If you have ever moved to a new city or country, you probably know how important it is to feel welcome in your new community. For refugees and immigrants, welcome can be the difference between flourishing in our community or struggling in isolation. World Relief DuPage/Aurora recently joined with many communities around the country to celebrate “Welcoming Week”. Take a moment to consider some of the ways that you can commit to welcome refugees and immigrants in our communities.
Make a New Friend
While refugees do have significant physical needs when they first arrive in the U.S., their greatest need is for friendship. You can volunteer to walk alongside a refugee family during their first months of life in the U.S. by helping them navigate school enrollment, search for a job, or practice English. Befriending a new neighbor can also be a great opportunity to learn more about another country and culture. As your friendship grows, you will likely find that you learn as much from your new friend as they learn from you!
Provide Transportation for Refugees
When refugees arrive in the U.S., finding reliable transportation can be a big challenge. Suburban areas usually don’t have dependable public transportation options, and it takes time to study for a drivers permit and license. Welcoming refugees by providing transportation allows them to get to work, ESL classes, or other appointments. Transportation volunteers may also have the opportunity to pick refugees up at the airport when they first arrive, and take them to their new homes.
Become an ESL Tutor
Learning English is crucial to the successful integration of refugees and immigrants in the U.S. As a refugee or immigrant’s English improves, they gain access to higher paying jobs and education opportunities. Becoming an ESL tutor, either in a classroom setting or one-on-one in someone’s home, is one of the most practical ways you can welcome others.
Volunteer In World Relief’s Early Childhood Program
Refugee children usually learn English very quickly, especially if they are in a school setting where they hear English spoken on a daily basis. However, toddlers and preschoolers don’t have as many opportunities to hear English spoken, which can make the transition to kindergarten difficult. Volunteers in our Early Childhood Program organize educational activities for refugee children while their parents attend ESL classes. This prepares children for their eventual entry into a public school setting.
Pray for Refugees and Immigrants
Prayer may not be the first thing we think of when we hear the word ‘welcome,’ but it might be one of the most important ways that we can be welcomers. Pray for the challenges that newly arrived refugees face as they adjust to life in an unfamiliar place. Pray for environments that are welcoming and that encourage immigrants (including refugees) from all backgrounds to thrive. Pray for an end to the conflicts that displace people around the world. And pray that even more churches and individuals will get involved in the ministry of welcome.
Advocate for DACA Recipients
On September 5th, the Attorney General announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Since it began in 2012, DACA has allowed approximately 800,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. as children, also known as Dreamers, to obtain work authorization and a reprieve from the threat of deportation. Now, Congress has six months to pass a legislative solution for Dreamers or they will once again be at risk for deportation. You can stand with Dreamers by urging Congress to pass a bill like the Dream Act, which would allow them to continue living and working in the U.S. To learn more, visit our advocacy page.
If you are interested in welcoming refugees and immigrants in any of these ways, please check out our volunteer opportunities. And to all who have already committed to welcoming refugees and immigrants through your actions – thank you! You are making a difference.
Peter arrived in the U.S. from Burma in 2007. Now, only ten years later, he owns a profitable real estate firm, has published a book for first-time home owners, and has founded a non-profit organization that supports the work of Burmese evangelists. Peter’s story is not unique among refugees and immigrants. Approximately 115,000 immigrants in Illinois are self-employed, and their businesses accounted for $2.6B in Illinois business income in 2014.* Refugee and immigrant entrepreneurs like Peter contribute to the local economy in measurable ways, but their impact on their communities extends far beyond the financial benefits. Peter’s story demonstrates how refugees and immigrants enrich their communities through their hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and generosity.
Hard Work Pays Off
Before fleeing Burma, Peter was a student leader at his university and wrote for the school newsletter. He was targeted by the government because his writing was critical of government policies. He secured a tourist visa for the U.S. and when he arrived in 2007 he successfully applied for political asylum. Though he was relieved and thankful to be safe in the U.S., Peter’s first months in the country were difficult. He had arrived just before the 2008 recession and, as a result, was laid off from three jobs in a row. But he refused to be discouraged. Finally, in 2008, he started working at World Relief DuPage/Aurora as a Refugee Services Administrative Assistant. He was a valuable member of the staff for seven years, during which time he studied for his real estate license.
Refugees like Peter begin working at their first job, on average, only 60 days after they arrive in the U.S. Considering the challenges refugees often face, including learning English and accessing reliable transportation, this displays incredible resilience!
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
In 2013, while still working at World Relief, Peter started his own real estate firm, Build Pro Group. He works as a realtor, but also invests in property, buying homes, hiring contractors to renovate them, and then reselling them. Many of Peter’s real estate clients originally arrived in the U.S. as refugees, and he is passionate about helping them through the process of purchasing their first home. In 2016 he published a book in Burmese titled 145 Nuts and Bolts You Need to Know About Buying Your First Home to help Burmese refugees across the country make wise purchasing decisions.
Peter is one of many refugees and immigrants who have worked hard to overcome obstacles and start a business in Illinois. 56% of Fortune 500 companies that are based in Illinois were started by immigrants or their children, and it is estimated that nearly 300,000 Illinois residents are employed by immigrant-owned businesses. Peter’s business is also making a difference in the housing market as he helps other refugees and immigrants become homeowners. In Illinois one in six new homeowners are immigrants, which may help to mitigate the effects of baby boomers retiring and selling their homes. Owning a home is a sign of successful integration among refugees. In fact, 73% of Burmese refugees and immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for 10 years or longer own their home, compared to 68% of U.S.-born individuals.
