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.
Vulnerable or Valuable?
Business sees refugees as an asset
In 2015, while living in a refugee camp in Tanzania, Ancila Munganyinka received a letter that she and her family had been approved to resettle to the United States. Her weary heart held a mix of hope and fear. This would be yet another move to yet another new country in the desperate search for security and the opportunity to build a safe life. Ancila remembers her fears, explaining, “I had heard in the United States you have to work very hard. How will I survive?”
How will I survive?
As refugees flee violence, war and oppression every day, this question of survival is a question of life and death. But as refugees resettle into new homes, in new countries, the question shifts. Survival becomes less about if a refugee will survive and more about how to survive. Ancila worried about finding work. She thought, “I am old. I am sick. I am deaf. I am not strong. I don’t speak English.”
Displaced people are vulnerable. And it’s easy to believe the story that vulnerable equals helpless, instead of seeing that these are educated, skilled, successful, employable men and women who have simply faced unimaginable hardship and trauma. Refugees are eager for a chance to work, earn and contribute.
One locally owned business is doing its part to write a different narrative. Jakob Rukel founded AJR Filtration in St. Charles, Illinois in 1996. Jacob, a Croatian immigrant himself, knows exactly what it’s like to build a new life in a new place with very little. He worked backbreaking construction jobs in Croatia before he and his wife immigrated to the United States. Once here, they each took on three jobs just to make ends meet. After years of hard work, business training and careful experience, Jakob started his own company with the goal of passing along a successful enterprise for his sons to run.
Jakob’s sons, John (pictured at left visiting the sewing school) and Angelo, now serve as the COO and CAO, respectively, while Jakob still acts as CEO. As savvy businessmen, the Rukels needed help finding reliable, skilled labor who could grow along with the growing demands of their company. From their personal experience, they knew that some of the hardest working and most trainable people in the workforce were immigrants. So they combined their need for help with their desire to be helpful, deciding specifically to seek out immigrants and refugees looking for work. John explains, “My family was able to realize the American Dream, and so part of our mission here at AJR is to help other immigrant families do the same.” In 2011, this passion and commitment was the impetus to begin their longstanding partnership with World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA).
To help meet the booming demand for its products and services, AJR needed to find people who could sew on their industrial machines. Through WRDA’s Employment Services, the company connected with refugees who were looking for work. Initially, there was a sewing test that applicants could take with an AJR supervisor. If employees passed the test, a job was offered. Those who did not pass, but had come close to passing, were offered in-house training to get up to speed.
AJR was so pleased with the refugee employees and their work ethic that they wanted to train more. So they provided a Burmese refugee an industrial machine so that she could teach and tutor others in the morning before she went to work at AJR in the afternoons. But even that wasn’t enough to meet the demand of the growing work.
So AJR set up a meeting with WRDA’s Employment Services team to brainstorm how to train more refugees. They agreed that an in-house sewing school would be the right next step. And because much of the work needed was manual, a high level of English was not required for potential employees to begin. This meant that refugees had the unique ability to start work and earn money even as they began learning English.
John proudly says, “World Relief is our most important partner. We would not be able to find the labor we need without the refugees who come to us through World Relief.”
And now, one of AJR’s recent and most promising recent sewing graduates: Ancila Munganyinka. Ancila arrived in the United States in 2015 after living as a refugee since 1972 in multiple countries, settlements, and camps. Her new life felt secure, but lonely. She wanted to be part of her community, make friends and work, but she wasn’t sure what she had to offer. Then the World Relief Employment Services team discovered Ancila had experience sewing. They sent her to AJR for training and assessment. She quickly tested out of sewing school and was offered a job. Ancila has been working hard at AJR for several months now, and loves having meaningful work to put her hands to. “I feel better every day. I was frustrated. I was depending on someone every day. Now I feel very sufficient, and it’s much better.”
This mutually beneficial partnership between World Relief and AJR Filtration continues to thrive. Since 2011, AJR has hired 306 refugees through WRDA, including around 25% of the second shift employees. AJR’s HR Manager, Diana Gonzalez Butler, says of these employees, “They are some of the hardest workers and stay with the company the longest! We love them.”
World Relief knows firsthand that refugees coming to the United States dream of finding a productive, dignified way to support themselves and their families. And extraordinary partners like AJR Filtration use their resources and influence to create space for reliable, talented, trainable refugees and immigrants to achieve that dream.
Understanding Seat Belts
One refugee’s journey to owning a car
The first time Hawa Adam tried to put on a seat belt it didn’t go well. When Hawa was picked up by WRDA staff at the airport last September, she jumped in the back seat of the vehicle and ended up in a tangle of straps and buckles.
