By Cheryce Berg, Volunteer
Rebecca reaches chubby fists to grasp Fischer-Price Rock-a-Stack rings. Serena pastes daisy stickers and brown paper dolls on pink paper. And Hlu Ling skips around a low table dotted with numbered hearts, covering each with a matching pink one.
Here, they are safe. Yet each belongs to a family who fled a place of danger.
I wonder at the stories their refugee parents will tell them. True stories of countries far away, of loved ones left behind, of colors and smells and flavors muted in America. Stories that might be hard to carry.
But today, these three are innocent of those stories. And they are happy. Happy to be in classrooms with teachers who love and care for them while their parents learn English down the hall.
I’m visiting their classrooms, chatting with three of these teachers. Oksana is a refugee, Wade is an American, and Erin is an American married to a refugee.
Oksana sits on a brightly colored rug, snuggling two babies. Rebecca—brown eyes wide—eyes me and my camera from the safety of Oksana’s lap, having now traded the rings for a teething ball.
Why this job, I ask? “Because we were refugees, too,” Oksana says. Fleeing religious persecution in Russia, she arrived here at the age of nineteen with her Christian parents and most of her eleven siblings. She started working for World Relief when her oldest boy was a year old, and she has done so now for over ten years.
Oksana quietly shares that she needed to take a break when her husband became ill and subsequently died. The text she received that invited her back was an incredible answer to prayer for a job she loves with a schedule flexible enough to parent her three school-aged boys.
You wouldn’t know from her warm smile that she’s experienced such grief. Maybe that’s why she’s so good with babies that arrive for the first time and are handed over the nursery counter by trembling parents, themselves overwhelmed with everything new.
Oksana is gifted with children. “All children,” she says, "understand the language of love.” She wants these babies and their parents to know that people care about them—“that they can be comfortable in this country.” She gains their trust quickly, and I can see why.
What is her message to Americans about refugees? “That we have to care about each other,” she says. “Jesus wants us to be a good example with more than our words. Show love. We are the same—all God’s creation.”
“It’s nice when somebody cares about you,” she reflects. She knows.
I say good-bye and move to a classroom of 3-5 year olds. I sit down in a tiny chair next to Wade—a lawyer with a flexible schedule who volunteers two mornings a week. He is helping Serena paste.
Wade tells how a presentation from World Relief at his church—plus the stirring of God in his heart—triggered his desire to serve. He loves to sit with the children and play, read, or teach them new things. Last week he brought in his trumpet and let them press the keys, to their immense joy!
What skills does Wade bring to this role (besides owning a trumpet)? Patience, understanding the impulsivity of a preschooler, and being quick to praise.
We follow a trail of children upstairs to the gym where Wade leads them in Simon Says before releasing them to race around in tiny trikes. Sunlight shines through the large windows and they laugh out loud at the freedom to run.
What has Wade seen in these children? “Resiliency. You wouldn’t know all they or their families have experienced for all the joy they express.”
“Refugees have the grit necessary to be a contribution to our society. They are driven to succeed regardless of their education and nationality. They are a benefit to us all.”
Wade’s reason to serve? He loves watching them develop and having fun with them while modeling his own faith in Jesus with both words and actions. “It’s good to give back. And I get more out of it than they do.”
My last visit is with Erin, in the young 2’s and 3’s class. Erin—a pharmacist and mother of three— brings her youngest, Simon, with her two days a week while she volunteers in his classroom.
Erin echoes some of what Wade and Oksana say. She, too, volunteers because it’s a good way to give back by doing something she really enjoys.
I ask her to describe one special child. Erin smiles as she points out Eh Nay, a happy boy in a black sweatsuit dancing around the gym. She describes him as sweet and responsive—a mother’s dream. Eh-nay learns quickly, is eager to help the teachers and his fellow classmates, and exhibits a warm and tender spirit.
Erin’s story is unique in that she is American-born and married to a refugee. She comments that her husband wouldn’t be here without the work of World Relief and the support of the church, school, and community throughout his childhood.
“I want these children to know that someone here loves and cares and wants them to succeed—that I wish the best for them,” she says. It is that same support that helped propel her husband from a Sudanese refugee camp all the way to Harvard. His name is Selamawi Asgedom, and he writes of his incredible journey in the book Of Beetles and Angels.