The Power of Generosity
Peter’s story would be remarkable and inspiring if it stopped here, but the contributions that he has made through his business extend far beyond the economic benefits. Peter has leveraged the success of his real estate firm to start a non-profit organization, the Myanmar Center for World Mission. Through this ministry he uses a portion of his business profits to support the work of his brother who is an evangelist in Burma. His brother travels from village to village sharing the Gospel, and because of Peter’s generosity, each new believer is given a Bible. While the financial success of Peter’s business is impressive, that success has an immeasurable impact on lives around the world because of his desire to generously give back to the country he fled from.
Peter will be one of more than 20 businesses highlighted at our event on September 7th at 7pm, Spotlight on Refugee and Immigrant Entrepreneurs. Come join us at Highpoint Church in Naperville to hear many more stories of entrepreneurial spirit and community impact. Register here.
*Statistics taken from reports by the New American Economy, "From Struggle to Resilience"(2017) and Center for American Progress, “Refugee Integration in the United States” (2016).
Children across the U.S. are returning to school. Recently resettled refugees will be among those children. Tabitha McDuffee, Communications Coordinator for World Relief Dupage/Aurora (WRDA) sat down with both Malita Gardner, Children & Youth Program Manager at WRDA, and Deborah, a former refugee from Southeast Asia and staff member at WRDA, to discuss what the back-to-school season means for refugees.
Their conversation addresses the challenges refugee children face in their education and the ways World Relief and our partners come alongside them, working to ensure a bright educational future for each child.
Tabitha: What happens to a child’s education when his or her family is forced to flee their home and country?
Deborah: When a family is forced to flee their home and country, a child’s education is interrupted. In some cases families may have to flee on such short notice that they do not have time to gather school documents or transcripts before leaving their home. This can make it difficult for children to enroll in school in the country they flee to.
What are some of the challenges refugee children face when they arrive in their temporary host country before they are permanently resettled? Do they even have the option of going to school in these other countries?
Deborah: Oftentimes, the classes are very large, and the teachers are not well trained. The quality of education is very poor. Parents often do not encourage their children to attend school in the host country or refugee camp because they view their situation as temporary. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR 2016 Global Trends Report], refugees remain in a host country for an average of 17 years before returning home or being resettled. This means that refugee children may miss out on large portions of their education while in a refugee camp. If a child escapes their home when they are 12, and then they spends ten years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S., when they get here they are too old to attend school.
When a refugee child’s family is resettled in the U.S., is public education immediately available to them?
Malita: Yes. U.S. resettlement agencies like World Relief assist refugee families to enroll their children in school, usually within 30 days of arrival.
And what are the greatest challenges refugee children face as they restart their education in the U.S.?
Malita: Refugee children’s biggest hurdle is learning English. They must progress in their language ability in order to thrive and succeed in school. However, children tend to learn a new language very quickly, so they may become fluent in as little as 18-24 months after arriving in the U.S.
Deborah explains that schools are operated very differently in different parts of the world, so refugee children must adjust to this as well. Co-ed schools may be a new experience for some children. For her own children, the differences in grading systems were confusing.
Deborah: “I wish that teachers were more direct when telling me about my children’s progress. One of my kids was struggling in a class, but his teacher did not sound very serious or urgent when she told me, so I didn’t realize how important it was.”
Refugee children can become isolated when they begin school in the U.S.
Malita: Refugee children are enrolled in an ESL (English as a Second Language) track so that they can improve their English while they attend school. While they benefit from spending much of the day with their assigned ESL teacher and other refugee children, it may isolate them from the rest of their classmates.
How does WRDA help refugee children arriving to the U.S.? What ongoing help and support do WRDA and its partner churches provide as children continue their education?
Malita: World Relief assists refugee children by enrolling them in school. Some local offices and partner churches organize after-school clubs or one-on-one tutoring for students. In some cases, ongoing help and support may include regular follow-up visits during the first year of resettlement to make sure that refugee children are adjusting well. Refugee families may also be connected with an individual or group of volunteers from the local community who visit them weekly to help the kids with homework, practice conversational English with the parents and answer questions they might have about American culture and practices.
What is the outcome when a refugee child begins to thrive educationally here in the U.S.?
Malita: Refugee children have a lot of potentials. For instance, I think of a high school girl who was nominated as the school district’s “Student of the Month,” just four years after arriving in the U.S. She gave a speech to the school board and did an amazing job. It was so encouraging to see her success. When refugee children learn English, become involved in extracurricular activities and have access to academic support and resources, they begin to thrive. Through our youth programs, World Relief is privileged to play an important role in many success stories like this one.
World Relief DuPage/Aurora’s work with children and youth plays a vital role in their adjustment to new schools and their success in their new communities. If you would like to donate to WRDA’s children and youth programs, click here.
Ancila and Kathy
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we want to thank God for women like Ancila and her friend Kathy.
At 16 years old, Ancila lost her father when a civil war broke out between the Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi in 1972. Fleeing to the Congo with her mother, this is when Ancila first became a refugee, a title she would carry for 43 years. Ancila lived in the Congo with her husband and children for 24 years, always hoping they would return to Burundi. But when war broke out in 1996, Ancila and her family were forced to flee again, this time to Tanzania.
