From Eritrea to Silicon Valley—a place four boys can call home
Diana Pohle had been a mom for 16 years, but she knew this Mother’s Day would be different. Her husband, David, got called into work. Her daughter Bella was visiting grandma. Her son Hunter left to study for finals. The only person at home was her new foster son—a refugee from Eritrea, who must remain anonymous for privacy reasons—and he asked to play soccer at a friend’s house.
But when Diana went to pick up him up from soccer a few hours later, it was clear he hadn’t been playing soccer. He marched up to the car with a confident strut, presented her with a small plush bear holding a rose and said “Happy Mother’s Day”.
nstead of playing the beautiful game, he had been practicing delivering those words. “That just melted my heart,” Diana says. “That was a special day.”
Family and community have always been important to Diana, who embarked on the MBA program in 2004 before taking time out to raise a family full time—and who returned to Santa Clara to complete the California Program in Entrepreneurship in 2014. She and her husband spent almost 10 years volunteering in Catholic Charities programs and when they heard about Syrian orphans on the news, they wanted to get involved.
To Diana, the math was simple: She and David wanted more children. These children needed a place to stay—and a family. Why not help?
Roughly 18 months later, the Pohle family now totals eight: two biological children and four foster children through Refugee Foster Care, a program with Catholic Charities.
“We don’t look like the way a traditional family is defined,” Diana says, “but we are just as much a family as anybody else.”
Francis Bencik is the community coordinator for Refugee Foster Care. While 20 other similar programs exist nationwide, RFC is the only program in Northern California that places unaccompanied refugee minors into long-term foster care homes.
The Pohles are one of 37 active foster families in the program, which hosts children from Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Myanmar, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The foster families are often just as diverse as the youth. Many are social-justice oriented and well-educated. Some were born in the United States, some emigrated here. Regardless, they have same motivation.
“Fostering is their way of trying to contribute to a really big global problem,” Bencik says.
When Diana and David initially contacted RFC, their interest was in assisting Syrian refugees. They quickly learned those kids wouldn’t be eligible for several years. It was disconcerting that the Syrian refugees had such a long road ahead of them, but Diana viewed it as an opportunity to help those who had already been down that road.
In this instance, it was children from Eritrea.
Opening up your home to a new family member can be stressful. The months leading up to a foster child arriving aren’t unlike the weeks leading up to the birth of a child—only with a little more paperwork.
Diana and David completed application process in early 2015, assuming it would be another year before they were assigned a foster child. Instead, the RFC went from initial orientation to background check to health screenings and assignment in just a few months.
During that time, the refugees themselves have their own share of boxes to check. Each child receives a case manager, a social worker, an education coordinator, and a legal coordinator. RFC also has a clinician and psychiatrist on staff for assessments, counseling, and referral services.
Once the child arrives, the truly difficult part begins. The majority of foster children are high school aged. Each has a family in their native country, one they love and miss dearly. Then, the question is, who is family?
“It’s a sensitive thing as a parent to recognize that you know you’re in addition to, you’re not in place of,” Diana says. “That’s what my role is. My role is not to replace anything but to add to it.”
LOST AND FOUND
The library was the first place Diana took her family when they welcomed their foster child. Though their new son’s ability to speak or understand English was pretty low, his reading skills were strong. So he wandered around the library, just like Bella and Hunter.
“He sat next to me and put down this book, The Lost Boy: A Foster Child’s Search for the Love of a Family,” Diana says. “That communicated an awful lot to me about what he was looking for and what we were looking for. We were a good match.”
There have been challenges along the way. Like many refugee foster kids, Diana’s children had difficulty with the language barrier. It’s hard enough to be a teenager. Not being able to communicate fluently makes it especially difficult. When they first arrived, everything had to be communicated through an interpreter.
Now, Diana says, things are much better. However, there are still some cultural challenges. Food is a big one. Early on, using a fork was difficult for some of her sons, so the family ate a lot of pizza and other handheld foods. But they have tried their best to adapt to new foods and a different style of eating. Also, her sons don’t always make a lot of eye contact, which can be misinterpreted by others.
In addition to adjusting to a drastically different home life and culture, a lot is expected of the refugees. To remain in the program, they must either be in school or working. In the past year, the program has had participants accepted to UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of San Francisco, and California State University, Monterey. Diana has similar hopes for her children.
Since the children are in high school already, Diana tries to keep everyone busy. From watching movies to playing mini golf and laser tag—their new favorite—the Pohles make sure all six kids are entertained. But for the Eritrean boys: It’s all about soccer.
Shortly after they arrived, the family ordered season tickets for the San Jose Earthquakes. The boys were not easily impressed with American soccer. The first game they went to, one of the boys turned to Diana and looked grumpy.
“He was like, ‘In Ethiopia, we don’t cheer like this and we don’t have stands like this, but we know how to play soccer,’” Diana recalls. “I’m like, ‘Oh why did I just buy season tickets to this? Oh my goodness.’”
They have since become fans of the Earthquakes, however. And they’re especially excited now that an Eritrean from Sweden has joined the team. Still, Diana jokes that just like there are different religions in the house, there are competing soccer teams. Two for Manchester United; one for Chelsea; one for Barcelona. The family, of course, attended the Manchester United vs. Barcelona game last year.
“That was like the highlight of, I don’t know, forever for them,” Diana says.
Diana says not everyone understands the fostering process, even family and friends. There’s a stigma associated with fostering—that these kids are coming in and out of their lives and may not be here tomorrow. Some don’t know how to engage or feel attached. Others ask: Why not American kids?
Diana hopes for greater recognition that families come in different ways. She says these kids are more of a blessing to her than she is to them.
“These are my kids and I believe that we are building a relationship in which I will be a part of their lives for always,” Diana says. As with any parent, she hopes that might include planning weddings and, one day, loving grandbabies.
Grace Ogihara ’16 and Eryn Olson ’16 are editorial assistants for Santa Clara Magazine.