What does Erin want the rest of us to know about volunteering with World Relief? “There is such a need. The needs can be so overwhelming, but if you just do something little like this, you can change the lives of a handful of kids.” And it is enough.
What Oksana, Wade, and Erin do matters. It matters to Rebecca, to Serena, to Hlu Ling, to Eh Nay, and all the other children loved in these classrooms.
It matters to us. In serving the most vulnerable, these three demonstrate what is valuable.
I think back to Hlu Ling’s pink foam hearts, carefully paired one-to-one with those on the table. I imagine each of us caring for one refugee, pairing our hearts with theirs.
We could welcome them all to safety if we did.
“…but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” - Matthew 19:14
Semira* pulls off her gloves and holds them in her hands, gently twisting them as she talks about her home, her escape, life in a refugee camp, and the challenges she has had to overcome to start over. This is Semira’s first winter in the U.S. and she must not be used to Illinois weather quite yet, because she doesn’t take off her pale pink coat. The hood, edged with faux fur, rustles as she talks. It’s January and there’s snow weighing down the bushes outside the window.
In 2013, Semira left her home in Eritrea with her mother and older sister. She was 14 years old. Her sister had just completed high school and was facing forced military conscription. While country officials claim that conscription only lasts for 18 months, reports from organizations like Amnesty International report that in practice conscription in Eritrea is indefinite, often lasting for decades and amounting to forced labor.
“There’s no freedom to work or go higher in school, so we had to leave,” Semira says. So, with the help of others who knew the way, an Eritrean Underground Railroad of sorts, she set out with her sister and mother to escape. For two nights they walked through the forest from seven o’clock until three or four in the morning. During the day they slept, so that they wouldn’t be caught by border guards.
Finally, they arrived in Ethiopia and registered as refugees at a camp run by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Though relieved to be safe, there was little to do in the refugee camp. School was only available for the young children, so Semira, a 10th grader, didn’t have the chance to finish high school. “There was a bus that would take us to the closest town so that we could visit the library,” she remembers. “It was an hour and a half each way.” The edges of her mouth turn upward, revealing her optimism, even as she talks about hardships.
Every two weeks, for nearly four years Semira took the long, bumpy bus ride to the closest library. She checked out books on biology and anatomy. She wanted to become a nurse. There was no way to know how much longer she would be stuck in one place, but Semira didn’t let that stop her from moving her life forward. Now that she has arrived in the U.S., her hard work and determination are boundless.
Semira arrived in the Chicago suburbs in June. Because she had learned some English in school, she was able to immediately pursue her first job with the help of World Relief’s employment team. After only six weeks, both she and her sister were offered jobs with a local food manufacturer. World Relief connected them with another refugee employee who could drive them to work, but grocery shopping and other errands were difficult to do without a car or driver’s license in the suburbs. So Semira enrolled in World Relief’s driving permit class as well. She quickly passed her permit exam, and after practicing for several months also passed her driving test.
Shortly after earning her driver’s license, Semira and her family received a car that was donated to World Relief. In fact, the car was donated by a former refugee! Now Semira is able to pass on the opportunities she was given by driving her sister and another refugee to work. She has achieved so much in her short six months in the U.S., and she’s not done yet. She’s taking advanced English classes at a local community college and is working toward her GED – the next step in realizing her dream to become a nurse.
As she finishes telling her story and puts her gloves back on to guard against the cold, she smiles with excitement for what her future holds. She’s been through so much, and she’s confident she can overcome any obstacle. At World Relief, we are proud to add the resources we have – community connections, volunteer support, and the generosity of the local church – to the hard work and resilience of young refugees like Semira. Together, we will see transformation in our communities.
*Semira's name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Would you like to make a difference for newcomers in DuPage and Kane Counties?
By Susan Sperry, Executive Director
What a difference a year makes. A year ago World Relief DuPage/Aurora, our church partners and our communities were celebrating 687 refugees who had been welcomed in 2016 to restart their lives in DuPage and Kane Counties. These new neighbors had fled the unspeakable horrors of war and persecution and arrived to a place of safety. We were celebrating their strength as they, like many before them, were rebuilding their lives and livelihoods through English classes, jobs to support their families and education for their children in local schools.
