For Lori Stoll, refugee care coordinator at City of Refuge, her volunteer work advocating for refugees doesn’t stop on nights or weekends. With a schedule packed full with meeting refugees, helping translate and providing life-changing services and resources, Stoll takes off a day in the middle of each week in order to have time for her other priority: her grandkids.
City of Refuge is a nonprofit that assists refugee and immigrant families with basic needs, counseling services and professional development. Within the last five years, the organization has seen almost 2,000 people.
How did you get involved with refugee work?
My first exposure was in college. I volunteered to tutor some kids with their homework. There were seven Vietnamese refugees, kids and their parents, also. I fell in love with them. I always had that seed in my heart that there was something very intriguing, very lovely about getting to know people from a different culture, especially those that were displaced. It gave me a burden and a heart for them after being welcomed into their family. I used to go over there and help them with homework, and then, they would invite me to stay for dinner and shared with me the little that they had. It was really humbling to see them and be with them like that.
How did you end up working with City of Refuge?
I was working at the Rainbow House as a volunteer coordinator, and I had a coworker who was putting together some sort of a curriculum to teach English. It really captured my interest. She invited me into a session, and it was basically a room full of about 40 ladies and their little children on their laps, and they were sitting in a concentric circle in the middle of this small apartment so eager and ready to learn English.
I started looking around and saw people next to me wearing shorts and T-shirts late in the year. Through the Rainbow House, I met, fostered and eventually adopted five children of former Vietnamese refugees. In my car, I had lots and lots of clothing, like jackets and stuff that I knew I could replace. I brought them in and gave them to those that were sitting next to me shivering in their shorts.
From that moment, I realized there is a need, and I would really like to learn how to fulfill that need. I asked one of them if I could follow them to their apartment, and she graciously said yes. I looked around in their apartment, saw their need, took note and brought them some things so they could better adjust. I eventually left Rainbow House to work full-time at City of Refuge. Jen Wheeler was meeting African refugees, then. She started Safi Sana, a cleaning company to help employ some of the African ladies. As we were both talking and realizing the need was so great, she decided to start a nonprofit. I was the first employee given a stipend at City of Refuge in 2011.
What does your average day at City of Refuge look like?
Each day is different, but we have open-door meetings on Mondays and Fridays, where any refugee can come in with any question, form they need help with, appointments they want us to help them set up or any needs that they have. During the other days of the week, I’m out with them, advocating for them, being that person to hook them up with an interpreter.
What does it mean to you to receive the Sherman Brown Jr. Award?
It is so humbling. I read something about “treating others as if they were gold,” and it reminded me of the Mother Teresa saying that I’ve always tried to do: “Do small things with great love.” I get to be blessed in meeting these people, being around people that just being in their shadow is an honor and a privilege. Through all the persecution and all the hardship that they’ve been through, they still come in with a smile. I’ve never dreamed that I would have this life. It’s been very rich and rewarding. To have that recognition is just icing on the cake, and I’m so thankful.
What would you like to say to the community and those who nominated you for this award?
I’m so very thankful for Columbia being a welcoming place and for people recognizing the refugee work that we do. It’s phenomenal. I mean, you don’t get that everywhere. To be a part of that here in Columbia is a real honor; it’s a real blessing.
Sherman was an incredible guy. I remember his infectious smile. My husband worked with his wife, Vicki. Sherman is a legacy. It’s an incredible honor to have anything connected to his name. So, I thank you for giving me that opportunity.