Walking much of the way, Ancila would tell her children, “Even if you’re tired, you have to keep walking. The enemy is right behind us. We must keep going”. The family would spend the next 19 years living in three separate refugee camps there. They farmed within the confines of the camp and Ancila began sewing clothing to make money on the side. Ancila reflects back on that time, saying, “Life in the camps was very bad. You are not allowed to go out. We were behind a fence the whole time. And you always have to depend on someone else for everything, even for food.”
When it became clear the situation in Burundi was not improving, the Tanzanian Government began working with the UNHCR to begin the process of third country resettlement. Over the course of four years and countless interviews, Ancila and her family were approved to come to the United States.
The idea of coming to the US made Ancila very nervous. She had been a refugee for 43 years, treated like an outsider and persecuted for her ethnicity in three separate countries. How would she be received in the United States?
Meanwhile, Kathy was living in the suburbs of Chicago. A member of a Catholic church in Geneva, Kathy was moved when she heard Pope Francis speak of the refugee crisis and the need for the church to help refugees. With no idea where to begin, Kathy emailed the White House to ask what she could do. She received a reply with the contact information of World Relief DuPage/Aurora, so she called and came in for a volunteer orientation. Kathy said she would like to be paired with a refugee who might need friendship and help navigating life here in the US. That is how Kathy met Ancila, both of whom are great friends to this day. While they don’t share a language, they manage to communicate. Ancila has made some beautiful shirts for Kathy. She speaks of her highly, saying, “When I met Kathy, it was the best time. It made me feel very good. Kathy helped me to go shopping. She helped me to buy the medicine I needed…This is the one person in the United States I will never forget. She is like my new mom”.
After a little experience communicating with Kathy despite not sharing the same language, Ancila felt equipped to begin pursing a job. She enrolled in WRDA’s ESL classes, learned a little English, and gained the confidence needed to take the next step. She was recommended for hire to AJR Filtration, a local company offering a sewing school that has hired 300 refugees in the past 5 years. After passing the sewing school in just one month, Ancila accepted a job as an industrial seamstress, making a higher wage than her husband and any of her sons. She is providing for her family and contributing to her broader community. She is confident and self-sufficient, saying, “Working in the United States is better, and I feel better and better everyday. Because the time I was home alone, I was feeling isolated. Every day I was frustrated. Sometimes I needed to buy something, and I didn’t have money. So I was depending on someone every day. Now I feel very sufficient, and it’s much better.” And the best thing about being here in America? “The security. This is a safe place. We feel comfortable. We are not discriminated against here. There is freedom and liberty here.”
So today we thank God for women. We thank God for the survivors, the entrepreneurs, the nurturers and the peacemakers like Ancila and Kathy. And we thank God for our opportunity to live alongside them. Where would we be without women like these?
A Fresh Start for a Refugee Family...
...And the Long Road Ahead
Ammar, his wife Fatma, and their five children lived peaceful lives in Aleppo, Syria, until the civil war reached their city in 2012. One morning, Ammar’s youngest daughter Lela showed up to school and found a pile of rubble there instead. The school had been hit by a bomb the previous afternoon when classes were still in session. That day, Ammar and Fatma decided they had to leave the city in order to save their children’s lives.
The family packed up everything they could fit in their car and made their way to Turkey, where they lived for almost four years. Life there was expensive, however, so Ammar and his two oldest sons worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, as tailors in a textile factory that made jeans. None of the children could go to school in Turkey, least of all one of their sons who is confined to a wheelchair and has significant special needs. So as things worsened back home in Syria, Ammar and Fatma realized they would not be able to wait out the war in Turkey.
After over a year of interviews and background checks, the refugee family was approved to resettle in the U.S. through WRDA. World Relief caseworkers found a small house that was big enough for the family, and volunteers from a local church in Naperville furnished it with basic goods. When the family arrived last December, they were overjoyed to have a safe, stable, and secure place to live. Ammar was brought to tears when the volunteer team showed up to welcome them on their second day in the U.S. And Ammar and Fatma could not believe it when WRDA’s school services coordinator told them their son could go to a local school for children with special needs!
“Being here in the U.S. is everything for my family,” said Ammar. “It is school for my children, health care for my son, and a peaceful life for my family."
Two months later, the family is finding that they will continue to face significant difficulties as they adjust to life in the U.S. Their older son enrolled in high school, but he will not be able to finish, because of his age. Ammar has secured a job at a local company, but he speaks very little English. Fatma has spent the past 16 years caring for her children with special needs, so now that they are at school, she will have to find ways to connect with the local community and learn English. And the family’s oldest son is still stuck in Turkey, so they will need legal assistance to reunite with him.
For all these reasons and more, this family – and many other families in our communities – will continue to need the help of WRDA, volunteers, and the local church as they rebuild their lives over the months and years that come. Will you stand with them?
The Executive Order on Refugees
A Brief Overview for Refugees, Volunteers, and Partners
The Executive Order signed by the administration on January 27 will impact refugees entering the United States now and in the future. The order prohibits new refugees from travel to the United States for 120 days while the government reviews the overseas vetting process, and it stops the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. indefinitely. In addition, all individuals from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen are prevented from entering the country for the next 90 days.
In addition to these measures, the total number of refugees to be resettled in the United States this year has been reduced to 50,000 from the planned 110,000. The administration will announce a list of additional countries that it will no longer receive refugees from at some point during the 120-day evaluation period.
Refugees currently in the United States are safe and protected by American law. While refugee status does not expire, we encourage all refugees to apply for their green cards (after 1 year) and citizenship (after 5 years) as soon as they are eligible.