But a year ago, things began to change. On January 27, an Executive Order brought the hope of safety and freedom to a sudden standstill for thousands of refugees. Since then, only 29,725 refugees have been welcomed nationwide, down from 99,183 during the previous year. For World Relief DuPage/Aurora, this has meant safety and a new start for only 246 people, less than half the number from the previous year. Given the many starts and stops of both executive and judicial action over the last year, this reduction in the number of refugees being resettled may not be surprising. But it should be deeply unsettling.
It should unsettle us to hear about a mother who weeps over the safety of her adult son, whose resettlement application has been suddenly halted by delays and whose life is in constant threat.
It should unsettle us to hear about families crying out to be reunited, but who now live indefinitely separated between lllinois and a refugee camp, an ocean between them.
It should unsettle us that welcoming refugees, as part of our nation’s response to the global refugee crisis, is often described by national leaders as being at odds with also caring for the poor, veterans, and homeless in our country… as if a compassionate response to suffering and the most vulnerable in our world is a limited, finite resource that we need to ration carefully.
It should unsettle us that, in our country and around the world, the identity of each refugee as someone made in the image of God and unconditionally loved by him has been attacked by dehumanizing language and unforgiving generalizations.
And it should unsettle us to know that, during the time of the largest refugee crisis our world has known since World War II, our nation of immigrants is poised to accept the lowest annual number of refugees since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.
This is not who we are.
A year ago many of us felt unsettled, shocked, confused, and filled with lament. Thousands rallied at airports across the nation. Locally over 1000 people came together at two WRDA-sponsored events to learn and take action to stand with refugees. What is happening today, the slow bureaucratic death of our nation’s commitment to refugee resettlement, is no less alarming than the sudden shock of the temporary halt a year ago.
When I feel unsettled, my gut response is to make the feeling go away. Sometimes I actively address what has unsettled me, but other times I pursue distraction, adopt simple explanations, or avoid the root cause completely. What could it look like if we, as a community and as a nation, don’t turn our backs from the situations and stories and human pain that unsettle us? What if we see these feelings as an invitation to help right wrongs, through our voice, our actions, and our prayers? What if we respond to these feelings with prayer, advocacy, and action to welcome the refugees who are most vulnerable?
As we look forward to the year ahead, my hope is that our faith in God, the relationships we have with refugees, and the strength of who we are as a country and a community, would be the fuel to move us to welcome those fleeing war and persecution. May every moment of being unsettled result in prayer, advocacy, and friendship on behalf of those who need us to use our freedoms for their good.
To learn about ways you can help, or to read the inspiring stories of families reunited and the ways refugee contribute to their communities, visit the following links:
Michel was in a college class studying medicine when a neighbor came in with news that turned his world upside down: Both of his parents had been brutally murdered. On top of that, the man who had killed them was headed to the university, looking for him next.
In that instant, Michel made an excruciating decision. He fled his country with only the possessions he was carrying and without a single goodbye.
It was 1999, and Michel’s home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (or DRC), was in chaos. Violence escalated between the Congolese government and rebel militias. Millions were killed or simply “disappeared.” It was one of the deadliest wars since World War II, but many don’t know about it—or that the conflict continues in the DRC to this day.
Michel ended up in a refugee camp outside the city of Ibadan in Nigeria. He grappled with the tragedy that had upended his life, but he was anchored by his faith and determination.
A United Nations officer discovered that Michel had been studying medicine, and the UN offered him a scholarship to complete his degree. Seven years later, he was hired as a surgeon in Ibadan. He often had to operate without light or electricity. He also traveled to other refugee camps for the UN, diagnosing other Congolese refugees, grateful to be helping others who had fled just as he had.
He met and fell in love with a woman from the DRC, and they married and had a son. They dreamed of resettling in another country where their baby boy could have a bright future.
In 2013, Michel’s wife and son were approved to travel to the United States—but not Michel. Michel’s wife had started the process before their marriage, and because the U.S. prioritizes the cases of women and children, her petition was approved first. When Michel’s wife arrived in the U.S., WRDA helped her find housing and a job so she could support herself and her son. Meanwhile, World Relief’s Immigration Legal Services team (which specializes in representing family reunification cases for refugees and other immigrants) helped her apply for a visa for Michel to join her and her son in the U.S.
It took two years, to the day, for Michel’s visa to be approved. Seventeen years after he fled his homeland, he finally found a country that welcomed him to stay. But reuniting with his family came at a cost. The medical credentials he had worked so hard for weren’t valid in the U.S. His first job was packing boxes at a local company. Though he was grateful to be supporting himself and his family, he longed to be back in the operating room.
