November 27, 2012

When Chris and his wife dreamed about becoming missionaries, they had a pretty traditional idea what that would look like.

“We thought we would minister around here for a few years, then we’d go overseas and be missionaries,” said Pastor Chris McElwee from Wheaton Bible Church. When a Muslim Iraqi mother and her five children arrived in the middle of Ramadan, their ideas of missions dramatically changed.

The family fasted during daylight hours.  They were up before dawn cooking all kinds of foods—aromas of soups and meat wafted through the house in the early morning hours. One night, after a few days of being woken up by early morning banging in the kitchen and working hard to help the family adjust and adapt, Chris and his wife were exhausted.

“We lay there awake in our bed, and we said, ‘We are missionaries.  This is what God has for us.’ We could never do in Iraq what we are doing now and right here.  This family has become our family.  Our kids know them.  We pray for them.  We celebrate birthdays, Christmas and other holidays,” Pastor McElwee said.

Pastor McElwee shares the heart of the church at large.  A heart to see people in the community growing and thriving—with a particular heart for the foreign-born.


Wheaton Bible sends more than 90 missionaries—spending a quarter of the church budget supporting international outreach in 39 countries. A plan to send more than 20 missionaries to France to work with Muslim immigrants over the next five years, working closely with Greater Europe Mission, has really open the eyes of the congregation to the Muslim world.

Iraqi refugees have provided a great opportunity for families considering service in France to begin working with the foreign-born right in their own backyards.  In fact, working closely with a newly arriving refugee family has become a part of the required missionary preparation all Wheaton Bible’s prospective missionaries go through.

The partnership has engaged the church’s families, helping prepare them for missions and dramatically impacting World Relief’s work.

“After more than three decades of refugee resettlement in the area,” says World Relief’s Gretchen Schmidt in Wheaton, “our need to expand into new communities was significant.  The support of Wheaton Bible enabled us to help families resettle in a new area.”

Westwood Apartments

Just a couple miles up the road from Wheaton Bible sits Westwood Apartments, a complex made up of 90 percent immigrants and a growing Iraqi refugee population. In June, a young couple arrived with their 8-month old daughter. Within their first day, they had already been rushed to the hospital with stomach problems.

Around 15 Iraqi families have apartments in the community—and several served as translators for the American forces. Most fled for their lives, leaving behind jobs, families and an entire way of life. Each family that arrives through World Relief’s network is partnered with a family or individual from area churches, including Wheaton Bible.  They help them adjust, walk with them as they look for jobs, and ensure they become self-sufficient quickly. 

“The number one need for most of these families is relationship,” says Pastor McElwee. “And working with refugees has changed the lives of all the families that participate.  It’s enriched their lives.  They have learned about God.  It’s challenged them and it’s made them pray more.”

Pastor McElwee says working with Muslim families has transformed not only his life, but also the lives of many others in his local church. “God’s heart for immigrants and refugees is immense,” he says.  “God is moving and He is so faithful.”

Your donation to World Relief DuPage/Aurora empowers local churches to continue serving the most vulnerable people in our communities. To donate securely online, click here

November 27, 2012

Glenn Oviatt, Intern

As a missionary for almost 30 years in Central America, Emily Gray needs only to take a short drive each morning to her new field of work as Executive Director at World Relief DuPage and Aurora. And she wants to show the local church what she discovers continually: that ministry to the world’s most vulnerable takes place each day in the Chicago suburbs.

“If you want to serve people from all walks of life and all cultures, you don’t have to get on a plane,” Gray said. “They are our neighbors.”

Gray, who began as Executive Director on September 13th, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who spent the last five years as Director at Merit Hospice Services in Lombard, Ill. World Relief North Regional Director Brad Morris said Gray’s dual background in healthcare and missions will allow her to provide guidance from multiple angles of experience.

“She has some key elements in her background that will bring cohesiveness to all the programs at World Relief,” Morris said.

Already, Gray has used her background in healthcare to provide guidance for a complex medical case that might have taken hours for Refugee Services to sort through.

Refugee Services Director Susan Sperry said she is thankful to work for someone with such an extensive background in social work and is excited by Gray’s energy and enthusiasm. “She’s not daunted by the number of challenges that we face in our line of work,” Sperry said. “She is excited and energized by those challenges.”

As Executive Director, Gray said she hopes to show the breadth and depth of World Relief to the communities surrounding the Wheaton and Aurora offices. “There are so many ways for people to plug in to the good of World Relief at so many levels,” Gray said.

She also hopes World Relief can empower the local church to better love its neighbors without fear of cultural, religious, or racial differences.

“We unfortunately have a learned fear of that which is different from us,” Gray said.