All people from the seven countries listed above should not travel abroad at this time if they do not have U.S. citizenship. This applies to green card holders who are Legal Permanent Residents. Anyone expecting refugee family or friends to come to the United States should not give up hope but should prepare for difficult news and a significant delay. If you have questions related to immigration, please contact the WRDA Immigrant Legal Services department at 630-462-7566.
For more information, please see World Relief’s statement on refugee resettlement here.
The Impact on WRDA's Refugee Ministry
As one of the nine organizations that partners with the U.S. government to help refugees become stable, self-sufficient, and well-integrated members of our society, a significant portion of WRDA’s public funding is connected to the arrival of new refugee families. Because of the moratorium on new arrivals, WRDA will be losing approximately 20% of its budget for serving refugees for the remainder of this fiscal year. In order to maintain our capacity to continue serving those families who are already here and our ability to begin welcoming refugees again once the moratorium ends, WRDA plans to raise about 50% of that lost funding from private sources. We will also be implementing staff reductions and adjusting our services to reflect the lower number of refugee arrivals in the future.
What You Can Do
Pray - Pray without ceasing for the refugees and immigrants impacted by these policy changes, as well as for wisdom for our leaders and our communities, that we will remain a welcoming place for the persecuted, vulnerable people of the world.
Advocate - Contact the White House or call your U.S. Senators and Representative to voice your support for policies that respect, honor, and welcome immigrants and refugees, while also ensuring the security of our country.
Connect - Engage with your friends and family members on these issues or connect your church or community service organization to World Relief DuPage/Aurora to learn more.
Give - As we reduce our staff and services to adjust to the new reality, help us continue to serve those who are already here and maintain the core of our ministry so we can continue to welcome new refugees when the moratorium ends.
Resources For Learning More
Global Refugee Crisis: Develop a deeper understanding of the global refugee crisis through the lens of a Christian perspective in “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis”, co-authored by Stephan Bauman, and World Relief staff Matthew Soerens and Issam Smeir. Available here.
Executive Order: Read the entire text of the executive order on refugee resettlement here.
Additional information on the executive order, including translations in 17 languages, can be found here.
Refugee Screening Process: Through the example of Reema, Former Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson explains the process of screening Syrian refugees in this short, compelling video.
Making Peace with the Past: A conversation with Issam Smeir
Dr. Smeir, can you start by telling us a little bit about your work in trauma therapy with refugees at the World Relief DuPage/Aurora Counseling Center?
I joined the World Relief DuPage office in September 2001, so I’m a veteran of 15 years here. That whole time I’ve been working with refugees in the Counseling Center. I’ve worked with a lot of different groups for the last 15 years…with the Somali Bantu, Burmese, Bhutanese, Rwandans, Burundians. Lately I’ve been working a lot with Iraqis, Iranians, and Afghanis. And of course over the last few years with the Syrian conflict, I’ve been working with some Syrians, as well.
The WRDA Counseling Center is focused specifically on the refugee population. Why do these particular individuals need trauma counseling?
The people we resettle typically have experienced some sort of trauma – either they’ve experienced it personally or they’ve witnessed other family members who have experienced it. And refugees are exposed to lots of different types of trauma, everything from their house being shelled, to seeing snipers shoot people in front of them, to surviving combat while serving alongside U.S. troops, to being separated from family when they flee, to being attacked for their race or language differences while living in a host country. So a lot of those that survive those events come [to the U.S.] with PTSD symptoms, which is what our bodies display after a traumatic event.
For people that have experienced all of this trauma – displacement from their homes, imprisonment, forced exile, rape, torture, etc. – what type of therapy do you use to help them improve?
There are different approaches to how we help them. One of the things I’ve been practicing for the last couple years is called Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET), which is a new modality. Basically, we ask people to tell their stories, and we desensitize them as they experience all kinds of emotions while they’re speaking. The idea is for them to remember what happened without having panic attacks. It requires around 12 sessions, but it is very good in decreasing the intensity of their symptoms. You can read more about the theory in Seeking Refuge, [the book I coauthored with Stephan Bauman and Matthew Soerens].
WRDA’s services are designed to help people achieve self-sufficiency and move toward healthy integration into the community. Where does trauma therapy fit within that context?
Typically, clinical intervention is required when a person is unable to fulfill some of their roles in life. So for an adult, the major role is to be a parent or a provider. For children, it’s to be a student. With the refugees, basically if they lose their ability to fulfill either of these roles, they fail in this country. So that’s when we intervene. We help them to handle these kind of symptoms…which is very important for them personally and for their families to thrive. So the role that we play is actually very essential in terms of self-sufficiency. They might get a job, but they can’t maintain the job if they are dealing with all of the symptoms on a daily or weekly basis.
Is trauma therapy a process that can only be undertaken by trained professionals, or is this something that volunteers, organizations, and community members can be involved in?
For some of this work, you need a trained clinician…especially for people who display intense PTSD symptoms. You need a professional who can do an assessment and process these emotions and feelings in a safe setting. But intervention by itself doesn’t work if there’s no broader therapeutic environment. The work by volunteers and community groups…is very healing. As an example, when an individual has trauma, that doesn’t mean that’s the only person that suffers. It could be the whole family. So that’s something that the volunteer could really help with – supporting the spouse and children.
Beyond your work here in DuPage & Aurora, you’ve also conducted many trainings in the Middle East and North Africa. Tell us a little bit more about that work?