Where Hawa came from there were no seatbelts, or police to write tickets. Hawa came to the US with her mother 10 other members of her tribe, the Massalit, a people of the western part of the Darfur region of Sudan. This ethnic group has been targeted by the Janjaweed militia groups who are at the center of the violence since 2003 in this war-torn region of Sudan. Civil war there has raged for more than 20 years.
Those who were able to escape Darfur made their way into eastern Chad, but have experienced extreme hardships of lack of food, water, basic shelter and education there. Many of these refugees have lived lives cut off from much of the rest of the world. Hawa was among these refugees and she lost friends and family to starvation, sickness and violence on her journey to safety.
Now, in the United States, Hawa and her tribespeople are safe, but their struggles are not over. Transportation is one of the biggest challenges for refugees in DuPage and Kane counties. With limited public transportation, it is a constant struggle to get to medical appointments, jobs, schools and markets. From the start, however, Hawa was determined to learn how to drive so she could be a part of her new community.
After attending WRDA’s Drivers’ Permit class and graduating from driving school, Hawa got her license! And now, thanks to one of World Relief’s generous donors, Hawa has a car! She no longer struggles with seat belts, but is able to take herself and others to work and appointments.
We Need You!
To help give refugees a new start
What do Hawa and Ancilla – who come from different countries and different generations – have in common? More than you might think! They are both strong, resilient women who have survived suffering and violence and overcome unbelievable odds to find hope in their new home country. But neither of them did it alone. They were both able to find work and succeed because local churches, foundations, and individuals provided the financial support necessary for these two women to participate in World Relief’s Job Readiness ESL class and Employment Services.
Right now, you have the opportunity to double your giving to help refugees like Hawa and Ancilla prepare for their first job. If we are able to raise $20,000 to support our ESL Job Class, a generous local foundation will match those donations dollar for dollar. People like you have already given over $12,000 towards this match, and we need your help to reach the final goal! There is no better time to give, as September is always the busiest month for refugee arrivals. So if you have been thinking about supporting refugee families this year, this is your best chance! You can give online at www.worldreliefdupageaurora.org/donate (just enter “ESL Job Class” in the comments line) or by mailing a check or cash to our office. Thank you for your generosity!
A sure sign of summer is the garden growing at First Baptist Church of Wheaton. For the past eight or nine years, First Baptist has tilled up a large patch of land at the edge of the church’s property for former refugees, many of whom live in the apartments next door to the church, to plant gardens. A few weeks back Dave Davis, a church volunteer, was rototilling the garden patch when his work caught the attention of two Burmese mothers who were picking up their kids from First Baptist’s Toddlers Campus.
“One lady timidly came up to me on the rototiller and I shut it down,” Davis explains. “She asked, with eyebrows high, ‘Can we come and put in our sticks?’” Davis said they could and his questioner turned and waved a hand to her friend and both women hurried off. “Stakes were in the ground within 10 minutes of my finishing tilling.”
Within two hours, all the plots were taken. “I think it is popular.”
For the refugees, gardening provides a way to connect their former home, food and culture with their new life in the suburbs of Chicago.
Tuan Tial is one of the gardeners at First Baptist. Tial, like many of her neighbors, originally came from the Chin state of Burma. “We Chin people were farmers at home so when we come here we like to grow our food,” Tial says. “And some of the things we like to eat we cannot find in the stores here or they’re very expensive.”
For example Chin baung, which translates as “sour leaf,” is a popular plant in Burma and amongst Chin gardeners in America. A type of hibiscus, chin baung can be dried as a seasoning or cooked like spinach and is also believed to have medicinal value.
Since refugees often work in relatively low wage jobs as they build up work history and learn more English, gardening is also a way to stretch paychecks. Because plants like Chin baung are popular among the Burmese, but hard to find, gardeners can supplement their income by selling produce to neighbors, markets and restaurants.
But perhaps most importantly, gardening gives many refugees who cannot work because of age, disability or family responsibilities a way to be productive and use the skills they have developed over generations. “It’s therapeutic,” says WRDA’s Senior Services Specialist, Gordana Kaludjerovic. “It allows them to be in touch with the land, to express themselves and spend time during the day. The whole family gets involved which makes them very happy.”
Each summer compact but fertile gardens dot back yards and small patches of space in apartment complexes around the areas that refugees now call home.
In the city of Chicago, refugees being resettled by World Relief and four other resettlement organizations have been growing and selling crops since 2012. The Global Garden Refugee Training Farm was started with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Global Garden Farm operates in cooperation with the Petersen Garden Project in the Albany Park neighborhood. Farmers earn income by selling to restaurants and caterers but also run a farmers market and sell directly to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers.
