From Foriegner to Friend

 

 

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Maria (left) and Liubov (right) celebrating over a finished baking project.

 

Truly understanding the plight of a refugee can only come from experience; even then, it is almost impossible to emphasize with each individual’s story. Maria Naccarato, World Relief volunteer, spent three years of her life as a foreigner in another country and has only scratched the surface in beginning to understand the depth of a refugee’s strife.

Maria grew up in Spokane-Valley, attending Millwood Presbyterian Church, but went away to the University of Montana to study Wildlife Biology and pursue her love for the outdoors. While she was in school, she struggled with what she saw in the church. I really struggled with seeing the way some Christians talked about how they should live and the way they actually lived,” Maria confessed. 

“Why did they talk about feeding and clothing the poor, but none of these things ever got done?”

This led Maria to begin praying for an opportunity to live out her faith, “God, I’ll do whatever you want me to do, I’ll go wherever you want me to go, just tell what to do.” Maria felt the Lord’s call towards the Russian community, and now, she just needed a way to get involved.

“I took this very seriously and was willing to give up everything in order to pursue this calling.” While finishing college, Maria connected with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in order to get ministry experience and skills to prepare her for her upcoming journey.

Maria used her connection with InterVarsity to get placed as a full-time staff member in Kyrgyzstan, a former republic of the Soviet Union. “I worked in a small town with a local university and was the only foreigner on the ministry staff,” Maria explained. She spent 3 ½ years developing friendships with the locals and building a community through InterVarsity, but admitted that she never felt at home in Kyrgyzstan. Despite learning the language, learning to navigate the town, and even leading Bible studies in Russian, something was always missing.

“I didn’t have a lot of friends.” She wondered, “Are these people my friends because they like me, because I’m American, or because I’m a foreigner and they feel sorry for me?”

Her best memory of her time overseas came when one of her local friends told her,

“I love you–not because of where you came from, but because of who you are.”

Nevertheless, Maria confessed, “The lack of community was really draining. I don’t think I could have done that for too much longer… I wish I would have had more meaningful connections with people while I was there… I missed being able to tell a joke and laugh from my stomach at something only people like me would understand.”

Maria described being in another country as isolating, and also felt as if she was thrust into the spotlight, always being watched. She described her experience as “running in water.”

After so many memories, good and bad, Maria made her way home. Though she was home, she didn’t want to return as a Christian bystander, she wanted to be actively involved; something had to change. After just a month of being back in America, she contacted World Relief Spokane to volunteer.

“I think my experience in Kyrgyzstan made me excited to work with refugees because when you have been a foreigner, when you’ve felt the stress of going to the grocery store without knowing the language, it is easier to have compassion.”

Maria readily admitted that anything she felt, all the insecurities and troubles, are nothing in comparison to what her new friend, Liubov Shevchenko, has gone through.

Maria contacted World Relief Spokane Volunteer Coordinator, Nancy Goodwin, and got connected with Liubov, a refugee from Ukraine. Liubov had been in the country for two years before getting connected with a volunteer. They meet weekly at Liubov’s apartment to talk about life, bake, and share experiences.

Maria’s goal is to help Liubov learn English, but she delightfully added, “I see it a little more as just being a friend to her. She has a large Russian community in the area, but her and her husband have no American friends.” She related, “It’s difficult to be completely surrounded by a culture, but not be able to engage with the people of that culture. I invited them over for Thanksgiving and I got the impression that it was one of the few times they had actually been in an American home.”

Maria excitedly shared, “Liubov is practically a gourmet baker, so in order to teach her English, we have been baking together. As we bake, I have her explain to me, in English, what we need to buy and any instructions, like “rolling out the dough” or “measure this much flour”.” This is great for Liubov, because she is learning English, but also great for Maria, because she gets to learn how to bake.