Michel met two World Relief volunteers who helped him make that dream a reality. One, a retired ophthalmologist, connected Michel with doctors at a local hospital. Another, who had spent time with a missions group in the DRC, coached him through the application process and took him to interviews. Most importantly, these men gave Michel friendship, courage, and confidence to pursue his dream.
After rounds of tests and interviews, and only 10 months after arriving in the U.S., Michel was hired as a surgical assistant. The doctors at the hospital have also welcomed him, given him advice on how to advance his career, and even leant him textbooks so he can continue his studies.
When asked about the volunteers who have become his friends, Michel says, "Without them, I would not have been able to get this job. I am very grateful." Michel's story of hard work and resilience is just one of the thousands of stories of refugees who have found life-changing connections and relationships through World Relief's ministry over the years.
I love the words to “Silent Night”, but I don’t really believe them. The night of Jesus’ birth was probably anything but silent—with a town full of travelers, a barn full of animals, a sky full of angels, and the eruption of shepherds running down the dusty streets.
I imagine that night to be a bit more like the World Relief ESL Christmas party I attended today. Celebratory!
I follow brightly dressed South Asian women bearing plastic bags of food up the old church steps. Inside, I’m greeted warmly and pointed past a room crowded with aromas.
After meeting a table of Congolese, I find an empty seat with smiling Syrians. I ask what food they brought to today’s party, and one uses her phone to show me photo after photo of fabulous Syrian dishes. Chicken, rice, lamb, cucumbers, tomatoes—all wrapped in various shapes—and piled onto platters. I can tell these are gifted cooks, and I picked a good group to eat with!
I gaze around me, absorbing the noise and the warmth. Many of the people are wearing their ethnic dress, covered by coats and winter hats to keep out the December chill. They sit by class but also by country, laughing and talking loudly in a multitude of languages. Two little girls wearing dresses of pink and lace sit on the table across from me, watched over by their mothers.
The room is bright and warm with color, smell, noise, and welcome. This is Christmas, and this is how it should be. Anything but silent.
The short program begins with the pre-literate class presenting a video of their walk to a new park. We chuckle over photos of them on the playground—grown men and women on slides, spinners, and swings—all the while listening to a few narrate their actions. I marvel at the English they have learned already—this brave group of people who arrived here likely without the gift of ever attending school.
Next, my table’s teacher leads a lesson in “Jingle Bells”. We see the words and images for “sleigh”, “horse”, “snow”, and “jingle”. We practice each, combining them into phrases. She shows a video clip of two dappled grays trotting through the snow pulling a sleigh, then we all sing the song together line by line. Finally, we sing it in full, the Syrian women from my table singing the chorus for us.
The time it takes for the song isn’t wasted. It is valuable learning and I love it. I see the giftedness and patience of their teacher and the friendships between her students.
A handful of small children appear on the stage holding jingle bells. They wave their arms and sing to us, one little boy with bells in each fist staring at the floor. Finally he gains confidence and joins in near the end, waving and jingling wildly even after the others are done. I think of how like him the adults must feel in this new culture—initially shy, increasing in confidence. Today I’m seeing them in the bell-ringing mood—one of joy. This is where they are loved and valued.
Hand drums are produced and drummers are welcomed to the front. An Iraqi man and woman volunteer. The man wears a t-shirt plastered with the American flag which reads, “Made in America 2016”, and the woman wears a hand knit scarf and matching hat of yellow. Their drumming is exuberant and life-giving. A third man joins them, this one quieter but no less talented. I wonder where they learned their skill and how often they have time or instruments to use it in America. Everyone is invited to return to the church on Saturdays to use the drums, and I’m thankful for a church that opens its doors and its heart for the use of these gifts.
After the time of music, we shuffle to the other room to fill small paper plates with food. I try some yellow rice, shawarma, and creamy salad made with apples and chicken. A tiny Asian lady scoops a giant portion of noodles onto my already full plate, and I smile at her. I love and share her joy of feeding others.
I return to my table and speak with an older Syrian woman. She tells me of her eight children, now spread between Egypt, Holland, Jordan, and America. They have borne her seventeen grandchildren, only two of which live here. She sees the others only on her phone. Her own siblings—two sisters and four brothers—reside in Holland, France, and Germany. I ask if they all once lived together in Syria, and she says yes. I ask how many they all made when together, and she laughs and says, “Many, many!”
