Reflections on a year at CERI

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By Vivian Nguyen

My journey as an Apsara Roya Youth Intern and volunteer began in September of 2012.

At the time, I was a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in Psychology with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice. I had been accepted into the Health Services Internship (HSI) program at Cal, which places undergraduate students in public health internships throughout the Bay Area. My public health interests pertained mostly to minority health and global health. For HSI, I was fatefully placed at The Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI) in Oakland. Although I had never heard of CERI before and I had only been to Oakland a grand total of about 3 times, the prospect of a semester-long internship at a non-profit dedicated to the mental health of Cambodian refugees and their families excited me.

I remember my first encounter with CERI clearly–it was a sunny Wednesday afternoon as I boarded the 1R bus line from Downtown Berkeley. Forty minutes later, I was dropped off across the street from the quaint little house where CERI was located. As I walked up the wooden stairs to the second floor, I never imagined how many times I would actually be making this trek. Or how incredibly grateful that I would be to have even found a place like CERI. 

As I stepped into the center, I was immediately struck by the warm energy that radiated throughout. It did not feel like a place of work at all–it felt like a home. A few days later, I began one of the greatest journeys of my life during the Friday young women’s program where I had the privilege of meeting all of the amazing girls – Thavery, Dee, Moda, “Mosta,” Lisa, Nissa, Cynthia, Halissia and Zipporah – along with CERI’s amazing directors and program leaders – Mona, Jen, My Diem and Nancy.

After only a few weeks there, I found myself more and more inspired by the women at CERI. Even though I was only a tutor and mentor, I felt a special connection with the girls. To be honest, I was quite relieved because I was initially anxious about how I would be received by them since I was an ‘outsider.’ But as time went on, they shared with me stories about their lives and little by little, I realized that I didn’t want to just know about these stories – I wanted to become a part of them. I was absolutely thrilled when Mona and Jen invited me to return the following semester and to this day, I am incredibly proud of all the ways that I am able to contribute to CERI. I am also very humbled by my experiences here. Some of the girls have told me that I’m “smart” or that I’m their “role model” – all compliments that I’ve accepted graciously. However, I also remind them of all the ways that they have inspired me and just how much I have learned from simply being in their presence. I am in constant awe of their resilience in the face of hardships and their ability to  how smile and laugh even when undergoing the most difficult of times. Their strength gives me strength, and my time at CERI has only solidified my future goals of pursuing a career in community health. 

My friends are often curious as to why I would willingly sacrifice my Friday nights in order to be at CERI. I respond to their inquiry with a light laugh and tell them that not only do I willingly give up that time, I also do so eagerly. I don’t think they truly understand what CERI means to me and frankly, there are times when even I’m unsure of how I became so invested. All I know is that CERI has become my family and the special bonds that I’ve forged are worth much, much more than Friday nights. 

As I reflect upon my yearlong journey, I feel the deepest sense of gratitude to all those who have contributed along the way. I am honored to have found a place here at CERI and I am excited to see what the future holds for all of us! 

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