Since the Arab Spring started in 2011, I’ve been traveling a lot to the region. I work in different countries, and my goal is to build a community of Arabic-speaking experts in the field of trauma rehabilitation. However my work has been focused lately on the Syrian church with the tremendous masses of people who have been traumatized there over the last five years – something like 400,000 have died, hundreds of thousands have been tortured and traumatized, and millions have been displaced. The local church is one of the few institutions in the country that still exists and that was actually strengthened [during the war], because people go to the church in a time of uncertainty and suffering. The church has become a place of refuge.
Every three or four months I travel to the region to meet with Christian leaders. We had a meeting a few weeks ago in Lebanon, and we had 30 Christian leaders who made the trip from Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and elsewhere in Syria. I trained them in Narrative Exposure Therapy, and then I’m going to supervise them with this approach so they can actually help people who are suffering within the church. The church has to build capacity in this area. They cannot afford not to be involved in trauma rehabilitation. Prayers and a community of faith are extremely important, but we also know what happens inside the person’s mind, and there are tools that the church can give them to help.
Are there any recent success stories of the refugees you’ve worked with here in the U.S. that stand out to you?
There are a lot of individuals who were debilitated but have done very well. There is a young Iraqi man in his thirties who served in the military who arrived earlier this year. He served along with the U.S. Army there, and he witnessed terrible things of people being killed in front of him. He was depressed when he came here and was struggling severely. He wouldn’t go outside. He couldn’t work. He was crying all the time. For a long time he was debilitated, but after four or five months of trauma therapy, he is a different person. Now he’s working. He’s connected to the community now. He helps out with other refugees. It was a great success story.
The Counseling Center is one of the programs at WRDA that relies heavily on financial support from churches, foundations, and people like you. By giving to WRDA, you can ensure that refugees like this Iraqi man can continue to receive these life-changing services in 2017 and beyond. Visit http://worldreliefdupageaurora.org/donate to find out more about how you can make an impact on these families’ lives.
Remembering Syria this Christmas. You can make a difference!
The Syrian civil war has raged on for over five years, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. As recent news out of the city of Aleppo shows, the violence is far from over, and the numbers of people who have been displaced in the Syria conflict continue to be staggering. As we enter the holiday season, celebrating the birth of Jesus who himself was displaced due to violent persecution, may we be compelled to pray and to act out of the sacrificial love that is at the true heart of Christmas.
This month, WRDA welcomed several more refugee families who fled the war in Syria years ago, and who are embarking on a new life in an unknown land. Pray that they will experience a warm welcome and begin to heal from the trauma they have experienced.
Pray for the people of Aleppo. For safe passage for those fleeing the city. For food, water, and shelter for civilians. For humanitarian organizations to have access to those in need of care. For shelter and resources for all those living in refugee camps and fleeing to neighboring countries.
Pray that the U.S. will continue to be a place of welcome to those who have fled the atrocities in Syria and elsewhere around the world.
Stay informed by following those who are reporting from Syria or working on the ground there. Show your solidarity with refugees and your desire to welcome them by signing the “We Welcome Refugees" statement of solidarity, which will be shared with our elected officials. Give to support trauma therapy at WRDA among Syrian and other refugees here in our community, or to the organizations who are responding on the ground in Syria and neighboring countries, including World Relief. (For a list of such organizations, visit https://wewelcomerefugees.com/).
This holiday season invites us to reflect, pray and wait with hope for that time when all wars will cease and all things will be made new. And while we wait, we are invited to live lives of love and mercy because of God’s great love for us. May we do both as we remember the Syrian people this Christmas.
Have you wondered what it is like to be the first family in an ethnic or language group to arrive in the U.S.? To be the first of your language to navigate schools, jobs, and culture? Many immigrants benefit from the assistance of those who have arrived before them, who can coach them on the culture, finding jobs, and be going to the doctor.
But this was not the case for the first Massalit families from Sudan. When they arrived in August 2015, they didn’t have the benefit of friends, family, or anyone who spoke their dialect to help them on the road to stability and integration. And they didn’t know they would be the first of their group to blaze the trail for others.
The Massalit are an indigenous group from Sudan’s war-torn and impoverished Darfur region. They are subsistence farmers who live in mud huts with thatched roofs. They have no running water, no electricity, no vehicles, and little access to education. Like many people in Darfur, the Massalit are targeted by militias and the Sudanese army simply because they are part of a particular ethnic group. Many Massalit families have been forced to flee for their lives into neighboring countries, especially Chad. There, they live in overcrowded camps, unable to return home.
After 10 years in the brutal environment of refugee camps in Chad, a small group of Massalit families learned that they had finally been approved to resettle to the U.S. in a state called Illinois. They were excited to be leaving their difficult lives in the camps, but also nervous about entering a culture so different from their own. They had heard many rumors about life in the U.S…. even rumors that some Americans were cannibals!
When WRDA staff learned that the Massalit families would be arriving, they began reading about Massalit culture and quickly realized the group would face serious challenges in their adjustment. The Massalit knew no English, and they spoke an Arabic dialect – which is also called Massalit – that was not spoken by anyone in WRDA’s network. They were unfamiliar with many aspects of western culture, and since they were the first families from their ethnic group, WRDA staff knew they would need specialized support to give them the best possible chance for success.