She continued, “I often spend 2 or 3 hours with Liubov and I never regret my time spent with her. Every time I leave, I always feel encouraged. Part of it is the feeling of helping someone else, but the majority of it comes from my genuine friendship with Liubov.”

“It’s such a blessing to learn from her and be encouraged by her, especially since we both share our faith in Jesus. There are a lot of ways we are different, but there are a lot of ways we are the same.

Maria presents a challenge to anyone interested in serving with World Relief, “Anytime you have the opportunity to be with people that are different than you are it’s worthwhile. This looks like a lot of different things: spending time with people who believe something different, look different, or are from somewhere different. Any time you spend with these people will only add to the person you are. So take the step to volunteer, do it not only for your new friend but for yourself.”

Through Maria’s experience as a foreigner in another country, she understood that some refugees and immigrants are looking for someone to reach out to them. They want someone to love them, not because of where they are from, but because of who they are.

Feel a call to volunteer like Maria and want to befriend refugees like Liubov? Learn more about volunteering with World Relief Spokane at worldreliefspokane.org/volunteer. 

Zak Sommers, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Intern, wrote this blog post. 

 

 

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Rejoicing in the Lord

Pastor Daniel Nyluak (pronounced: nied-lock) smiles as he greets members of his congregation before church. Wearing a bright pink and white shirt, he greets visitors and church members with the same gregarious nature and listening ear.  

As the service begins by sharing testimonies, Daniel flashes another grin as the members of his church, Living Sacrifice Christian Ministry, praise God for little blessings like having Sunday’s off from work and big ones like safety in a car accident.

Gratefulness for God’s provision is not scarce at Living Sacrifice, in part because its pastor is so familiar with His gifts.

In 2002, just after Daniel married his wife, rebels in the Congo forced him to flee to a refugee camp in Uganda. Daniel left behind his wife and home when he heard rebel groups were hunting down doctors.

Daniel’s destination was a refugee camp in Uganda, but he only intended to stay for a short time. In 2005, he nearly returned to the Congo in spite of the danger. “I thought, ‘I can’t be here. I am a doctor. I had money, and now we’re living like animals in the refugee camp,”  Daniel said, “I was going to go to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) and tell them I need to go home.”

God intervened. When Daniel was praying, the Holy Spirit told him that he would be coming to America. “It was a miracle,” he said.

A second miracle followed. Daniel’s wife, Anile, searched for and found him in Uganda in 2007. “I saw that God had a plan for me, so I stayed in the refugee camp,” Daniel said. They started their first refugee church together two years later.3

In 2014, Daniel received word that his family would be going to America. God was faithful. He provided

World Relief staff helped Daniel and his wife find work, enrolled them in English classes, paired them with volunteers and connected the family with members of the Congolese community in Spokane. But there was one thing missing: an African church.

Daniel started a prayer group with local refugees six months into his time in Spokane, but the group needed a building where they could fully praise and worship. Several local pastors, including Joe Wittwer of Life Center and Bobby Moore of River City Church, came alongside Daniel and his prayer group. When River City offered the use of their building for church services on Sunday evenings, Daniel was overjoyed. God had provided once again.

The services at Living Sacrifice reflect gratefulness for God’s gifts. The African believers share stories of God’s protection and provision and thank him in prayer and praise. Soon after, the floor is shaking beneath church-goers’ feet as the entire congregation dances and worships their refuge and sustainer.

Each member of the church still has difficulties. All are transitioning to a new language, country, and culture, and all were forced to flee their counties fearing for their lives. Many, like Daniel, left good jobs, money, and family behind. But for three hours on Sunday afternoon the believers come together to praise God for all they have received.

Daniel fell to his knees during worship, perhaps overwhelmed with God’s provision. He is no longer a wealthy doctor, but he has a new call and it comes with different gifts. And with each new testimony and every praise sung to God, Daniel’s smile seems to get a little bigger.

Want to befriend refugees like Daniel and Anile? Learn more about volunteering with World Relief Spokane at worldreliefspokane.org/volunteer. 