Gray said personal relationships that community members can develop with immigrants and refugees from all over the world create an understanding that will overcome any learned fear. Dramatic changes can occur when someone begins to identify a person from another nationality, culture or religion as “my friend,” Gray said. “When [a person] goes from being ‘a Cuban’ to ‘the guy who is sitting beside me in the pew in church,’ then you can begin to see the world from someone else’s point of view,” Gray said.

In relationship with others, Gray said we can overcome our fear of the unknown and begin to learn more about “what unites us rather than what separates us.”

“God doesn’t see us in groups,” Gray said. “We are all His creation.” Gray said this understanding will not only change the communities near Aurora and DuPage County, but will begin to spread peace throughout the country and the whole of society.

“The more we break down the barriers between an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ the more love can develop,” Gray said. 

November 27, 2012

ince the beginning of their relationship, Rick and Desiree Guzman have had a heart for refugees – victims of war and persecution who come to America as strangers in need of friendship.

When Rick and Desiree got married, they invited their family and friends to give to their newly formed refugee ministry (the Tolbert Refugee Assistance Fund) instead of buying gifts.  Desiree opted for a less expensive ring so she could put the savings into the ministry.

Rick and Desiree’s passion is to live out Jesus’ call to “invite the stranger in” (Matthew 25:35) – and they take it literally.  For several years, they have partnered with World Relief to welcome refugee families to Aurora, Illinois, and help them adjust to life in America – even inviting refugees on vacation with them.

In 2007, the couple’s non-profit ministry purchased Bryan House – a large brick house in Aurora, which they divided into five apartments.  The house enables working refugee families to save a year’s rent towards a down payment on a home of their own.

Home ownership, say the Guzmans, strengthens the fabric of their local community.

“Many refugee families have to move around a lot,” explains Rick, a 32-year-old attorney.  “They’re constantly chasing the most affordable rentals.”  The outcome is instability, with children being forced to switch schools and behavioral problems often developing as a result.

“We want to make sure families are ready to take the step into home ownership, with the stability to make monthly payments,” says Rick.  “For families that are stable, but lack the ability to save for a down payment, Bryan House accelerates their savings.”

Bryan House partners with World Relief to offer individual development accounts to these families, matching up to $4,000 in savings.

The Importance of Dignity

The Guzmans’ ministry goes much deeper than helping refugees save to buy a home.  It’s about relationships, they say, and learning from those who have been through the fires of persecution and the horrors of war.

“We see them as equals,” Desiree explains, “people with value and potential… not as inferiors to be pitied.  We want to encourage them to better their own circumstances, to grow in confidence and develop the tremendous strengths they already have.”

Refugees are people with enormous potential, she points out. “At Bryan House, we’re not giving them a hand-out.  They can feel proud they’ve been able to save their own money.”

Imaad’s Story

Imaad and his family came to the United States as refugees from Iraq in 2008, fleeing the violence in Baghdad. Their first week in America was spent in the home of a host family while World Relief set up an apartment and arranged health check-ups for them.

After settling in and finding employment, Imaad heard about Bryan House.  His family moved into the house and saved $10,000 towards a down payment on a home of their own.

“It means a lot for my family,” says the grateful 40-year-old.  “It’s good to own your own home… this is my dream.”

Community Christian Church

The Guzmans’ first opportunity to serve refugees arose through their church, Community Christian Church in the Chicago area.  At that time, the church was just beginning its Community 4:12 ministry, addressing the root causes of poverty in nearby Aurora.

Since that time, Desiree and Rick have been part of ongoing conversations that have changed the course of the church.  Community Christian now has a vision to reach the 20% of the world living in extreme poverty, as well as the 67% of the world living far from God.  

“If the Church is going to reach the next generation of people, [social justice] is how they’re going to do it,” says Desiree.  “Providing a way to impact those who are underserved gets people who aren’t excited about Jesus [suddenly] excited about Jesus.”

The largest segment of volunteers at Bryan House come from Community Christian Church.  Rick is now working with the church to replicate the Bryan House model for other vulnerable populations.

The Guzmans are excited to find themselves in a place where career, church, family, and volunteer life are all centered on alleviating poverty and pointing people towards God.

Take Action

Mission on Your Doorstep:  Share your experiences and learn practical skills to love your “new” neighbors – those from other nations and those on the margins – at this weekend conference hosted by World Relief.  Conference brochure, workshops, registration and directions are available here.

Get Involved Locally:  Get your church involved or volunteer at the World Relief DuPage or Aurora offices!

Thank you for helping America’s most vulnerable.

November 27, 2012

Written by Andrea Simnick Xu / Edited by Gretchen Schmidt

Character Counts at Glen Ellyn Bible Church as they host the third annual Step By Step program this summer.  Sixty-five Burmese refugee children learn the importance of being people of character within their community.

