Fifteen years ago, CT featured a cover story titled "Refugees: Off Sinking Boats into American Churches." The article focused primarily, though not exclusively, on "boat people," refugees from Southeast Asia. Today, refugees are more likely to come from Bosnia, Sudan, or Kosovo than from Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, and the number of refugees worldwide has increased significantly. Nevertheless, the challenges and po ten tial rewards of resettling refugees remain unchanged. For Christians, this is an unmistakable opportunity to practice cross-cultural ministry.
When Bosnian Rasid Jusufi stepped into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after five years of war, refugee camps, and wondering if he would ever talk to his family again, he wished he could turn around and go back. He was like a baby, he says, completely dependent, unable to speak or go anywhere: "If a baby knew what to expect, he might not want to be born."
Mulwal Alwdak, a refugee from Sudan and Liberia, recalls feelings of amazement and excitement: coming to the United States was his dream. He went through customs at JFK Airport and expected to be met at the gate when his connecting flight landed in Chicago. During the two hours he waited for his caseworker to arrive, Alwdak stayed calm, although he had been taught that Americans were punctual. He tried calling the Ethiopian Community Association, but the office was closed, and the foreign sound of an answering machine baffled him. Alwdak had no money and couldn't read. "I was planning to sleep at the airport," he said.
Alwdak and Jusufi are two of the more than 15 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. The United States admits 70,000 to 120,000 refugees each year. Exact numbers are determined annually by Con gress and are divided among regions of the world. In 1998 the quota was 75,000.
Many Christian agencies help resettle these refugees, including World Relief (WR; a division of the National Association of Evangelicals), the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Christian Re formed World Refugee Committee, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Episcopal Migration Min is tries, and the International Catholic Migration Commission. Still, about 75 percent of arriving refugees receive no welcome from a Christian sponsor.
"I don't know how they survive," says Deane Ruppert, a member of New Hope Connection, which sponsors refugee families with the help of WR. All incoming refugees have a sponsor, but secular sponsors often provide only the minimum needs, while Christian sponsors often go above and beyond, says Bellamy Bramman, reception and placement team leader and case manager at WR. Christian agencies usually give more time and try to befriend the refugee. "There's the Christian message of reconciliation with God and other people," says Bramman. "You can't get that with [secular] agencies."
New Hope Connection is an ecumenical group founded five years ago by people from over a dozen churches in LaGrange, Illinois. WR supplies a list of available refugees from which New Hope usually picks a family with children. "We're family oriented," says Ruppert.
Once WR informs them when the family will arrive, the group gets together to work out the details. Sub committees are formed to make sure everything is covered: transportation, taking the families to get public aid and social security, finding an apartment, furnishing that apartment, hooking up utilities, giving financial advice, taking the families shopping or to the refugee clinic, and giving a home orientation. Most time consuming is getting the children into school and the parents into English-As-a-Second-Language classes. Someone comes over every night to help with homework and read letters from teachers.
WR makes sure nothing is forgotten. "Our goal is to walk alongside the church and help them resettle the refugee," says Bramman. "We want to mobilize churches for service."
World Relief's Chicago office is currently working with about 50 churches. In the past 16 years, more than 11,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central America, and the former Soviet Union have been resettled by this office. Nationally, WR has re settled more than 100,000 refugees over the past 15 years.
New Hope Connection is currently settling its fifth family: the Lailas from Sudan. This is a bold move, Ruppert says, because the La Grange area is only 8 percent black. He is the team leader for the Laila family, which means he coordinates all of the subcommittees. Resettling this family proved especially challenging in the beginning.
In May 1997, Ruppert and members of the group went to the airport to pick up the Lailas—the father, Gasim; the mother, Fozia; and their three children—but the family didn't arrive. So, New Hope went ahead and sponsored the Ganics from Bosnia.
Six weeks later, in the midst of helping the Ganics adjust to life in the United States, New Hope was told the Laila family was coming after all. They had three or four days to prepare.
"We were in a panic," says Ruppert, "but we accepted the challenge." Al though everyone was "stretched a little thin," members of New Hope rose to the occasion and went right to work organizing the resettlement.
The Lailas spent their first month in a small apartment in a convent. This temporary placement, which arose from necessity, turned out to have an unexpected benefit: the constant company of the nuns helped ease the Lailas' transition from the social patterns of the Sudan to the individualistic culture of the United States.