Linda Seyler, who started the Global Garden, told The Chicago Reader’s Mike Sula, “[Y]ou’ve got to empathize with what they’re going through. This is what they know how to do and it’s been bottled up inside. It makes them feel like capable people again.”
In Wheaton the gardens have grown out of the initiative of each family and the generosity of churches like First Baptist Wheaton. “This is a little investment in exchange for what seems to be a very popular and wanted thing – namely that they can cultivate with their favorite plants,” Dave Davis says.
“The smiles on the faces of those two ladies were worth the 2 1/2 hours of tilling. I left that day happy that I’d given them something they wanted.”
Summer Youth Programs
Building Skills and Relationships
Kids may be out of school, but the WRDA Children and Youth programs don’t take a break in the summer. School holidays give time for special activities and special partnerships with activities at local churches.
The highlight of the summer is the World Relief Cup soccer tournament. Held the Saturday after July 4, this tournament is made possible by the Chicago Eagles, a ministry to children using the international language of football (soccer to those in North America). Kids are divided into age-level teams and compete for bragging rights and a photo with the World Relief Cup trophy. But, more than this, it is a time of building relationships, learning sportsmanship and just having fun, which is all too rare for many of these kids who were forced to flee their home countries with their families. One young man put it simply about World Cup, “This is the best day of my life…”
But WRDA does not serve these children alone. Many local churches partner with us over the summer for special youth activities. Refugee children feel the love and support of the church and community through activities such as:
- Redeemer Community Church providing scholarships for their summer camp to 10 middle school students.This is their third year of making this transforming camp week possible.
- St. Thomas in Glen Ellyn hosting a summer club that invited refugee kids to learn about gardening in “God’s Garden,” which raises produce to be given to local food pantries.
- Puente del Pueblo, part of Wheaton Bible Church, hosting a variety of summer activities for refugee and immigrant kids living in West Chicago.
- First Baptist of Geneva hosting a weekly mother/child play date every Friday in July at an apartment complex where many refugees live.
- Village Bible Church in Aurora hosting two summer clubs and volunteers coming to help from several area churches.VBC also was the site for a special event for the Bhutanese/Nepali community in partnership with the Living Water Nepali Church of Chicago and the First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas.
Back to school activities will be gearing up soon. To find out more about how you can volunteer and impact the life of a child, click here.
Here and There
Growing Coffee in Haiti
Just as growing gardens impacts refugees in Illinois, World Relief in Haiti is working to increase the livelihood of Haitian coffee farmers through a partnership with the Foods Resources Bank.
After many years of economic struggle in Haiti, some of the knowledge and skills of coffee farming had been lost, and some farmers were fearful of the practice of pruning and working with the coffee plants. World Relief Haiti challenged these farmers to take a chance on a different way of working with their plants, and they experienced exponential increases in their yields, as well as exponential increases to their family incomes.
One coffee farmer, Esperon Figueroa, put it this way, “In my opinion, God Himself sent World Relief to this region with this project. We live off of our coffee, and the diseases and difficulties that we found in our plantations discouraged us from even trying to manage them. Thanks to World Relief, we now have knowledge as to how we can repair our gardens that were in disarray.”
To learn more or to partner with this project that is changing the life of farmers in Haiti, contact Bill Janus at email@example.com.
Nine years ago, when Yohani and Vestine Dadara came to America, they wanted a place to call home. The Dadaras long journey began in their home country of Burundi when war in that nation forced them to flee to Rwanda, only to find more war and a second flight to Tanzania seeking safety.
From Tanzania the Dadaras were approved to come to the United States and were resettled in Geneva by World Relief and were served by volunteers Greg Giel and Mary Pat Wright. Since the family’s arrival, Greg and Mary Pat have stayed connected with the Dadaras and have walked with them through the process of finding a home.
Soon after arrival, the Dadaras had an apartment to rent, work to support the family and, with the help of volunteers and new friends, they dealt with the daily challenges of adjustment to a new country and culture. But, this large family with six kids needed more room. They also wanted something to call their own, someplace permanent after years of seeking safety and moving from one place to another.
Buying a home is difficult for many people, but it is especially difficult for refugee families who do not understand the complicated process of home-buying in the U.S. Even though Yohani and Vestine were both working and could pay the rent and bills, there was no money left over to save for a down payment on a house.
That is where partnership with Emmanuel House changed the story for this family. Aurora-based Emmanuel House began when its founders, Rick and Desiree Guzman, saw the challenge it is for refugees to put down permanent roots in a community. Today Emmanuel House helps World Relief clients and other low income neighbors purchase a home, build assets and a way out of poverty through Networked Savings.