For the past three years Glen Ellyn Bible Church has partnered with the Burmese community and World Relief DuPage to assist Burmese students in taking steps to adjust to life in America.  The program provides a meaningful, enjoyable, and loving environment while addressing academic, spiritual, and social needs.

The team of volunteers rotates the kids through vocabulary and writing lessons, snack time, and playtime involving jump rope, soccer, and knitting.  All of the activities are centered on a character trait of the week.  Throughout the mornings, relationships are built and kids’ confidence is grown.

“Its fun to see that this is home, and they are thriving here,” says Resource Coordinator, Lynn Kubat.  This is a place where bridges are built as the program reaches across the different ethnicities within the Burmese people group.

“The kids who have been coming back [each year] are respectful and grateful and they know we are here to help them and walk alongside them,” says Curriculum Coordinator, Sue Macaluso.  

The original vision of the program was to provide literacy development, but it has evolved to include much more.  Development Coordinator, Cindy Hendriksen says, “The morning ends and we feel the children are being loved. It’s not about getting through the material.”

Attendance has grown from forty-five students the first year, to fifty-five the second, and now sixty-five children benefit from the program.  This is the first year, however, that scriptural reading is part of the curriculum.  Macaluso says, “It’s just awesome to open the word of God with them.  That’s been the highlight of the year.”

The passages the kids read – and act out in skits – highlight honorable attributes of Biblical characters like Noah, the Good Samaritan, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

All the kids take home a New Testament at the end of the program.  “I just feel God is at work in this program and in these kids. We are definitely in the business of planting seeds,” reflects Macaluso.  

Volunteers representing six churches run the program; half of them are teachers by profession.  One volunteer got involved after assisting a Burmese child at school. “I just wanted to help out and serve and get to know the Burmese community more,” she says. “Because I worked with him, I wanted to get to know his friends and siblings.”

New volunteers with minimal cross cultural experience coordinated the knitting activities. Hendriksen says, “These ladies were concerned about communication, but that went very well. In fact, the volunteers quickly connected with the girls, will continue to pray for them and are looking forward to helping with next year’s program.”

Inspired by Step By Step, other churches in the community have observed the program desiring to model after it. “We hope to have a four-year curriculum that we can rotate through and pass on to other churches interested in doing the same thing,” says Macaluso. An essential part of the program’s effectiveness is the collaboration of Burmese community leaders. “They were instrumental in steering us toward a format that would especially draw in and engage the teenaged boys,” comments Hendriksen.

World Relief seeks to empower local churches to serve the most vulnerable. Though Step By Step formed from a mutual desire to increase support for the Burmese community, Glen Ellyn Bible Church provides complete oversight of this valuable program. Their ability to take World Relief’s model of empowerment and combine it with a heart for their vulnerable neighbors has had a far-reaching impact.

November 27, 2012

Matthew Soerens, World Relief Immigration Counselor

The Issue

World Relief’s mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.

Here in suburban Chicagoland, we – and many of our church partners – have found that a good number of immigrants fall into that category of “most vulnerable.”  Refugees and other immigrants face many unique challenges: language confusion, cultural barriers, the haunting memories of the circumstances that led them away from their country of origin, and very often separation from family members left behind.

There is much that we as God’s people, working together through local churches, can offer to these newcomers by meeting physical needs and reflecting Christ’s love. 

While there is much that we do on a personal level, we also often encounter structural problems that inhibit our new friends from integrating and flourishing in their new countries, and we believe that we have a responsibility in these circumstances to advocate for changes to laws.

As an immigration counselor at World Relief, I hear stories nearly every day of families who have been separated by what I have come to believe is a broken immigration legal system.  Immigrants who have received their green cards usually wait more than five years to be allowed to bring minor children or spouses to the United States, a desperately long time to wait for a family.  The wait times for other family relationships can be even longer – up to eighteen years for adult children of US citizens and twenty-two years for siblings of US citizens.

Others have entered the country or overstayed a temporary visa unlawfully.  While we do not condone their unlawful action, it is easy to understand why so many feel forced to make that decision, given the economic desperation from which most of these immigrants came, and the unavailability of visas for them to have entered lawfully. 

Our legal system is tragically broken. Our economy, even in the current downturn, relies heavily on foreign-born workers, particularly for “low-skilled” jobs like agriculture, construction, and hospitality industries, but we have not created adequate legal mechanisms for individuals to enter to fill these jobs.