I cannot imagine her sadness over the oceans between them now. The daughter in Jordan she hasn’t seen for two years and nine months. That is a long time to be separated from family, especially if you don’t know when you may see them again.
A younger Syrian woman on my other side tells me of her four children and one on the way. I ask if this baby will be the first born to her in America, and she smiles and tells me how here she has to see the doctor all the time but it wasn’t that way in Syria. “Doctor, doctor, doctor,” she says, “Baby good, me good, blood pressure, sugar test…always appointments in America.” I wonder at the other differences between our two countries, and I laugh with her over our fussy healthcare.
I think of these beautiful women—sojourners. I think of the one carrying a child, and how she is so far from family and all that is familiar. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus.
I listen to the melodies of drums, of voices, of laughter, and I imagine that first night of Jesus’ birth, that small stable filled with shepherds and animals, townspeople and smells. What was it like?
It wasn’t silent, and neither was this party. I praise God for sending his Son to dwell among us, a sojourner himself like the friends I made today. I praise him for the noise of love and welcome, the noise of Christmas.
Written by World Relief volunteer, Cheryce Berg
The following story is taken from our 2017 Year in Review. If you're interested in getting a hard copy of the full brochure, you can stop by our Wheaton office to pick one up!
In 2010, Darren and Wendy Miller, members at Glen Ellyn Covenant Church (GECC), were introduced to a Bhutanese refugee family as World Relief Friendship Partners. Over time their deepening relationships in the immigrant community opened the door for both a Bhutanese and Burmese congregation to share GECC's building space. But they didn't just want to be three congregations sharing a building. "We wanted to build community between our congregations and do ministry together," Darren and Wendy explain. They realized that inviting all three congregations to participate in their youth program was a perfect way to do this.
Pastor Saa, who leads the Burmese congregation, expresses gratitude for the opportunity the youth have to share in the program. "We can do nothing for GECC in return, but they love us so much and they support us in everything," he says. This gratitude is also shared by the leaders of GECC, who tell stories of how their youth have been transformed because of the involvement of all three congregations. "Now, our youth group is much more about relationship than entertainment. Our students come to be with each other and grow together, not to experience the hippest program," says Jeff Root, the youth pastor. Darren and Wendy add, "Sharing our facility and programs has caused us to think beyond ourselves - our church community has expanded, and our hearts with it."
The leaders of the three congregations have found it difficult to know how much to engage the refugee students in ministry without pulling them out of their own church and community. "We want them to stay engaged in their own congregations, but also want to be there for them as they transition more and more into American culture," Jeff explains. "It is very difficult to walk that line." Despite these challenges, the beauty of this partnership is that these three churches are finding a way to navigate them together.
As we facilitate connections between local churches, we have seen God at work, growing those relationships into beautiful friendships and rich opportunities for ministry. We have found that when follows of Jesus from all backgrounds come together to worship and serve, communities are always transformed.
While this year has been filled with many challenges, it has also been a year when hundreds of people chose to put their love in action to help refugees and immigrants feel welcome in their new communities. Here are some of the responses we received when we asked people how being in relationship with refugees and immigrants changed them.
“Volunteering with World Relief has helped me put my love in action by opening my eyes to the world now in my neighborhood. I now have a greater respect for the skills of those displaced in our world, and [...] I have learned to live out the cause of justice with a bit more balance and fewer assumptions, and I hope with more grace.” - Cheryl P.
“As a refugee, volunteering with World Relief helps me put my love in action by giving me the chance to give back to the community that I live in and help other refugees like myself.” - Alhussein A.
“Volunteering with World Relief continues to expand my view of the world and our interconnectedness with one another. I see a clearer, fuller picture of the kingdom of God from my friends who have been on the refugee and immigrant journey. I am always reminded of the rich welcome I receive from Jesus as I offer a small glimpse of that welcome to others.” - Roxanne E.
“My time volunteering with World Relief equipped me to put my love in action in the community I am now serving in the Philippines. I really think the special friendships I formed through teaching English prepared me to learn a new language myself. Even more importantly, those friendships challenged me to live out Scripture concretely.” - Abigail B.
“Being with refugee children ages 3 to 5 has been healing for me day-to-day and reopened my heart to the joy of unconditional, mutual love. It has led me to prayerfully contemplate if God's plan for me is to be more involved locally or as a missionary.” - Wade J.