Soon after the families’ arrival, World Relief’s Counseling Center staff met with them to assess their learning needs and then organized biweekly adjustment groups for all of the Massalit refugees at their apartments. During these meetings, counselors and volunteers – with the help of an interpreter – focused on showing rather than telling and created a safe environment for the families to ask questions, shape meeting topics, and practice what they were learning. The Massalit practiced how to use household cleaning products. They learned about western concepts of hygiene, time, and other norms. They learned to understand and organize their paperwork. They practiced the basics of budgeting and opened bank accounts. They began to use everyday items that we take for granted, like scissors, alarm clocks, and phones.
Each time the Massalit families gathered for a group meeting, they were eager to learn. Without a readily shared language and working with people from a standard of living radically different from our own, the World Relief counselors had to repeat lessons several times. But the families faced every challenge with a smile, and their confidence built up steadily over time.
These group sessions with staff and volunteers served as a supportive space for the Massalit families to cement all they were learning through WRDA’s Job Readiness and ESL classes, as well as what they experienced in their regular doctor’s appointments, school visits, and community interactions. They had a place to talk about the stressors and fears they faced in their new community, and learn ways to cope with problems.
The Massalit families’ determination and resilience - combined with all of WRDA’s services and adjustment group sessions - allowed them to realize incredible transformation within their first year.
Today, fifteen months after the first Massalit families arrived, many of them are now speaking conversational English. Several have driver’s licenses and have received donated cars. They have maintained jobs, become independent, and adjusted well to life in America. They constantly express gratitude for the new lives that they have been given and the hope they have found, thousands of miles from home. And they are eagerly living into their role as the pioneer families by helping the Massalit that have come after them to navigate the community and adjust to their new homes.
"I Was A Stranger" Challenge
Understanding God's heart for immigrants
This election season, there were many voices seeking to shape what we think about immigrants and refugees. More than in any other presidential election in recent history, immigrants were a point of contention between the two major party candidates.
As Christians, we look to the Bible to instruct us about how we live our lives. When it comes to refugee and immigration issues, though, LifeWay Research polling finds that only 12% of U.S. evangelicals say their views on this topic are guided primarily by the Scriptures.
This poll should motivate and challenge us to seek out what the Bible says about this important issue in our day. This Christmas season, join World Relief DuPage/Aurora in taking the “I Was a Stranger” challenge. Printed on a downloadable bookmark, the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge is 40 Scripture passages that relate to the theme of immigration. Whether you choose to read one passage a day or one passage a week, this is a great resource to study and learn from what the Bible has to say about immigration.
Join us in taking the challenge! Download a bookmark and other resources here or stop by the World Relief DuPage office to pick up printed bookmarks for you and your friends.
Creative Ways to Give
Give Hope Shop and Challenge Grant
There is so much to love about the Christmas Season - - family traditions, festive lights, music, the joys of gift planning and giving, and a chance to give back. Many families seek out ways to give to each other while also supporting causes they care about.
This is why we love World Relief’s “Give Hope Shop”. This is an opportunity to donate toward a project that is meaningful to a loved one, in their name, while also making a difference around the world. Through the Give Hope Shop, you can purchase a representational gift to support economic development projects or disaster response across the globe, or can give to support immigrant and refugee services right here in the U.S.
Locally, you may also consider a financial donation to programs like the Counseling Center, to provide hope for the refugees and immigrants you have come to call your friends. We have recently received a challenge grant from a generous local foundation that has offered to match donations dollar for dollar if we are able to raise $25,000 by the end of the year! To find out more about this opportunity, contact Tim Kustusch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have many opportunities to celebrate the joy of the Christmas season while sharing that joy to bless others in our community. Consider “Give Hope Shop” or gifts to WRDA as an option, and make a difference here and around the world.
Striving Toward Dreams: Maryam’s Story
At home in Baghdad, Iraq, Maryam’s* parents had always told her that education came first. From a young age she was a straight-A student. But when Maryam was in eighth grade, her life was torn apart and her education interrupted.
After war broke out in 2003, Maryam’s family was targeted because they were members of a minority group. In 2009 a few armed men broke into Maryam’s home and attacked her mother who was pregnant with twins. When the men left, Maryam ran out into the street and began screaming for help. A taxi driver stopped and took them to the hospital but Maryam’s mother lost the babies.
The family fled the country and escaped to Turkey with only the clothes on their back. Maryam’s father found odd jobs. Maryam tried to go to a local school but because she didn’t understand the Turkish language, she failed out. So instead, she began volunteering with a non-profit organization where she taught English and Arabic to refugee and orphan children.
In 2015, almost four years after applying for refugee status in Turkey, the family was approved to live permanently in the United States and was partnered with World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA) who arranged their resettlement. World Relief volunteers helped the family adjust to life in America. They soon met with an employment specialist at WRDA to talk about how the family would support themselves.
“That’s when they told me I would have to go to work to support my family,” says Maryam, who was about to turn 18. Maryam’s parents could not work because of injuries from the attack and temporary health issues. “I was shocked. I never thought I would work at that young age. I had planned to go to medical school and become a doctor.”
But World Relief is equipped to help refugees like Maryam prepare to handle this new responsibility. Maryam immediately enrolled in WRDA’s 6-week Job Readiness ESL Class (“Job Class”) where she learned the job and English skills she would need to join the U.S. workforce.
Maryam was the youngest student in her higher level class…and the only woman! At first she was intimidated to be surrounded by older men from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But they greeted her warmly and made her feel at home while giving her confidence that she, too, could become a provider for her family.