Fozia hopes that they will begin to make friends here soon—maybe at her English classes. But the family is extremely grateful. "The sponsoring churches have been so good," she says.
The Lailas' house is furnished with couches, a coffee table, lamps, a television. Someone even donated a bright red 1989 Voyager minivan.
Ruppert thinks sponsoring a ref u gee family benefits everyone involved. "It's good for the churches, the community, the families, the individuals," he says. "It's so rewarding to work one on one—you're helping them directly." He says it's a joy to see these families live when they could have been killed.
In Sudan, Gasim was accused by the Islamic regime of being antigovernment and was imprisoned once for 48 days and later for two weeks. A long-running civil war gave the government a pretext to crack down on Christians, who have suffered brutal persecution.
Leaving his family and job behind, Gasim flew to Khartoum, took a bus to the Nile River and a boat up to Egypt, using a phony passport to cross the border. He took another bus to Cairo, where he got an apartment and job and put money in the bank. A few months later he took the same complex route back to visit his family but re turned without them. Six months later, they joined him in Cairo. Ultimately, they were able to gain entrance to the United States.
At any given time, of course, the number of refugees who hope to enter the United States far exceeds the annual quota. For people who have suffered dislocation and, in many cases, severe trauma, the necessary bureaucratic process can become a prolonged nightmare.
Those who seek admission as refugees are generally referred to a voluntary agency (VOLAG) or joint voluntary agency (JVA). Some special cases may be dealt with directly by the United Nations. These agencies help applicants fill out a request for refugee status, a biographical information form, and other documents.
Applicants are then given an interview date. A U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official conducts the interview and determines eligibility. Applicants are asked about the reasons for their departure from their homeland, their political or religious beliefs or activities, and problems or fears having to do with their country. Most of this information remains confidential. The resettlement caseworker is notified if the refugee suffered torture or rape.
After the interview, applicants will receive either a letter in the mail or a phone call to let them know whether they were accepted. Those found eligible must undergo a medical examination and a security name check and receive assurance of sponsorship; this information then goes to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The process can take as little as two months, but it often lasts a year or more.
Once they have made their way through the mountains of paperwork and have at last escaped the limbo of waiting, refugees have a new set of challenges to face: making adjustments to a new place, a new culture, a foreign language.
The Lailas were surprised by the cold—and by the blandness of the food, which they remedied with ample supplies of salt, sugar, and spices. Ruppert remembers their initial difficulties with the faucet and the stove, but they learned fast. Fozia no longer had to go outside and build a fire to cook. And Gasim, without a job at first, could help cook as well.
The trials of learning a new language were more taxing. The first time Gasim heard hot dog, he thought he was being offered a canine to eat. He still gets frustrated with his English and often shakes his head, apologizing, "I know this in Arabic."
Some refugees hardly seem to notice the barriers. "I came and fit in, no problem," Mulwal Alwdak says. Well, not completely. At almost seven feet tall, he towers above most Americans. His toothy grin and unusually jolly demeanor also set him apart. If his English is heavily accented, it is also delivered rapid-fire, with considerable self-assurance. You wouldn't guess from his manner the hardships he's endured.
Alwdak wasn't able to talk to anyone in his family for 11 years. He had no one to console him or take pride in his accomplishments. The separation began in 1986, when he left southern Sudan (where most of the Christians in that country live) to go to the north. His family stayed be hind, afraid to leave the relative safety of what they had known their entire lives. Because Alwdak was younger, it was easier for him to get up and go, he says.
The civil war in Sudan hadn't touched him yet, but Alwdak knew it would soon because of the religious, ethnic, and economic tensions between northern and southern Sudan. Alwdak is a Christian and a member of the Dinka tribe, affiliations regarded with suspicion by the predominantly Muslim northerners.
Thus in 1987 Alwdak emigrated to Liberia and lived with friends. He applied to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees with hopes of moving to the United States or Canada, but he was turned down on the grounds that he hadn't made a convincing argument that his situation was life threatening. (Refugee advocates charge that such judgments are frequently arbitrary or politically biased.) In part, Alwdak attributes the rejection to the fact that he had to make his case in English, which he hadn't yet mastered. "I couldn't express myself," he says.