Andrew Goodwin, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Assistant, wrote this blog post. 

The Bond of Sisterhood

Just as Elizabeth took in her unexpectedly pregnant cousin Mary, World Relief Spokane knows that women are uniquely capable of helping other women in need. That’s the idea behind our Women Who Stand program, which recognizes that refugee women are especially vulnerable. They face the same challenges in moving to Spokane as their male counterparts while serving in the double role of breadwinner and caregiver. They often have to overcome the trauma of sexual and domestic violence, which they experience at staggering rates when they flee from home or live in refugee camps.

By surrounding women refugees with supportive American women, World Relief converts vulnerability to self-sufficiency. Take the sister-like bond shared by Maren Longhurst and Solange, who were matched by the program. Maren is a local architect who led a team of women from her church in volunteering to come alongside Solange, a refugee from Congo and mother of 3-year-old Benta,

“I loved them immediately,” Maren says of meeting mother and daughter. “We had a connection like we were meeting sisters.” Their instant bond, the cornerstone of Women Who Stand, sustained Solange as she faced the greatest challenge of her new American life. 

A Long Housing Search

Soon after Solange was matched with Maren’s team, her roommate moved out, leaving her unable to meet the rent. Solange found herself caught between Spokane’s airtight rental market and homelessness. Maren’s team led a months-long housing search, made difficult by Solange’s lack of work or credit history.

“Usually by the time we even walked out the door after looking at an apartment it was already under contract with someone else,” said Maren. Solange resorted to sleeping with her daughter on friends’ couches. Maren looked into every form of rental assistance she could find. The easiest way for Solange to qualify was to spend a night in a homeless shelter.

No stranger to struggle, Solange had grown up in a refugee camp from the age of 7. But she was uncomfortable with the idea. She had to bring Benta with her, and she didn’t want to be seen as homeless.

Maren, who found World Relief Spokane while she was doing research for a master’s degree capstone project designing transitional refugee housing, took it hard.

“I cried for three days before that day came,” Maren said. 

A Long Winter

Maren gathered her Women Who Stand team while doing research for her capstone project. She attended a worldwide conference for women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and heeded the call of one speaker to serve refugees close to home. She found World Relief Spokane online, and put out a call on Facebook to the women of her church.

Kim Clark, Lori Konshuck, Carrie Tolley and Maren began meeting with Solange in winter, so they first brought warm coats and boots. Then they cooked for each other. Soon, they enjoyed just hanging out together. Solange took to calling the other women “sweetie” after hearing Lori use the term with her husband.

“We commiserated through the long winter [of 2016-17],” Maren said.

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Solange outside of her new home.

A Long-Awaited Home

The bond supported Solange through her night at the shelter, which she found to be a clean place with private rooms and a caring staff. Maren picked Solange up the next morning. The experience was better than she had expected, and it qualified her for assistance from Catholic Charities to pay for the deposit on the apartment. Solange’s church, Central Seventh Day Adventist, kicked in some more.

With financial assistance in hand, Solange soon found a house of her own where she could raise her daughter independently. She invited the women for dinner.

“I could sense her joy in being able to serve us a meal in her own home,” Maren said.

The women continue to help Solange become self-sufficient. With the help of Carrie, Solange began working as a daycare attendant. She works 5 minutes from her house and can bring Benta with her. She has been attending ESL classes between her shifts and is eyeing a nursing certificate course.

“We’re all mothers,” Maren said, explaining her team’s call to support Solange. “We were all able to put ourselves in her shoes.”

Ben Shedlock, a World Relief Spokane volunteer, wrote this post. 

If you would like to stand with the vulnerable by befriending a refugee or family, fill out a volunteer application at worldreliefspokane.org/volunteer. 

Hassan: A friend, father, small business owner, and American citizen

Hassan left Iraq in October 2009, fleeing life-threatening persecution for a refugee camp in Lebanon. After almost three years in Lebanon, Hassan and his family were placed in Spokane in September, 2012.