As a result, individuals enter unlawfully or overstay a visa not intended for a permanent stay, and then live their lives in the United States in the shadows, working hard but always afraid of apprehension and deportation.  The issue becomes further complicated by the fact that so many of those without status in the United States have U.S. citizen children or spouses, so their deportation means dividing a family and, sometimes, leaving the U.S. citizen family members dependent upon public aid and charity.  

So What Do We Do?

The question of what to do with these individuals who have broken the law is one that World Relief has wrestled with over the years.  While there is a great deal of rhetoric on all sides of the debate, we believe our call as Christ-followers is to consider this complex issue through the lens of the Bible.  Scripture guides us repeatedly: God loves and looks out for immigrants, along with other vulnerable groups like orphans and widows, and He commands us to welcome immigrants, treat them justly, and love them as ourselves (Lev 19:33-34, Deut 10:18, Deut 24:14-15, Ps 146:9, Ezek 22:7, Mal 3:5, Mt 22:35-40). 

But, of course, scripture also tells us to submit to the governing authorities, which God has established for us (Romans 13:1-4).  That tension is further complicated by the reality that many of these undocumented immigrants are our brothers and sisters – members of our communities and churches – and as we hear their stories, it becomes increasingly more difficult to dismiss them as “aliens.”  They are human beings made in God’s image, with families and faith, just like us.  Biblically, we are inter-dependent parts of one body (1 Corinthians 12:26).  

Our nation desperately needs a comprehensive reform of our immigration laws. 

To be Effective, Reform Must Concurrently Do 4 Basic Things:

  1. Secure the border and create enforceable employment authorization documents so that it becomes much more difficult to enter or work unlawfully in the United States. This eliminates the incentive to migrate.
  2. Create lawful mechanisms for legal entry that match the supply of work in the United States, both for high-skilled and low-skilled jobs.  No one would choose to make a dangerous illegal entry across a desert if they had the option of undergoing a background check, paying a reasonable visa fee, and entering through the front door. Although the news we hear says differently, a relatively small number fear background checks or attempt to smuggle in contraband. Most are well-meaning workers looking to support their families.
  3. Increase the number of visas available for family reunification so that the backlogs in the current system are significantly reduced and families can “live together in unity” (Ps 133:1)
  4. Create the possibility for those currently here unlawfully to pay a reasonable fine, register with the government, pay any back taxes owed, and get on a path to citizenship and integration (presuming they can clear a criminal background check).  By creating a mechanism for undocumented immigrants to pay a consequence but not resorting to the harsh response of deportation, we can uphold the biblical value of reconciliation. 

World Relief has been advocating for reform based on these principles for several years, and many of the evangelical churches, denominations, and leaders whom we work with have come to the same conclusion. 

Our parent organization, the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents most major evangelical denominations in the United States, passed a resolution in October 2009 calling for Comprehensive Immigration Reform that meets these principles.  

Naturally, with an issue as complex and controversial as immigration, there will be some degree of disagreement.  We find that much of the initial disagreement is moderated when people understand the issue better, sorting through the rhetoric that those on both side of the debate tend to use. 

World Relief Resource

As a tool for education, Jenny Hwang, World Relief’s Policy & Advocacy Director, and I have co-written a book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

We hope it’s a helpful tool for many believers struggling with this complicated issue. All of the authors’ proceeds go back to the work of World Relief.  

Upcoming Events

  1. Missions on Your Doorstep Annual Conference provides workshops and discussion on immigration
  2. February 22, 2010 – World Relief and Community Christian Church in Naperville are partnering together for an immigration educational event. Stayed tuned for more details!

Advocacy: Get Involved!

World Relief is actively advocating with our legislators, asking them to support compassionate and sensible solutions to our nation’s immigration problems.  A simple call to a Member of Congress from a constituent in their district can really make a big difference, especially when there are many calls coming in! 

  • Click here to learn how to add your voice to this cause and to learn who your U.S. Representative is!
  • Email to be added to our monthly advocacy update
  • Text the word “Justice” to 69866 to get occasional text message updates about immigration reform advocacy.  

What Next?

Most likely, immigration reform proposals will be introduced in the Congress within the next month or two, and probably voted up or down before the end of April.  When those debates take place, please lend your voice to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Pr 31:8) and to join World Relief in asking our legislators to support Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

Most of all, we would ask you to pray.

  • For legislators, who need wisdom and courage as they re-work our laws
  • For churches and their congregations as they struggle with this complex issue
  • For the immigrants in our community, that God would meet their needs and that they would know His love and protection 
November 9, 2012

Allows refugees to budget and save for houses, vehicles and education

y: Glenn Oviatt, Intern

For many newly-arrived refugees, saving money for a car, a home or a college education on a tight budget is daunting.

However, a recently renewed savings program at World Relief DuPage/Aurora will match the savings of qualified refugees and make it easier for them to secure necessary assets.