“Networked Saving makes it possible for low-income, working families to save for a down payment on a home while still paying market-rate rent,” Emmanuel House’s Lissa Fecht explains. “One of the largest challenges refugee families face when trying to purchase a home is their ability to pay for a down payment and fees associated with closing on a home.”
Emmanuel House owns three multi-family residential properties and the commercial property where World Relief’s Aurora office is located. Networked Savings participants can live at an Emmanuel House property and pay market-rate rent for 18 months. Participants exit Emmanuel House with a full year’s rent in savings, ready to purchase their first home.
“It was easy because we were able to get help,” Vestine explains through her son Joseph’s interpretation. “Those 18 months, everything we were making; all the money we were paying in rent was going towards a down payment for a new home.”
Saving for the down payment was only the first part, finding the right house for a family of eight was a second big challenge, but Emmanuel House continued to help. “It was hard,” Vestine says. “We had to pick a house that was the right size but also the right price.”
“Families understand how to navigate their own culture’s system of ownership but have very little understanding of credit, loan qualifications, budgeting and maintenance of homes built in varying climates with different plumbing and electrical systems,” Lissa explains. “Emmanuel House addresses this gap by requiring one-on-one homebuyer’s and credit counseling, classes on budgeting and real estate and a team of experts to walk alongside a family getting ready to purchase a house.”
“We had issues with credit,” Yohani adds. “Because we were newer to the country, we didn’t have loans to build our credit. So we had to go through that process.”
“It’s great,” Yohani says. “And it’s good for the kids. If you’re living in an apartment, the neighbors hear you and at the time there were a lot of little ones jumping up and down.”
“If you are able to get into the program, you should take advantage,” Vestine says. “If you work hard and you save, you can put down a good down payment and reduce your monthly payment.”
The Dadara family was resourceful and took advantage of tremendous support from Emmanuel House and from friends they have accumulated throughout their years in the United States. That resourcefulness and support are crucial in buying a home.
Yohani suggests that if you are in the program, you should get a lot of help picking the right house. “Because we’re coming to a new country, a new culture; first homes are hard because if you make mistakes, they can affect you. There are a lot of people helping out, volunteers. Get to the right people who have the information to help you.”
“Especially for families who have lost not only their home, but their country, buying a home appears to bring a sense of “settled-ness,” pride and peace,” Lissa says. “When families first walk me through their new homes, I can see the dignity and pride that comes from working hard and putting their own stakes in a community.”
Dr. Issam Smeir has worked with World Relief DuPage/Aurora Counseling Center for 15 years, and this month he was recognized by the Carter Center in Atlanta, GA as a "Defender of Human Rights" for his work in treating refugees, victims of torture, and severely abused and neglected children. This center, named for former President Jimmy Carter, selects Defenders of Human Rights for its annual conference. Issam was asked to present to the group of honorees on his work in Narrative Exposure Therapy to help refugees heal from the trauma they have experienced.
Issam got to meet President Carter when he came to the conference to give his keynote address on World Refugee Day. This was a special event as it was President Carter who signed the Refugee Act of 1980, the law which still serves as the basis for the U.S.’s humanitarian refugee resettlement program.
Issam, who is originally from Jordan and continues to travel regularly to train church leaders and mental health practitioners in the Middle East, is also co-author of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis, along with Matthew Soerens and World Relief President Stephan Bauman. The book from Moody Press is available now for pre-order from various retailers like Moody Press and Amazon, and will be released on July 5.
Even though families like the Dadaras (story above) were forced to flee Burundi, World Relief is working on the ground in that country to empower the churches there to help change lives.
World Relief Burundi has been actively working with local churches to come together and form Church Empowerment Zones. This means that all church leaders in a geographic area have come together across denominations to lead their communities in physical and spiritual transformation. The leaders identify volunteers from their churches who are then trained by World Relief staff to teach on basic child health and nutrition, sustainable agricultural, the importance of saving money together in community, and through all of these to share the love of Christ.
Goreth is a volunteer in Burundi who has led a savings group through 3 savings cycles, which is almost 3 years. Personally she has been able to acquire three goats thanks to the savings group. The group focuses not only on the personal opportunities for members, but this group has also used its collected savings to fund schooling for three orphans who had been forced to drop out. Goreth and her group are just one of the other 450 other savings groups (over 10,000 members) in the church empowerment zone who are persevering, not just to make a better life for their own families, but also for their neighbors.
Learn more about World Relief Burundi.