It was a near-perfect fit.

“I didn’t feel like an outsider,” Hassan said. “The people of Spokane helped me feel welcome.”

Soon after arriving, Hassan started to make Spokane his home. He enrolled in World Relief Spokane’s match-grant program, which enables refugees to be self-sufficient within six months of their arrival in Spokane. Through Jan Greene, the program’s job developer, Hassan found work preparing and cleaning rental homes and apartments.

For as smooth as parts of it were, the transition from Iraq and Lebanon to the United States came with its fair share of challenges as well. Hassan and the rest of his family of six had to learn English, American culture, and even how to navigate the snow that Spokane sees every winter.

Hassan chuckled recalling his first winter in the snow. “We don’t have that in Iraq,” he said.

World Relief Spokane paired Hassan and his family with a family of volunteers, and while they could only do so much about the snow, the Coyle’s gave Hassan and his family a chance to learn English and have American friends.

The families quickly formed a special relationship. They often spend important moments together. Hassan and Majeda, his wife, came to the hospital to visit Bonnie after she gave birth to the Coyle’s youngest daughter. They brought gifts and smiles as the families had an impromptu baby shower in the hospital.

 

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Hassan, Majeda and their children celebrate their citizenship with the Coyle’s and Jan Greene. 

“We describe them as family. The bond we have with them is unlike any other relationship we have,” Danny said.

With the backing of his friends and former manager, Hassan started his own business in May. He hit the ground running and the small business contracts with landlords and property managers to do landscaping and preparatory work for properties all over Spokane.

 

More good news piled up from there. One of Hassan’s daughters, Nabaa, recently earned the Cooper Jones Award, given to a student at Franklin Elementary School with exemplary character.

Then, in December, Hassan and Majeda became American citizens. They took weeks of classes at World Relief Spokane and practiced their English so they could officially join the community that welcomed them five years prior.

“I’m thankful to live in this country,” Hassan said. “I’m happy here.”

Eleven Years, Seven Countries, One Home

Shah and her four children were well-hidden. Sitting inside stacks of crates with just a small hole to let in air, she hoped they would make it. The family of five was forced to sneak into their seventh country in eleven years and all they could do was pray their seventh country would be the right one.

At that moment, Shah probably didn’t even know Spokane, Washington existed. If someone had told her that her four boys would all be 4.0 students or that she would one day be an American citizen, she might have assumed they were lying, crazy, or both.

When Shah tells her family’s story, she tears up a little bit, reminded both of where she’s been, the sacrifices she’s made, and where she is now. Her son, there to translate when Shah’s English falters, smiles and fills in gaps, likely just as impressed with his mother as everyone who knows her.

“We’re thankful to be in Spokane,” Aziz says. “I love it here.”

In 2001, Shah and Aziz (who was a two-year-old at the time) fled the Taliban, crossing the mountainous border together from Afghanistan to Pakistan. They had no travel documents, but tried to make it work. Shah worked small jobs until their lives were threatened again, this time for being an Afghan in Pakistan. The small family took off, heading to China. Shah hitch-hiked across the border, just looking for a place to raise Aziz and her newborn son.

China wasn’t any more fruitful than Pakistan and small family, now four in total, was deported back to Pakistan just two months after Shah birthed her third son. They fled Pakistan once again, this time making their way to Iran, followed by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Each time, the small family seemed to find stability before fleeing government persecution to their new, temporary home.

In Uzbekistan, Shah met a woman who offered to smuggle the family into Russia, tucked in between crates full of fruits and vegetables. Shah’s husband, who had left the family, was in Russia and she agreed, hoping the father of her children could help them.

He didn’t. Shah was forced to split a 100 square foot Moscow apartment with another Afgani refugee family. She picked up leftover food from the market to feed her kids and worked 12 hour days to enroll them in school.