The Individual Development Account Savings Program (IDA), which began in October, can match up to $2,000 for single refugees and $4,000 for families toward a home, a vehicle, post-secondary education or training, or the expansion of a small business.

With funds provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the program will last for three years, and replaces the previous five-year IDA grant which ended in September.

Laurel Opal, IDA Coordinator at World Relief DuPage/Aurora, said the program has three main components: asset development, self-sufficiency and planning for the future.

Opal said every participant is required to organize a household budget, attend basic banking classes and take part in asset-specific trainings such as home-buying informational sessions or vehicle maintenance classes.

“The program helps newcomers contribute to their community and helps stimulate the local economy,” Opal said.

Adam Beyer, Employment Services Director at World Relief DuPage/Aurora, said the classes, trainings and experiences of the program ultimately empower participants to become more self-sufficient.

“One of the goals of the IDA program is to teach people how to save – to show them how much money you can save if you put away a little bit every month and how you can improve your life through that,” Beyer said.

Burmese refugees Hoi Vang Thang, husband John and baby (front left) saved to buy a used car through the help of Opal and Beyer of World Relief DuPage/Aurora (front right) and Michael Soehlke, Facility Manager at Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn (back left).
Photo courtesy of Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn.

A great part of that empowerment process happens through World Relief’s partnership with Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn, where all IDA participants have their accounts.With free checking accounts and help from interpreters, Community Bank has been personal and gracious to the refugee community, Beyer said.

“It’s a good learning place,” Beyer said. “I think there are some refugees who come here with banking experience, but for most, it’s a foreign experience.”

Through the previous five-year program, 157 of the 255 participants successfully secured money for their asset goals.

Of those, 14 purchased their first home, 13 acquired higher education or training for themselves or their children, and nine started or expanded a small business. Unexpectedly,121 participants successfully purchased a vehicle.

Opal said many applied for homes when the program began in 2005, but after three years, the economy bottomed out and many lost their jobs. Incapable of saving money, the jobless participants were also unable to qualify for a mortgage loan.

While some dropped out of the program, others simply changed their asset goals.

“We had a lot of people change their goal to [purchasing a] vehicle,” Opal said. “Almost all of the people in the final year and a half of the program applied for a vehicle.”

Beyer said their achievements provided great benefits for themselves and their communities.

“A lot of the refugee communities are usually [limited] by having no transportation or having inadequate transportation,” Beyer said. “This puts them in a position of increased dependence on World Relief and others in the community.”

Through the help of the IDA program, many refugees who previously searched for an affordable but unreliable car were able to secure funds to buy a more stable vehicle.

“Suddenly they have this vision of something better,” Beyer said. “Being able to drive an $8,000 used vehicle that’s reliable gives them a certain level of independence they hadn’t had before.”

Under the new program, however, Opal said she hopes to find more people who can apply to save for a home.

“If we find people with a little bit more stable employment and who are really serious about finding a home, they’re more than capable of doing so,” Opal said.

Additionally, Beyer said that having a “steady stream” of successful IDA graduates over the next three years can positively influence the wider refugee community.

“They can be examples to show that it’s actually possible to do these things–even as newly-arrived refugees.”

November 9, 2012

This September, refugees and other immigrants living in Illinois had an unprecedented opportunity to apply for United States citizenship with an 80 percent discount.

Normally $675, the application fees were reduced to $145 through the New American Dream Fund (NADF), a state-funded program that helped subsidize the remaining costs for qualified applicants.

Although this discount was only available for one month, at least 1,040 people applied for naturalization throughout Illinois.

At World Relief DuPage, news of the discount spread fast, as 68 citizenship applications were filled out and sent before the September 30 deadline.

Erika Miles, Citizenship and Outreach Coordinator at World Relief DuPage, said the organization’s immigration counselors processed most of the applications within a two-week period, taking night hours and working on weekends to help as many clients as possible. “Even though it was a lot of work, it was worth it because we were able to help people who are low-income make their dream of becoming a citizen true,” Miles said.

Catherine Norquist, Immigrant Legal Services Director at World Relief DuPage, said the Dream Fund applicants were upstanding members of their communities and are “truly the ones the U.S. wants and needs as law abiding citizens of this country.”

Miles said many hard working, low income immigrants want to apply for citizenship, but cannot pay the normal fee because of the struggling economy. “It is very difficult to have the $675 in their pocket to apply,” Miles said. “It’s a lot of money for them.” Of the 68 applicants at World Relief DuPage, 17 were Meskhetian Turks who were refugees from Uzbekistan. Other applicants originated from 18 other countries including Liberia, Burundi, Sudan, Mexico, Venezuela, India and the Ukraine.

