A Helping Hand for a Vulnerable Population

A student-led volunteer group assists non-English speaking seniors in San Diego overcome by the unexpected new challenges of grocery shopping.

By Leslie L.J. Reilly

student loading groceries into back of car

Loading groceries in their car for homebound community members are Milano Sliwa (left), and her sister Monica Sliwa (right)

The photograph showed an all too common image of our times, an older man standing in a grocery store aisle with nothing on the shelves.

“I got emotional and wanted to make a change immediately,” said Milano Sliwa, who was born in Iraq and is a political science major in San Diego State University’s College of Arts and Letters. The result was a volunteer group that shops for and delivers groceries and essentials to those in need amid the COVID-19 pandemic — especially seniors who speak languages other than English.

Sliwa developed the grassroots volunteer effort with her sister, Monica Sliwa, an SDSU alumna and second-year student at the University of California, San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and one of Monica’s classmates, Afrooz Sabouri.

Only a few days after sharing their mission via social media, they found a corps of committed volunteers. Less than a week into the project, Sliwa said, “We are lucky to have 40 volunteers from different areas of San Diego who speak various languages such as Farsi, Spanish, French, and even Japanese. We have delivered goods to over 50 seniors, and counting.”

The outreach team members wear masks and gloves while shopping and delivering items, and keep proper social distancing, aligned with strict guidelines and protocols of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Part of a family of Chaldean Iraqis who fled to Syria as refugees during the Iraq war, the sisters moved to San Diego in 2010, when Milano was 10. She intimately understands language barriers.

“I came to the United States with absolutely no knowledge of the English language,” she said. “It took me about a year to translate between Arabic, Chaldean, and English for my parents.”

At SDSU, she became active in two student organizations. She is president of the student chapter of Border Angels, a volunteer, nonprofit group that advocates for human rights, humane immigration reform, and social justice with a special focus on issues related to the U.S.-Mexican border. She also heads the Law, Policy, and Human Rights student organization whose mission is to educate students, help victims and underserved communities, and explore the fields of law, policy, and human rights.

Her experiences convey a vital lesson.

“Words get lost in translation, but people do too. Amid unfamiliar voices, there is no greater comfort than hearing one’s native language,” Sliwa said.

She added, “This experience teaches us something new every day and we are happy to be doing this for our beloved seniors. The people we serve greet us with respect, kind words, and appreciation and that is why we do this.”

For information about volunteer opportunities, please email Milano at [email protected].

This story originally appeared on SDSU NewsCenter.