WRDA is the grateful recipient of a new grant from The Chicago Community Trust. This generous $25,000 grant, awarded through the Trust’s Unity Fund, will support refugee families as they begin their new lives here in the suburbs of Chicago. Specifically, this grant will fund a portion of WRDA’s Job Class, which helps refugee adults prepare for and find that first critical job here in the U.S. The grant will also support WRDA’s services that allow refugees to access the resources they need to provide for their families until they begin earning a steady income.
This grant has come at a particularly important time, as WRDA has recently lost significant funding for both of these programs due to the ongoing state budget crisis here in Illinois. In the midst of this crisis, we are blessed to have churches, individuals, and private foundations like The Chicago Community Trust who ensure that the families seeking refugee from persecution and war receive a warm welcome and the support they need to rebuild their lives.
To learn more about the Trust, please visit Chicago Community Trust.
Job Class Works
Focused Education Helps Refugees Succeed
Until 2008, Heih Nawl and his family were simple farmers in the Chin state of Burma, but it was hard work. He dropped out of school after the second grade in order to help on the family rice paddy where they grew just enough food to survive and a little extra to sell at local markets.
But hard work and hunger were compounded by the war raging through his country. Rebels in Burma have been locked in a civil war with the government for decades. They hide in the hilly forests of the Chin state, but the Burmese Army goes into the mountains to hunt them down. Many times, soldiers passed through Heih Nawl’s village and killed their livestock for food. They forced him and other villagers to carry weapons and supplies into the mountains, guarding them at gunpoint to be sure they would not escape.
“Burma is controlled by the military,” says Heih Nawl, with some help from an interpreter. “They controlled our farms. They controlled our families. They controlled everything.”
In 2007, Heih Nawl married Ngun Thlai, but he knew that they could not raise a family in this dangerous environment. One night, when the soldiers in his village were distracted, Heih Nawl made his escape and traveled almost 2,000 miles to Malaysia, moving mostly at night to avoid detection. There he moved in with fellow Burmese refugees in a small, over-crowded apartment. He was forced to live in the shadows since, without a visa, he could have been deported back to Burma. Unable to work openly, he nonetheless was able to earn a little money to support his wife, so she made the perilous journey to join him in Malaysia.
On learning the location of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, he immediately went to apply for refugee status. He hoped to be approved to move to a country where he and his wife could begin a new life together – maybe even the United States where some of his relatives had resettled! Finally, in 2015 – almost six years after they applied with UNHCR – Heih Nawl and his wife, along with their son, were approved to resettle in the U.S., in a place called Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
When the young family landed at O’Hare Airport in February 2016, Heih Nawl didn’t know any English, and had no employment experience here in the U.S. He did not know how to find a job to support his family. Thankfully for him, World Relief DuPage/Aurora’s (WRDA) innovative, six-week, Job Readiness ESL class is designed specifically to help refugees like him prepare for his first job in the U.S. So after a few short weeks of getting settled in Glen Ellyn, Heih Nawl enrolled in the Job Readiness ESL Class – known as “Job Class.” On his first day of class, he was nervous. He hadn’t been in a classroom in almost 20 years!
“On his first day,” says Krista Jacques, Heih Nawl’s Job Class teacher, “I asked him his name, and he would just smile back at me. I asked him where he was from, and he would just smile back at me. He was very, very quiet.”
Job Class, which is made possible through the support of private donors and the dedication of many volunteers, is designed to help people like Heih Nawl succeed. For 4.5 hours, four days a week, the class covers the general English, job search and work retention skills that newly arrived refugees need. The rotating curriculum allows new students to start class on any given Monday and complete all six instructional modules: Personal Information, Money and Finance, Time and Schedules, Location and Directions, Health and Hygiene, and Safety and Emergencies. Students practice interviewing, calling in sick, leaving voicemails, and many other tangible skills that may be foreign to them. In each class, volunteer classroom aides patiently work side-by-side with students like Heih Nawl.
“No one is going to master the English language in Job Class,” says Krista, “but they can learn enough to start having conversations with people at work and in the community. This opens up a whole new world of language learning for them.”
For his first few weeks of class, Heih Nawl was still too unsure of his language skills to answer questions. But during his fifth week of class, eight new Burmese refugees started the course. On the new students’ first day, Krista asked Heih Nawl to teach them how to clock in for class – one of the many job-related skills that are mimicked in the classroom – and he instantly became a classroom leader. He translated for new students, explained concepts and routines to them, and helped lead field trips to the Wheaton Library and Feed My Starving Children. This role gave him confidence, and also helped him improve his English, leading to his exit test showing a five-fold improvement in his English ability over his entrance evaluation pre-test score!