“Words are easy, but week in and week out volunteering with World Relief has allowed me to put my love in action by giving meaning to the words that bubbled to the surface of my heart and mind over the past few years, as I watched the immigrant community become the receiving end of misguided concern and even harsh negativity. As a second generation American on one side, it has been an honor, a privilege, and a true ministry to welcome my refugee and immigrant neighbors in tangible ways to the country that afforded my family, and now theirs, the chance to live in safety and peace.” - Amy H.
"Serving a refugee family with a team from my church has given us all the opportunity to get out of our comfort zones, put our love in action in new ways, and think creatively when we could be tempted to be discouraged." - Clair
If you would like to put your love in action by volunteering with us, visit our volunteer opportunities page to learn more.
Shayne Moore, one of our volunteers, shares her journey to understanding that "ordinary" men and women can make a difference, because God has chosen people to be changemakers in the world.
I am an ordinary full-time mother of three. I’m a housewife, mother, daughter, and friend. I start most days by throwing on my go-to pair of jeans and pulling my hair into a ponytail. My calendar is full of school events, sports practices, and instrument lessons. I holler at my kids to pile into the car as I rush to cram in one more load of laundry. It is my job to make sure everyone has clean clothes, good food, and homework papers and projects turned in on time.
Yet there is more to me and I suspect more to you as well – we are “ordinary” people who want to make the world a better place and not only in the bustling world of our immediate family and lives.
There is much division in the world today, both in the political arena and in the church. Many sides disagree on many, many things. It can be confusing and use up a lot of our time and energy as we debate it all. I have accepted that I may never have all the answers when it comes to what divides the church and our nation; however, if I am sure of one thing it is this: I am not wrong if I am spending myself on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.
In my church we pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday and we say, “They kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:9 -10 KJV). I am confident that loving my neighbor, fighting extreme poverty, and leaning into the “ministry of welcome” to refugees and immigrants in my community help bring the kingdom of heaven close. I can act in this world, in my community, knowing I am in the will of God.
I am a full-time mother with a busy life, and that is not going to change anytime soon. Even if I never move to Syria or East Asia, become a missionary, or march on Washington, can my heart still break for what breaks the heart of God? Do the boundaries of my life keep me from making a difference?
Do the boundaries of yours?
I used to believe that my life and my family’s lifestyle stood in opposition to working on behalf of social justice ideas and advocacy. I felt I was a sellout because my family and I live in a comfortable suburb and we attend a church with very little diversity. I wondered if I had become a part of the problem. This was a thought that nagged at me, and I stuffed it down deep for years.
Our world is changing and we cannot ignore that. Yet, not all of us are called to huge activities outside our house, our town, our church – but all of us are called to do something. We have unprecedented access to each other, to ideas, and to resources. Even as parents, we can come to the global table and join the conversation; even our “ordinary” lives can make a difference right where we are.
Where are you? How can you make a difference right where God has placed you? I live in the Western Suburbs of Chicago and have found an organization in my own backyard that has been committed to standing with the vulnerable for over 40 years.
World Relief DuPage/Aurora works tirelessly to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable, and to see refugees, immigrants and members of our communities become fully-functioning and integrated participants in society.
Despite sometimes feeling alone and isolated as a full-time mother, I have found an organization and a community of like-minded people – people who, like me, believe the church is the best way to bring peace, justice and love to a broken world. A community that provides ways that I can get involved in real and meaningful ways.
So where are we? Are we in the PTA meetings, the MOPS groups, and the carpool lane? Are we making coffee for Wednesday morning Bible study? Are we at Bible Study Fellowship and Sunday night service? Are we stuck at home with three little kids and barely make it to church at all? Are we busy professionals or full-time parents who feel we have no extra time for anything?
Wherever we find ourselves by God’s creative grace – at whatever stage of life -- I believe we are all called to the same goal of making a difference and to the ministry of welcome beyond our own front door.
To learn more how you can get involved with refugees and immigrants in our communities visit our volunteer opportunities page.
It is a late summer afternoon in the Western Suburbs of Chicago and the World Relief Africa Senior Group is meeting for community support. This group is comprised of women and men who have come from areas of violence and instability. Although resettled, the need consistently arises for better food security and access. When handed a basket full of local fresh vegetables, a woman enthusiastically declares “Karibu, karibu, karibu!” -- Swahili for “Welcome, welcome, welcome!”
