who, when faced with imprisonment by the Taliban, fled to a refugee camp in Pakistan en route to Arizona. The story resonated with Manning, who found similarities between her and the Afghani family. Like Manning, a mother of five children, the Afghani mother had her fifth child on the way. And both were changed because of events in their lives that most could not comprehend—Manning lost her brother-in-law in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center; the family from Afghanistan lost a grandfather at the hands of the Taliban.

“We try to bring them what they need to create a home. ...We are called to do this. To right the scales of humanity.”
—Carol Manning, ’92 MPA

“The first thing I thought about was how much I had in common with this woman,” Manning says, “and how would I feel if everything was taken from me and I didn’t know how my basic needs would be met.”

Manning was put in touch with the family and set out to welcome them to the city in a big way. With the assistance of family and friends she organized a collection drive that yielded six truckloads of furnishings. Officially, the Welcome to America Project was born.

“We try to bring them what they need to create a home,” Manning says. “We do everything we can to make this happen. We are called to do this. To right the scales of humanity.”

In the years since she reached out to that first family, Manning and her team have furnished homes for roughly 600 families who represent a wide swath of the world, including Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Burma, Bhutan, Vietnam, Albania, Cuba, Thailand and Malaysia.

The Welcome to America Project has furnished homes for some 600 families, many who come to the United States with little more than a suitcase of belongings.

Photo courtesy of Rick D’Elia

The need for assistance from the Welcome to America Project is great—families wait roughly four months for a referral from social services agencies. Once selected volunteers meet with the families and document their requests for items. The donations of furniture and housewares come from community members and businesses in the Phoenix area.

The experience for the families on the receiving end can be overwhelming, Manning says.

“Usually they are overcome with emotion. We have to give them the time to take it all in,” she says. “To hear a family say that they feel they can move on now is a really good feeling. They have been stripped of everything. They get off the plane with one
bag. … We’re their community and their neighbors.”

Earlier this year cable news network CNN honored Manning and the Welcome to America Project by naming her a 2009 CNN Hero, which recognizes individuals who inspire others as crusaders in their communities and for various causes.

“I didn’t know they were going to do this but I was very excited when I heard,” she says of the honor. “It’s very exciting to me that refugee issues are getting that much press. [CNN Heroes] brings awareness to this.”

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