“Job Class helped me to understand what it is like to have a job,” says Maryam. “Everything that I hear at work, I remember it from when I learned these things in Job Class – shift work, pay stubs, how to clock in, how to talk to my manager. All of these things I was prepared to handle.”
Maryam met often with her World Relief employment specialist, who helped her write a resume and apply for jobs. She was thrilled when a local company hired her as a machine operator. The job was hard and Maryam was scared to be away from her parents but she was motivated to care for her family.
“I never felt bad for myself,” says Maryam. “I wanted to help my family, so I had to go to work.”
After a few months, Maryam’s father was cleared by his doctor to begin working and found a job at the same company. Once the family had two wage earners, Maryam started to think about going back to school. She enrolled in classes at the College of DuPage to begin preparing for her GED. She also found a better paying job that offered flexible hours that fit her classes.
Maryam dreams again to become a doctor; to travel to the Middle East and Africa and provide healthcare to refugees and others. Her education was put on hold for over five years but thanks to her own determination and the volunteers, companies, and donors who make services to refugees like Maryam possible, she is back on track.
*”Maryam” is a representative name to protect the identity and family of the woman whose story is told.
Are you looking for a chance to escape the Black Friday door busting and give something back? On Tuesday, November 29, World Relief will once again participate in #GivingTuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving that has been set aside as a time to step back from Black Friday and Cyber Monday Christmas shopping and instead focus on others in need.
On #GivingTuesday, World Relief invites the community to donate the Welcome Kits of household and food items that we give to newly arrived refugees. “The Welcome Kit is our tangible hospitality,” Jamie Daling, WRDA’s volunteer services manager explains. Because of their refugee journey, “a [refugee] family hasn’t had many of these items for a very long time and now that they’re going into permanent housing, these things are greatly appreciated.”
Welcome Kits are a great way for anyone who wants to support refugees to not only provide useful items but to also express their support. “What that says [to refugees] is that the neighbors around them actually care that their child has a blanket, that they have a bed to sleep in tonight,” Daling says. “And then the community gets a way of saying, not only do you have value and we want to welcome you but we have something of value… to help them feel welcome, feel secure, to help them feel that they have a place here.”
Donors can either buy new items or donate gently used items from their homes. “We can go to our own houses and shop for these items or go with our children to the dollar store or a resale shop.” Daling says. “I think it makes for a really great opportunity for our kids to see that we want to be generous and we want to be giving.”
Anyone interested in donating Welcome Kits on #GivingTuesday can visit our website to find a list of Welcome Kit items, local drop off locations, and a link to where you can purchase a Welcome Kit on Amazon.com and have it shipped directly to World Relief.
#GivingTuesday is a social media movement started in 2012 by the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y in New York. According to their website, “#GivingTuesday harnesses the potential of social media and the generosity of people around the world to bring about real change in their communities.”
Haiti in the Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew
Earlier this month, category 4 hurricane Matthew tore through Haiti, leaving behind incredible devastation. Haiti is in need of our prayers and our donations. Yet, as country director Joseph Bataille explains, God has prepared Haitian churches to respond and rebuild. He writes this in a recent blog post:
“Late last week, I participated in a meeting with more than 200 Haitian church leaders in the capital. The purpose was to join together collectively to reach out to the affected areas with short, mid, and long term relief efforts. We had similar conversations with our partners in the capital. All of them excitedly agreed that the primary responsibility for relief must go to the local church. In Belle Anse, church leaders are assessing the damages together, while reflecting on ways to help those who were hit the hardest. Immediately after the storm, some even worked overtime to finish a home that they had begun to build months earlier for a single mother of three. After many months of being stalled by various obstacles, they finished the project in only a few days.
Haiti has a lot of good things. The best of all these things are its people. Haiti is gold. The Haitian people themselves are diamonds—hard-pressed but not hardened, and refined by many years of adversity. When they pull together, nothing is impossible to them.
The local church is full of such gems, and across the country, near to and far from the disaster, they are pulling together. They are helping one another and looking out for the weakest among them. World Relief is privileged to know some of the best of them. They are a light to their communities. World Relief is working closely with these leaders as they help their communities to recover shelters, gardens, livelihoods, and autonomy. But we refuse to let our work to be the basket that covers and hides the goodness and the light of God’s love that is already present. Rather, we are working in such a way to put that light on the lamp-stand, where it belongs, that the world will see their good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:15-16).
The nation is full of people with hearts of servants who are more than ready and more than willing to carry the weight of their vulnerable neighbors. Our job in this time is to help them to find the resources that match the largeness of their hearts and to equip them with skills and knowledge to build back better. Our mission is to help them to accomplish their mission.”
Back to School
Refugee Student Wins College Scholarship
Pabitra Basnet looks like many of the other students milling around at the end of the day at West Aurora High School. She runs cross country, wants to play soccer in the spring or maybe join the dance club. Her speech is peppered liberally with “like” and “stuff.” She is kind, poised and flawlessly polite. But Pabitra, who goes by Pabi, recently received a full college scholarship through philanthropist Bob Carr’s Give Something Back Foundation (GSBF). Pabi stood out among 40 applicants and 20 finalists at Aurora West to be one of seven scholarship winners.