Many refugees who are resettled to the Chicagoland area come from agricultural backgrounds. The initial resettlement process can be jarring and disorienting for individuals and families. In DuPage and Kane Counties, World Relief helps refugees move from dependence to independence and dignity.
Recently, World Relief has partnered with Renewed Roots Initiative, a volunteer-based nonprofit micro farm dedicated to increasing access to heirloom-quality, locally-sourced, and sustainably grown foods for those who need it most. Located in Aurora, this partnership provides food security and supplementation for local refugees who find accessing food, specifically fresh produce, difficult.
Through Renewed Roots’ Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Family Sponsorship program, several World Relief families now have access to fresh-grown produce. CSA is a locally based food distribution system that creates a direct link between farmers and consumers. There are currently four families that pick up their produce each week at the Renewed Roots farmers market. Renewed Roots also brings produce baskets to the World Relief office to make it easier for elderly clients to obtain fresh food.
A second element to the partnership is access to a community garden. Renewed Roots offers free access to land for families and individuals resettled by World Relief. So far, three plots have been provided to Burmese refugees. Many newly resettled refugees live in crowded apartment complexes without access to land for growing food. Having been relocated from their agricultural lives in Burma, this land provides an opportunity to do something that reminds them of home. They now have the ability to grow their own food, including fruits and vegetables that may not be available in a local American grocery store. Next year, members of the Africa Senior Group can look forward to plots with raised beds so they can stand while working and reap a harvest of their own.
Looking to the future, World Relief and Renewed Roots plan to expand their partnership to serve more families, like Asili and Abdiqafar, a couple from Somalia who have four children under the age of four. Asili and Abdiqafar met in a refugee camp in Kenya where they waited through seven years of interviews and paperwork before being approved for resettlement in the U.S. During that time they had almost no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The food provided for them in the camp consisted of rice, flour, oil, and sometimes beans or lentils. They finally arrived in Aurora last December, and already both parents work while a relative looks after their children.
When asked what their favorite foods were, now that they have access to everything they lacked in the refugee camp, Asili and Abdiqafar spoke passionately back and forth in their Somali dialect. But they were not debating their favorite food. “My whole life is now in this room,” Abdiqafar finally said in English, looking lovingly at his wife and children. “My dream is for my children. I hope they will be doctors or teachers, or work for the government. My life was wasted in the refugee camp, but not theirs. Food does not matter compared to that.”
As the realities of the worldwide refugee crisis have been on the hearts and minds of many, Hinsdale Covenant Church felt compelled to ask what we, as a church, could do to help. For answers, we turned to World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA). With invaluable guidance and support from WRDA, Hinsdale Covenant recently devoted three weeks to a R.I.S.E. (Refugee and Immigrant Sunday Emphasis) initiative at our church. For our R.I.S.E. initiative, WRDA provided everything from videos to speakers and display materials, to help us welcome and empower refugees as they seek hope in our community. The response from our church members has been heartwarming.
During our R.I.S.E. initiative we welcomed Keith Draper, WRDA’s Church Mobilizer, and Susan Sperry, Executive Director, as guest speakers. We also heard from two refugees who were resettled by WRDA during a panel discussion. They graciously and eloquently shared their personal experiences in a way that truly touched (even changed) hearts and minds. As one church member observed later, “This is about people, not politics. When you actually meet refugees and come to understand what they have endured, the politics become meaningless."
WRDA staff also built a refugee tent facsimile in our Garden Court, a main area of our church where church members and visitors gather for fellowship on Sundays. The tent was a big hit! Our young families were particularly impacted by seeing what a family living in a refugee camp calls “home.” On the final Sunday of our R.I.S.E. initiative, every church member in attendance received a response card that listed a variety of ways to support our church’s refugee resettlement ministry and partnership with WRDA. More than 40 people responded by committing to support WRDA in some meaningful and ongoing way.
As our next step, we have scheduled a WRDA volunteer orientation to take place in mid-October at our church. We are also planning additional events, such as a movie night at our church (showing video clips or films that focus on the plight of refugees). We are incredibly grateful to be working with WRDA and look forward to welcoming and empowering refugee families who live in our community.
Director of Refugee Resettlement
Hinsdale Covenant Church