While enrolled in Job Class, Heih Nawl also met with Allison Jensen, a WRDA Employment Specialist. Allison reviewed Heih Nawl’s work history and helped him write his first resume. In April, barely 3 months after arriving in the U.S., he landed a job in a local manufacturing company. Heih Nawl is grateful to have this stable, secure job, and he hopes to make a career at the company.
“I use everything I learned in Job Class,” says Heih Nawl with a big smile. “I was not even nervous for my first day at AJR [his employer], because Job Class helped me to prepare so well.”
Today, thanks to the donors, volunteers, and companies who partner with World Relief, Heih Nawl and his family have a bright future as they build a new, hopeful and safe life some 8,000 miles away from the suffering they endured.
New Grant Matches Dollar for Dollar
Help Meet the $20,000 Challenge
A local private foundation has issued WRDA a challenge, and we need your help to meet it. Because this foundation believes that work provides personal dignity as well as financial stability for refugee families, they want to invest in WRDA’s job readiness classes and employment support services. If we are able to raise $20,000 in qualifying donations*, the foundation will match those gifts dollar for dollar! Thanks to the generosity of some new donors, we are on our way to meeting this goal, but we need your help as well. Please consider making a gift in one of these two ways:
- Donate online at www.worldreliefdupageaurora.org/donate and write “Job Class Matching Grant” in the comments section on the giving page, or
- Mail a check made out to “World Relief DuPage/Aurora” with “Job Class” in the memo line.
Thank you for your generosity! If you have any questions, contact Tim Kustusch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 630-580-5083.
*Qualifying donations are gifts from new donors or donors who have not contributed in the last 2 years in order to expand the base of people in our community contributing to the work of WRDA and the economic stability of our new neighbors.
World Refugee Day 2016
Local Ways to Celebrate
In 2000 the United Nations designated June 20 as World Refugee Day in order to focus the world’s attention on the plight of people forced to flee from their homes in search of safety. This year the world’s refugee crisis is at an all-time high, making this day more important than ever. WRDA is marking the day with two events, and we invite you to join us.
Kneel 2 Stand, Saturday, June 18 from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m.
First Presbyterian Church
339 4th Street, Downers Grove, IL
WRDA is launching Kneel 2 Stand to encourage times of prayer and calling on God as churches and communities come together to Stand/for the Vulnerable. On the Saturday before World Refugee Day we will gather to pray for refugees in our community and in our world. A light breakfast will be served followed by a time of prayer. To help us prepare for this event, an RSVP is appreciated if you can join us. You can respond online at: worldreliefdupageaurora.org/K2S. If you are unable to join us in person, please consider joining us in prayer.
Spotlight on World Refugee Day, Monday, June 20th, 7-8:30 pm
Nature’s Best Café
1904 Brookdale Rd, Naperville, IL
To better understand the violence and persecution that drive people from their homes, join World Relief DuPage/Aurora to hear directly from three people who fled their home countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and now live in the suburbs of Chicago. They will share about the struggles and opportunities of resettlement in the United States. Doors open at 6:30 and food and beverages will be available for purchase during the event.
Savings for Life
Economic Development “Here” and “There”
World Relief helps refugee families in the U.S. reach stability and self-sufficiency by preparing them for success in the U.S. labor force. Likewise, World Relief is helping people around the world have the dignity of work and the ability to care for their families. One way this is done in Rwanda is through the Savings for Life program.
This is Mparayonzi Jean hard at work fishing in his native country of Rwanda. He is an entrepreneur and is able to earn a living because he is a member in a local group that is part of World Relief’s Savings for Life (SFL) program. In Rwanda, the groups are known as VAMUBUKENE. Jean managed to buy a boat for 50,000 Rwandan Francs (FR) after getting 60,000FR as a loan from the group. To have all the materials and equipment needed for fishing, he managed to raise an additional 40,000FR on his own and bought a “filet,” which is used to catch the fish. Jean is married and he and his wife have four children. With his business, he now is able to provide for his family, even though they live in the remote village of Taba. He said, “I was isolated from my fellow men because I had no job and it was hard to feed my children, but now I am earning 3500FR per day and I have a happy family”.
World Relief’s Savings for Life™ (SFL) programs empower the most vulnerable in communities that lack access to even the most basic financial services. World Relief equips local community trainers to mobilize and train savings groups, SFL creates access for the poor to safe and reliable savings services and appropriately sized loans. Savings helps the world’s poorest – who have shown tremendous capacity and willingness to save – to build and protect their financial assets in climates where financial institutions cannot serve them.
