I was 17 when my parents sat me down at a random coffee shop and told me they were considering opening their home to foster children. They voiced it as a question, letting me know that I was the deciding vote.
But I knew the question already had an answer, and that answer was "yes." They told me, almost instantaneously, all about the new foster sister I was going to have. Her name was Chin Chin, and she was from Burma (now called Myanmar).
You see, my family came into foster care very differently. Our experience reflects only a small portion of the population. My mother had a work friend who had welcomed a refugee from Burma, and then later adopted her. My parents were uneasy about the idea of adoption.
But the way my mother's friend spoke about her foster daughter displayed so much love and care, my parents were physically moved to follow suit. This began our journey into refugee foster care.
Through a local foster care organization, refugee minors were placed with my family. They lived with us for any time between three months and an indefinite time period.
I had three refugee foster siblings. I loved them all in different ways, and it has taken me several years to process the effect they have had on my life.
Everyone has this conjured image of foster kids. They think of some beaten and battered child who bounces from home to home. It's somewhat of a slight stigma.
Foster care is usually depicted as being run by mean and evil parents (a la Mrs. Hannigan from "Annie"), who are only interested in their monthly paychecks from the government. But this is not always the case.
Some people genuinely care about their foster children. Some, unfortunately, don't. Through my siblings, I saw the wounds of the children who are bounced from house to house because people decide they don't want them anymore.
They are given promises every time. They are constantly told they'll find permanent homes. Then, they're passed on and given to new homes.
None of my siblings found a permanent home within our family. My mother's job changed, and we had to move from Michigan to Illinois. Sadly, refugees settled in one state can't easily move to another without being adopted.
My first refugee sister decided she didn't want to live with us anymore, and left to live in a nearby Burmese community. My two brothers were placed with potential adoptive parents. One of them was eventually adopted. The other, with the promise that he would be reunited with his younger brother under one home, was passed on again.
I still remember my brother's smile. It could light up a room.
I still remember my sister's cooking. I still have the taste of Burmese tea leaf salad on my lips. I remember the thoughtfulness and caring nature of my other brother. I have never met anyone so genuine and thankful in my life.
These are three kids who've been through untold horrors and tragedies. They've left their homes and their families. They've escaped persecution and countries that no longer wanted them. They found their way into America, and eventually into my heart.
I don't speak with my foster siblings anymore. I found my brothers on Facebook, and I like to watch how they've grown. Sometimes, I think of going back and seeing them. But I'm too embarrassed.
The truth is, I wasn't nice to them. I wasn't a Disney-esque evil sister, but I couldn't find it in my heart to love them the way I should have. I was selfish. I wasn't ready to open my home and heart to someone else just yet.
After they left, I did everything I could to compensate for the love I could have given them. I volunteered with refugees. I spent a summer teaching English to refugees in Indianapolis. I always have my brother's smile on my mind these days.
The thing no one tells you about having foster siblings is the fact that it will change your life in ways you can never comprehend or imagine. It will humble you and open you.
You will see a different perspective and realize your own privilege. You'll be grateful that you live in a world that wants you and loves you.
You will cherish your family, but you will also learn that family isn't always biological. I can't tell people to open their homes to foster children. It's an outlandish request. But I can encourage people to find organizations near them that work with foster care or refugees, and to volunteer for them.
Trust me, it will change your life. It changed mine.