Pabi will be the first in her family to be able to go to college in the US because she, along with her parents Bal Bahadur and Hari Maya Basnet, two sisters and one brother, came to the this country as refugees. The family were forced to flee Bhutan for Nepal when the conditions in Bhutan became too dangerous. Pabi did have the opportunity for some education, but school in Nepal was very different. “We had to wear a uniform and then we used to have school on Saturday and we had to braid our hair every day,” Pabi explains. “If we didn’t do our homework or that kind of stuff, we would get beat by our teacher.”
Pabi was just in 5th grade in 2010 when her family came to live in Aurora. When she entered school that year she spoke no English and remembers having a lot of fears. “It was really scary, and I was worried every day,” Pabi recalls. “For, I don’t know, a month I cried every night because students were not nice. I used to cry under the blanket so my parents couldn’t find out that I was crying.”
Nepali friends in higher level classes at school helped Pabi with her English, and she participated in WRDA’s after school programs. Then in middle school she continued to make great strides with help of her teacher.
Last year, Pabi’s freshman year at Aurora West, students were encouraged to apply for the GSBF scholarships. Pabi talked it over with a couple friends but didn’t think she would apply. “They were, like, ‘We should try it,’ and I was like, ‘You guys should do it but I know I won’t get it.’ They went to the meeting and I was like, ‘If they can apply for a scholarship, why can’t I?’ So I asked my friends for the information and I applied.”
The Give Something Back Foundation was founded by Robert Carr, chairman and chief executive of Heartland Payment Systems, a large processor of credit and debit card transactions. To be eligible for a GSBF scholarship students must carry a 3.0 grade point average, have good character and be eligible for federal Pell grants. “GSBF funds the balance of the student bill after all state, federal and institutional aid is applied,” according to Steve Cardamone, GSBF executive director. Scholarship recipients choose one of the colleges with which the foundation partners.
Any student that applies for a scholarship must submit an essay and letters of recommendation. Finalists are interviewed by the foundation. The GSBF also pairs each scholar with a mentor who guides the student through both high school and college. “Mentors are another set of eyes to make sure the students are doing well, not just academically, but as people,” Cardamore says. “We optimally look for students that show the ability to overcome. Are there stories that demonstrate perseverance?”
“All the students selected had a dream and a desire to go to college and make a difference,” said Deb Quinn, director of school counselors at West Aurora who worked with all the students who applied for the GSBF scholarships. “Our World Relief students are very special to us in District 129. Their stories of struggle and overcoming obstacles in order to get to the United States are inspiring.”
Pabi has selected to attend Norther Illinois University when she finished high school in 3 years. “I want to be a businesswoman,” she says with pride. “I’m kind of scared to talk in front of people. It’s scary but it’s kind of fun doing it. I have a business class now. I was really scared, but now it’s good.”
Why has Pabi done so well in school? “I think it’s because I don’t want to be like my mom; not in a bad way but, like, uneducated,” Pabi explains. “She wanted to go [to school] but her parents didn’t let her.”
“They asked me, what I would do if I became a businesswoman,” Pabi says. “I think, first, I would buy a big house, for my family. And then, after that, I think I would open one big store where my dad and my family can work. After that, I would go to Nepal and help those kids like me.”
Thinking ahead, Pabi imagines college will be very scary as well. She still has never been to Northern Illinois University, and it is another unknown to face. Perhaps it is all of this talk about scary stuff; past, present and future that makes her stop and change the conversation.
“Before I applied for the scholarship, I told many people, like my cousins and then other people. They didn’t take me seriously. They were like, ‘You’re not going to get it,’ ‘There are lots of people who are better than you so you won’t get it.’ And then at night I just thought that I want to show them. I want to show them wrong.”
One of Pabi’s friends called her a “warrior”, and it is just that attitude that is leading this young woman to overcome and see a future for herself. “I think that is why I worked a little bit harder on my essay and then the interview; because of them. I was proud that I proved them wrong.”
Learning through Serving
Students Prepare for International Internship
Serving newly arriving refugees helps to train future leaders and WRDA is passionate about building opportunities for college students. Each year we welcome interns from local area colleges into a variety of areas of service. One particular group of students serve as English tutors as a required part of their school curriculum. These students are from Wheaton College’s Human Needs and Global Resources program. For years WRDA has been a part of preparing these students for 6 months of service in a developing country. During their service they will work alongside partner organizations that are addressing issues such as poverty, injustice, church development and conflict resolution.
During the year before they leave the US, these students become English tutors for newly arriving refugees. This year some 30 students are giving at least 2 hours each week to tutor an individual or family, but the learning is a two-way street. The refugees served are helped to improve their English skills and build opportunities in America. And for the HNGR students, they are learning about hospitality and gaining practical experiences that foreshadow the experiences they will have serving overseas, like learning to communicate across differences in language, culture and background. The students regularly meet together to discuss their experiences and what they are learning through serving.
Here and There
Education in Emergencies in South Sudan
Education for children is a causality of war. With over 2 million people displaced because of the on-going civil war in South Sudan, a generation of children are missing the opportunity at an education. In the camps for the Internally Displace Persons (IDP) in this young, war-torn nation, World Relief is working to provide Emergency Education for children ages 3-12.
This year at the Leich Primary School in the Unity State of South Sudan, World Relief has helped to create 31 temporary learning spaces that have served 3,235 students. The children served include those in the Early Childhood Development (ECD) program as well as primary school. Not only is education provided for the children, but active work among the parents teaches about the importance of schooling and encourages active engagement of parents with their children’s education.
To find out more about the Education in Emergencies program and other ways World Relief is addressing the needs of South Sudan, visit http://www.worldrelief.org/south-sudan.