“Amazing” April: One Month in a Growing Movement to Welcome
How do you know you are part of a movement that is gaining steam? It is evident when, in a single month, over 40 churches and community groups invite WRDA to lead or participate in events and discussions on serving and welcoming the stranger among us. Here are just a few of the top highlights:
- Glen Ellyn Evangelical Covenant Church hosted a 2-week emphasis on missions that featured a panel of refugees who are part of the 2 other churches that share their building - one Burmese and one Bhutanese. WRDA speakers also gave talks as this partner church of many decades is encouraging a new generation of members to get involved and to serve.
- First Baptist Church of Bolingbrook served their immigrant neighbors by hosting a WRDA Citizenship Clinic on April 16. Over 100 people were screened and 97 applications for citizenship were initiated in a single day that had folks lined up as early as 5:30 a.m. to be served.
- One church that made a tough decision to dissolve invited WRDA to join them for their final service. Even though this church is closing its doors, they decided to invest in welcoming the stranger by presenting WRDA with a large check from the assets of the, now former, congregation. We are so humbled and so very grateful to continue the legacy of this body of believers.
- The Compass Church in Wheaton held a panel event on April 10 about welcoming refugees and immigrants of the Muslim faith. This church, which shares its building with 3 churches within refugee communities, invited World Relief’s Matt Soerens to be a part of the presentation and discussion, along with Vincent Bacote and Roy Oskevard.
- Pleasant Hill Community Church and First Baptist Church of Wheaton both dedicated a full Sunday to missions, including speakers from WRDA talking about foreign mission opportunities right here in our neighborhood.
- WRDA’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Event and International Street Festival was held on April 22. This event brought out some 225 people who shared food from Burma, India, Congo, Bhutan, Latin America, Iraq, Iran and more. Entertainment was provided by a Mexican cultural dance troupe, by a professional singer from Iran sharing traditional Persian songs, and a group of Bhutanese Seniors got lots of volunteers and attendees to join them in dancing. Check out the photos and video on WRDA’s Facebook page!
- Pastor Talargie Tefesse of the Sensae Church (Ethiopian and Eritrean) came to speak to the WRDA staff on April 20. He brought an encouraging message about “home”. His faith, his own experience as an immigrant, and his role serving a church that is about 1/3 refugees, gives Pastor Talargie a deep understanding that, for Christians, “home” is neither here nor in another country. Home is with God eternally.
- Journeys of Hope opened in Wheaton on April 24. This is a special exhibit of the art of refugees and those who have some alongside them as they have come to our communities. WRDA’s John Rakow, himself an artist, helped to put this exhibit together and a special reception brought together many friends and lovers of art. You can still see the exhibit through May 15 at the Burning Bush Gallery, a ministry of Gary United Methodist Church on Main Street in Wheaton.
- Runners and walkers are naming WRDA as the organization they are supporting in the DuPage Human Race scheduled this Saturday, April 30. They are giving their time and their energy to be a part of this welcoming movement.
After such and Amazing April, stay tuned for what is in store next!
Every year Willow Creek Community Church hosts a “Celebration of Hope” that focuses on ministries and causes that are a part of the church. Through special exhibits and activities over the course of 3 weeks, members of the church learn more about important issues and ways God is working through the church’s many partner ministries. This year WRDA represented World Relief globally and locally as attention was focused on the refugee crisis in the Middle East.
A haunting display that depicts a bombed out building in one of the many Syrian cities now destroyed by the ongoing civil war, called attention to one little girl standing amid the rubble. She makes us think of the thousands of Syrian and other Middle Eastern children who have no memory of anything but war and violence, or of a life of fleeing for safety.
WRDA staff were on hand to share about the work of World Relief in Jordan, Turkey, Germany and other parts of the world to create “child friendly” spaces to give some children a place and a chance to be kids and step away from the horror and trauma of war. Classes of children and other members also learned about the work of World Relief, through offices like WRDA, in resettling refugees from Syria and other parts of the world who are accepted to come to the United States.
Then on Saturday, April 23, over 4,000 people participated in a 5K run named the “Run for Refugees”. Through this run, Willow Creek is partnering with World Relief and World Vision in this vital ministry. World Relief is thankful to partner with churches and other like-minded organizations as we take on the daunting challenges of our day.
Canon Andrew White knows firsthand about the persecution facing some Christians in the Middle East. Known as the “Vicar of Baghdad”, he served until November 2014, when circumstances made it impossible for him to continue, as the pastor of St. George’s Church, one of the largest in Iraq. On a recent trip to the U.S., Canon White and a colleague, Dr. Sarah Ahmet, with whom he now works as part of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), visited with the staff of WRDA.