Norquist said many of the applicants were children, whose application fees will increase from $400 to $600 on November 23. One applicant was a young widow from Iran who was previously unable to afford the citizenship fee due to her tight budget while being the sole provider for her two children. “There would have been no way for her to apply on her income,” Norquist said. “It felt great to get her application in.”

After an application is sent to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, (USCIS), the applicant typically waits about four months for a response. Then, the applicant is required to take the U.S. citizenship test, which consists of questions about U.S. history, government and geography. Once a person becomes a U.S. citizen, they can vote, hold government jobs and petition for their closest family members to join them in the United States. For many who fled from difficult situations in their home countries, becoming a U.S. citizen provides security and peace of mind. “There’s a sense of real pride and belonging that can’t be quantified,” Norquist said

November 9, 2012

“In 2007, when I got a job with the coalition forces, things were unbelievable,” said Qasim “Steve” Hazim. “I was in Baquba.  The insurgents would come with a severed head.  They would tell you, if you serve with the coalition forces—if you serve with the Iraqi police—this will happen to you.”

Steve was injured by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It exploded under the striker he was in and he suffered significant head trauma.  Steve rallied, and was back at work within a month. Work was difficult.  Steve was stationed in some of the hardest hit areas of Iraq – Baquba, Tikrit, and Erbil.  He was far from his family, but traveled to be with his wife and son on his leave every three months.

The roads were treacherous, and military and insurgent checkpoints were everywhere.  One trip he was threatened at a checkpoint.  Fearing for his life, he sped away as threats and shots rang out around him.

He continued to have to pass through that checkpoint to see his family and then to report back to work.

“I pulled my hat down low, I grew out my beard, I tried everything to disguise myself,” Steve said. “But I constantly lived in fear.”

He was afraid to let his commanders do anything, afraid of reprisal for him and his family.  Finally, he knew it was time to take his family and leave.  He applied for and was granted a special immigrant visa (SIV) for Iraqis who have served with the coalition forces. “By the time we received our visa and went to the airlines to buy our tickets, my wife was 8 months pregnant.  The airlines said there was no way she could fly.” Amel had their baby in November.  They were warned the baby’s visa could take a year.  They didn’t know what to do as the threats continued to plague them.

On January 19th, they left the country for the United States, too afraid to stay any longer—but they were forced to leave the baby behind with Steve’s parents.  The separation was agonizing for the family.

“Amel began crying all the time.  She could not control herself,” Steve said.  “It was so hard.”

World Relief DuPage, a Wheaton-based refugee resettlement agency, picked Steve and his family up from the airport and provided them with housing, orientation, connection to public services, employment, English classes, counseling, legal services and an introduction to Wheaton Bible Church. Members of the church were eager to walk alongside them as they adjusted to their new life.

Amel’s despair soon landed her in the emergency room three times.  She feared she’d never see her baby again, that he would be killed, that she had abandoned the baby to its death. Immediately, friends at Wheaton Bible Church—including Chris McElwee, the Local Impact Pastor, and Isaac Heath, Steve’s volunteer—jumped to action to provide the care and support the family needed.

Catherine Norquist, World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Director, worked to ensure all the paperwork was filed both here in the United States and in the embassy in Iraq so that Steve could go back to pick up his son. Steve would have to travel on his Iraqi passport, availing himself to the protection of Iraq, a risky move. Filing the correct forms to name herself Steve’s legal representation and Steve’s mother the power of attorney, Catherine cleared the way for Steve to return to the country he had fled from three months prior.

Meanwhile, Steve’s mother journeyed from northern Iraq to Baghdad where she was escorted into the green zone around the embassy. After a medical examination for the baby and an interview to obtain the baby’s visa, she returned to northern Iraq to await Steve who was due to arrive days later. When Steve received the phone call that the visa was ready for his son, Wheaton Bible Church bought his ticket to Iraq.

“I was afraid to go back,” he said, “I knew my life was still at risk, but I had to get my son.”

With a turnaround time of less than 48 hours, he flew into northern Iraq, met his family, gathered his son and boarded a flight back to the United States via Germany. 

When he attempted to get on his flight in Germany, the ticket agent asked him for his baby pass—an unexpected and unexplained expectation.  Steve did not have a ticket for his son, nor did he have a credit card or enough cash to purchase one. “I was so worried that if we didn’t get on the flight, my wife would panic,” he said.  “She has been through so much, I needed to get home.”

So he did the first thing that came to his mind—he called his friends from Wheaton Bible Church.  Isaac picked up his phone at 1 in the morning, knowing that Steve likely needed help.

“You know people are your real friends,” Steve said, “when you need something right away, you can call them—even in the middle of the night.”

