International Neighbors helping refugee families in Charlottesville form lifelong bonds

Solange and her family (Source: Solange Kossiwa Agbotounou)
Updated: Dec. 10, 2020 at 1:42 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Settling in a place where the language and culture are completely different can be a huge challenge for any refugee family, but one organization in Charlottesville is making that adjustment a little bit easier with the help of some neighbors.

Joanne Boyle and Solange Kossiwa Agbotounou have been friends for three years. Their daughters, Ella and Ngoty, attend school together.

“We see each other every day, if not every other day. It’s more like family,” Boyle said.

But this isn’t just any kind of friendship. Solange and her family moved to Charlottesville in 2001 as refugees from Togo in West Africa. The transition into a new culture was anything but easy.

“I didn’t know anything about computers. I take an English class,” Solange said.

Each year, 250 refugees settle in Charlottesville, but with language barriers and cultural differences adapting can be a struggle.

That’s why International Neighbors has been helping refugees thrive in their new communities by pairing them with an individual or family in the Charlottesville area.

“There’s just so much to learn. Most refugees are told three days prior in the refugee camps wherever they are that they’re going to the next country,” Kari Miller, founder of International Neighbors, said.

Miller founded the organization five years ago.

“Every single refugee that is in Charlottesville has fled war. They’ve overcome so much trauma and they have triumphed. These are true survivors,” Miller said.

Boyle, a former University of Virginia Women’s Basketball coach, has been by Solange’s side for years now serving as her great neighbor guide.

“I’m here for them as they’re here for me. Solange does an unbelievable job with my daughter,” Boyle said.

Despite the obstacles Solange still faces, she’s thankful for the bond she now has with her neighbors.

“They love people. No discrimination. You can be white, you can be black, they like everybody,” Solange said.

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