“It was a tremendous honor to meet him in person. He’s such a courageous person who has been through so much,” said WRDA Sr. Employment Specialist Barb Galli. Equally inspirational were the thoughts shared by Dr. Ahmet, a female physician and a Muslim who is orchestrating FRRME’s operations in northern Iraq. Emily Mudge, WRDA Staff Attorney noted, “I liked her answer about if she thinks about serving people who are of a different faith than she is. She said she doesn’t think about it and it doesn’t change how she thinks about what she does for people.” Another staffer said “Dr. Sarah is so sharp, gentle-hearted despite the terror she has seen and experienced. How she loves her people is very inspiring.”
Canon White encouraged the staff of WRDA to spend time with the refugees who are resettled here, to share meals with them and really show them we care. This is always a strong staff desire, even in the midst of real time constraints of the day to day work tasks. As the world and media has turned its focus to the crisis in Syria and Europe, it is easy to forget that ISIS started their terror in Iraq. Many agencies, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others, are not adequately funded to respond to the need. The work of Dr. Ahmet and Canon White is crucial for the internally displaced and the refugees still living in Iraq.
When a growing group of Chin Burmese Christians became too big to continue meeting together in homes, they began searching for a larger place. After finding some doors closed, they were welcomed by the Christ Community Church in Wheaton who began sharing their building. This church already had a history actively serving the refugee community through offering garden plots to refugees and hosting English conversation classes.
Over the past several years this partnership has continued to deepen and the Chin church has continued to grow as more refugees are welcomed and as the church has become a central part of the life of a thriving community. Eager to have a permanent home, the church began talking with the leadership of Christ Community Church about the future.
Talks and prayer have led to the signing of a contract between the two congregations that allows for the Chin church to work on a 5 year plan toward the purchase of the building and ushers in a new era in partnership that is impacting both congregations. “I love our Chin brothers and sisters, and believe that God is indeed introducing new wineskins into our midst, and I want to support that wherever possible,” said Caleb Smith, Pastor of Christ Community Church.
As they continue down the road to the final purchase of the building, the UCC held a special service of dedication and praise on April 3. We celebrate with them as they continue to make Wheaton home.
Yusuf Nur lived a quiet life, selling fruits and vegetables on the streets of his native Somalia to support his wife and seven children. But in 2006 the Islamic Courts Union (militant factions of which would later form Al-Shabaab) challenged the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and renewed civil war broke out. Amidst the chaos of the war, Yusuf was kidnapped, beaten and tortured, which left him with many injuries. While Yusuf was taken to the hospital, his wife and children ran for their lives to the nation of Djibouti, a small country to the north of Somalia on the Horn of Africa, but they were unable to let Yusuf know where they had gone.
Unsure if his family had found safety or where they were, Yusuf remained in Somalia for two years searching for them before fleeing for his own safety to Egypt. While in Egypt, friends helped the family to reconnect, but they were unable to be reunited or to apply together for the refugee resettlement program. So, In September 2010 Yusuf came alone to the United States as a refugee while his family remained in Africa. Through WRDA he was placed in an apartment with a roommate and assisted to begin the cultural adjustment journey. Although he was in a safer environment, his transition to life in America was difficult.
First was the physical struggle. Still suffering from the results of being tortured in Somalia, he was initially unable to work and had to rely on charitable support to pay rent and bills. The extent of Yusuf's injuries required that he undergo several surgeries. Then there was the emotional struggle. While waiting on physical healing, Yusuf began to learn about the process that would be required in order for his family to join him in the U.S. While he recovered from surgeries, he needed his family, but had to wait.
For Yusuf, like for many refugees, the family unification process can be long and frustrating. In October of 2011 Yusuf was able to apply for his green card with the help of World Relief’s Immigration Legal Services. After applying for his green card, Yusuf applied for reunification with his family, and though the applications were approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in December of that year, the waiting would continue for another three years as his family went through the requirements of multiple interviews for applicants, medical screenings and the lengthy security screening process for any refugee admitted to the U.S.
Finally in December of 2014, Yusuf was able to greet his family as they arrived in the U.S. They were assisted to find suitable housing and start the adjustment journey again, but this time as a family. After waiting the required year after their arrival, in January 2016 the Immigrant Legal Services team helped the rest of Yusuf's family apply for their green cards. And for Yusuf, who had now been in the United States for the required 5 years and had passed the required tests and interviews, the family was together to celebrate as Yusuf became, in February, a naturalized U.S. Citizen.
“I will always cherish Yusuf’s indescribable joy when I told him that his families’ petitions were approved,” Susan Bachmeier, Immigrant Legal Services Senior Specialist at World Relief said. “Cases like Yusuf’s are the ones that keep me motivated and make me love my job.”