Isaac jumped to action, managing to purchase a baby pass just in the nick of time.  As Steve walked down the jetway, the flight attendant closed the doors behind him.

Their arrival at the airport in Chicago was a tearful reunion. “I am so happy now.  I don’t cry anymore.  I was so depressed and could only think about the baby before. When I saw the baby, I just ran and hugged him.  We were all crying,” said Amel.

Transition to the United States continues to be a challenge—the economic situation has turned Steve’s job from full-time to part time.  He would love to go back to school, to continue to provide for his family, but he is still grateful for the safety his new country provides for his reunited family.

“It is hard, but thank God we are safe here. I feel I did something for Iraq—for my people and my country.  And for the United States—for my new country.”

November 5, 2012
Bill Oberlin, Pastor of Global Outreach at Wheaton Bible Church speaks with a volunteer and two Iraqi refugees about the story of Abraham and Issac

Glenn Oviatt, Intern

In a first floor classroom at Wheaton Bible Church in West Chicago, thirty Iraqis and Americans sit in three small groups, discussing the story of Abraham and Issac.

A young father who fled Iraq because of threats against his family lounges in a chair, scanning a bilingual Bible as the passages are read in Arabic. In another small group, a woman wearing a black hijab–the traditional Muslim head scarf–explains the differences between the Qur’anic and Biblical accounts of Abraham to her teenage children.

Chris McElwee, Pastor of Local Impact at Wheaton Bible Church, leads one of the small groups, describing how Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac relates to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

One Sunday each month, this Bible study brings Americans and Iraqi refugees together to discuss and share their differing faiths. The idea for the Bible study began last fall when several members of Wheaton Bible Church befriended Iraqi refugees through World Relief DuPage. Although Muslim, some of the refugees were open to attending church services with their Christian friends.

McElwee said the study is a valuable opportunity for the Iraqis and volunteers to connect with each other over food and fellowship.

“There’s a real relational depth here,” McElwee says. “They do like the idea of coming to church, learning, and discussing the Bible.”

Last year, Karen Jealouse and her husband became close friends with an Iraqi family as friendship partners with World Relief. Jealouse, who is the Director of Education Services at World Relief DuPage and Aurora collaborated with McElwee, Wheaton Bible Church staff, and other volunteers to begin the Bible study.

“We decided that once per month we would do something that would provide some fellowship, provide a chance to meet people who speak English and then look at the Bible to see what it says about creation,” Jealouse said.

In addition to the small group readings is a short clip from the Arabic version of “God’s Story” that parallels the verses studied and emphasizes redemptive threads in the Bible leading from Genesis to Jesus. Even if the members of the Bible study never put their faith in Christ, McElwee hopes the study will deepen the relationships between the Americans and Iraqis.

By deciding to volunteer through World Relief, McElwee says that church members can live out God’s mission right here in their own community.

“The church has an incredible opportunity to reach the world that is living on our doorstep,” McElwee says. “This is exactly the mission that God has called us to do.”

When the class ends, some people linger to eat and talk more about Abraham’s sacrifice while others finish previous conversations about work and politics. Soon, the mothers and children leave–many with their friends from the church. Both Iraqis and Americans shake hands and say goodbye.

“As-Salamu Alaykum,” they say to each other. “Peace be upon you.”

November 5, 2012

On a gray drizzly Sunday afternoon in November, drums and guitars mix with spirited, jangling tambourines radiating from a room in the back of Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn. A jumble of shoes has gradually flooded into the accompanying hallway and more than 70 Bhutanese men, women, and children stand in bare feet and socks, worshipping in Nepali. Small boys and girls twirl and dance beneath their elders as a refrain of “Hallelujah” builds and swells.  The air becomes warm, filled by the vibrancy of their worship.

When the music ends, everyone sits upon cushions and pillows scattered across the floor and American pastor Cody Lorance stands and prays in Nepali. The walls are yellow and strung with garlands of leaves and flowers. Behind Lorance at the front of the room is an altar with crosses, candles and incense sticks.

This is TriEak Parmeshwar Mandali, the first Nepali-speaking church in Chicagoland. Most in this community are recently resettled refugees from the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small landlocked country in South Asia bordered by China, India and the Himalayan Mountains. Together, the families of the church navigate the challenges of their new life in America as they grow in their hope in Christ.
As Lorance preaches, Ganesh Powdyel stands to the side, translating English to Nepali after each sentence. Two years ago, Powdyel arrived in Chicago with his parents, wife and daughter after spending 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, where he was a teacher making 892 Nepalese rupees–or about $12.58 in current US dollars–per month.

During his first year in the United States, Powdyel worked as an operator for Global Card Services. He now works as a casework assistant at World Relief DuPage and relays important information to the Bhutanese Nepali community.