In 1989, Alwdak enrolled in the University of Liberia. His tuition was free because he was a refugee and could play basketball. But civil war broke out in Liberia as well.
"I was caught in it for three months. I couldn't get out," he says. "I saw torture, killing, bloodshed in the streets. You don't know what will happen tomorrow."
On September 1, 1990, Alwdak fled Liberia. There was fighting going on near the waterfront as he frantically climbed a rope ladder to the overcrowded boat that would take him to the safety of Ghana. He carried two bags. One fell into the sea. The other held his high-school diploma and his passport.
After a two-day boat ride with no food or water, the refugees arrived in Ghana. Alwdak called himself a "double refugee." He stayed in the refugee camp in Ghana for two years—and he would be considered lucky. The average time refugees spend in a camp is five years.
The refugees in Ghana were required to farm, which provided some money. In addition to the food he grew, Alwdak received one bucket of rice, one liter of oil, four onions, and one half-pound of salt from the UN every month.
In October 1992, the University of Liberia reopened. Although the civil war was not totally over, it was controlled, and Alwdak chose to return. But within two years, he decided to leave Liberia again and reapplied to the UNHCR.
"I thought it would be better for me to find a place of stability, where I can rebuild my life," he explains. "In Liberia, I never knew what would happen."
Alwdak was accepted on June 13, 1995, and began the medical screening, which included tests for HIV. He was then given a refugee admission number, deducted from the annual ceiling. On September 21, 1995, he was given his plane ticket to Chicago. (Transportation for refugees is generally arranged through IOM, and the refugee signs a promissory note for the amount of the airfare. Flight information is usually given to refugees a minimum of two weeks before they leave.)
Alwdak flew to the United States with 15 other Sudanese, parting with 12 of them at JFK. "It was a wonderful journey," Alwdak says. "It was a dream we had been wishing for."
He still lives in an apartment that he and some of the Sudanese refugees he arrived with got with World Relief's help. Before that, they lived in an apartment provided by the Ethiopian Community Association, which also supplied the refugees with food, the basics for the apartment, and assistance with social security and job hunting. For the first four months, Alwdak received $119 worth of food stamps and $212 cash for welfare every month. He pooled his resources with the rest of his roommates to make ends meet. "I wanted to be independent as soon as I could," Alwdak says. "I was tired of depending on other people."
He got a job at a hotel and that fall enrolled as a transfer student in the University of Illinois at Chi ca go with a double major in economics and finance. Fellow students helped him learn basic computer skills and also helped him polish his English. In his spare time he visits the Laila family out in LaGrange.
Christians can help refugees in the course of everyday life and not only through the mechanics of sponsorship. Companionship is a need for just about every refugee, regardless of social or economic background. "It's easy to be their friends," says Carol Erickson, chair of Christian Education at the Ravenswood Covenant Church in a diverse North Chicago neighborhood. The relationships she has with several refugees started when her Sunday-school class at Ravenswood decided to give a "Good Samaritan Kit"—which consists of assorted household goods and nonperishable foods—to a new family.
Erickson and a friend organized sign-up sheets for the items needed. "World Relief makes it easy and simple," she says, by supplying a list of needed items.
"Everybody has extra things at home or can spend $5 or $20," Erickson says. Soon the whole church joined in and donated everything from toothbrushes and toilet paper to blankets, dishes, and furniture. "I have learned what it means to be grateful," she says. "They come with nothing."
The church has continued the relationship with the two refugee families they helped. The children of both families have come to summer day camps, and Ravenswood's youth director tutors one of the children. The families are Muslim and don't attend church regularly but have come to special church events.
Thus, what started under the auspices of WR's resettlement program has blossomed into an ongoing commitment. What started in a single Sunday-school class now involves an entire church.
Today the same story is being played out elsewhere in Illinois and locations scattered across the United States as a new "generation" of refugees—this time from Kosovo—finds shelter, encouragement, and hope. Increasingly, wherever we live in the United States, our neighbors will probably include refugees, people who have been forced to leave all that is familiar and comfortable and seek a new life in a strange land. If we have eyes to see, we will recognize them and reach out to them.
Peri Stone is a staff writer for the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung in New Braunfels, Texas.
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