In the early 1990’s, most of Bhutan’s ethnic Nepali minority, the Lhotshampa, fled the country after the government deemed them a threat to the political order. During that time, Bhutan’s King Wangchuck enforced the majority culture and Buddhist religion while seeking to rid the country of ethnic Nepalese and their Hindu rituals. Many were forcibly evicted by the government, while others fled from the persecution or were coerced into signing “voluntary” emigration forms.

Unable to return to Bhutan or settle permanently in Nepal, more than 100,000 refugees remained in the camps for almost two decades, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since 2007, the United States has resettled 34,129 Bhutanese refugees as part of a resettlement program that includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

When Powdyel arrived at O’Hare Airport with his family in early 2009, he was greeted by Cody Lorance and Krishna Magar, who were informed of his arrival by World Relief. Magar, who came to live in Wheaton with his three children in late 2008, was Powdyel’s teacher and school principal in the Nepali refugee camp. He became friends with Lorance after his children attended the Karen Burmese congregation that also meets in Glenfield Baptist Church. Months later, six refugees—including Magar’s children—were baptized by Lorance and began meeting to study their newfound Christian faith. Both Magar and Powdyel assisted Lorance in translating his messages to the young church and became Christians later in 2009.

When Powdyel began to learn the stories of the Bible, he was impressed by Christianity’s desire and proclamation for equality, which was in opposition to Hinduism’s strict caste system in Nepal. By local law, Powdyel said members of the lower castes could not enter the house of a higher caste member. Now their relationships have changed.

“We worship together, we work with each other, help each other and eat meals together,” Powdyel said. “We’re living together now.”

Lorance said many of the caste barriers have been broken by the church’s desire to create ways for new Nepali Christians to seek Christ while continuing to be a part of their traditional culture.

“We are really striving to make following Christ not an issue of changing your culture but an issue of changing your heart, mind and behaviors,” Lorance said. “We are using cultural forms and traditions that are already there and trying to pour Christ into those.”

On Christmas 2009, Powdyel and Magar were ordained by Lorance as deacons of the growing church.

“They were trying to identify needs [in the community] and find ways to fill those needs,” Lorance said. More than just the church members came to see Powdyel and Magar’s ordination, but the wider Bhutanese Nepali community came for the ceremony. “I was really presenting them, not as church deacons, but as servant-leaders for the community.”

Another Bhutanese Nepali congregation, Anugraha Church, began meeting last Easter and quickly grew to more than 40 people, eventually moving to Glen Ellyn Evangelical Covenant Church last Christmas. This April, the church invited the local and national Bhutanese Nepali community to their building for their “Grand Musical Festival and Gospel Program” which included more than 20 performers from Chicagoland, Maryland, Tennessee and Ohio. With a full sanctuary and musical performances lasting several hours, the afternoon was a testament to the unity of the local and national Bhutanese Nepali community.

Although the Bhutanese Nepalis no longer deal with the toils of the refugee camps, challenges and struggles remain as they adjust to life in the United States. “There’s illiteracy, poor jobs, and there’s still a lot of spiritual battles that we’re facing,” Lorance said. “It’s not all ‘awesome.’ There are some awesome things that God is doing, but it’s all a tremendous struggle as well.”

Through their many challenges, TriEak Parmeshwar Mandali continues to provide strength for the community. Last year, a family’s apartment caught on fire and the church raised $500 to help with repairs and raised another large sum of money to help a family who couldn’t pay their rent one month.

For many in the community, learning English is essential to obtaining a job, communicating with coworkers, successfully creating a bank account or making doctor’s appointments. Every Thursday night, Trinity International Baptist Mission, the mother church of TriEak, holds ESL (English as a Second Language) classes run by volunteers from the church.

Powdyel said TriEak is also working to obtain more cars and arrange driving lessons so the community can have more independence to shop, use the People’s Resource Center or visit World Relief. During the long Chicago winters, cars are necessary for survival.

As pastor, Lorance has witnessed the growth of the church from the very beginning and says he is “excited to see their excitement” for reaching out to their local community and the Nepali community abroad.

“They say, ‘We’re not refugees. We’re in the US. We’re Americans now. We’re strong. If we can work together, God is with us and we can do it,’” Lorance said.

“The Spirit is working in very significant ways with this group of people.”

World Relief’s mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. In community with the local church, World Relief envisions the most vulnerable people transformed economically, socially, and spiritually. Over the past ten years, resettled refugee families have formed 12 churches. TriEak Parmeshwar Mandali is a great example of the impact that immigrant churches can have when they take up Christ’s call for all Christians to love their neighbors and welcome the stranger in their midst.