Initially, Shah was denied refugee status because she was still legally married to her abusive husband. After a divorce, and with the help of an American woman at a local human rights organization, she was finally cleared to come to the United States. Shah and her four sons came here through World Relief Spokane in July of 2012.

The family’s struggles weren’t completely resolved when they came to Spokane, but for the first time they had a place to solve their problems. Their case manager enrolled the four children in school, their first stable learning environment. World Relief Spokane’s housing coordinator found them an affordable, safe home and helped the family furnish it with donations from the Spokane community. Shah enrolled in English classes and received medical services to help her overcome the toll that fleeing country after country took on her mental and physical health.

Now, five years later, the family’s situation barely resembles where they were when they came in Spokane. All four boys are 4.0 students, and Aziz is applying for scholarships with the hopes of getting a Bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga or Whitworth.  He will graduate from Mead High School in May.

Just two weeks ago, Shah became a United States citizen after taking weeks of citizenship classes at World Relief Spokane.

At the ceremony, the judge looked out at the newest Americans, smiled, and said, “you are what makes America great.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Join us in supporting refugees like Shah and her children. Become a volunteer or monthly donor.

This story was written by World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Assistant, Andrew Goodwin. 

Faith That Makes a Difference

One of the most important days in the lives of some of our refugees is the day they become a United States citizen. After 5 years of living in the America, they can earn the right to that title and all of the benefits which come with it.

This year, like each of the past six, Lee Branum helped World Relief Spokane clients earn their rights as United States citizens.

“I think the biggest motivating factor was that their faith is a trial for them since they come from a communist country,” Lee said. “I thought I could make a difference”

Lee faced his own trials in a communist country. He served in the 1st Infantry Division, known more commonly as The Big Red One, in Vietnam in 1969. The experience left him with a desire to continue to have an impact on others’ lives.

He has. Twenty-five of Lee’s students have become United States citizens over the past seven years, a fact which Lee cites while sporting a proud grin.

Alongside English lessons, which prospective citizens must take because the test is in English, Lee teaches 10 Eastern European refugees learn the ins and outs of the United States government. Term limits, constitutional freedoms, and American history are all areas students must master before taking their tests.

“The best moments are when I find out they pass their citizenship exams,” he said, smiling. “That’s always a great moment.”

Citizenship means that refugees can petition to be joined by their families, who sometimes are still stranded in a camp overseas. Citizens can also vote, and refugees proudly invest their time and energy into the democracy which welcomed them years ago.

The students’ successes are small rewards for Lee, who sees teaching his classes as an outpouring of his Christian faith. That’s what made volunteering with World Relief a perfect fit: It gave him a chance to serve his country and express his faith.

Lee cites his membership at West Side Nazarene Church as one of the driving factors behind his desire to teach refugees.  “We’re called to serve,” he said. “It’s part of our faith.”

As so often happens when Christians choose to help others, Lee found that his service was spiritually beneficial as well. He’s thankful for the relationships that he and his students still have and still lights up when he talks about them.

“I don’t know how I would want to do this if it weren’t for my faith in Jesus,” Lee said. “I think teaching has been one of the building blocks past Vietnam that’s been so helpful for me.”

One student, a former refugee from Russia, joined the military just like Lee had and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The young man is now earning an undergraduate degree at Whitworth University and the two still talk every few weeks. “He has more ribbons than me,” Lee said. “That guy is my hero.”

The student is also an American citizen now, which comes with more perks than being able to vote and run for office. He’s now a part of a community, both as a Christian and an American. Both have the power to be forces for good, to turn America into more than a place of refuge. They have the power to make it a home.

Few people exemplify this power better than Lee, whose faith propels him to serve the most vulnerable people in the world and whose patriotism moves him to help others become Americans just like him.

Want to help make a difference in a refugee’s life? Fill out a volunteer application or become one of our monthly donors.

This blog post was written by Andrew Goodwin, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Assistant. 

Choosing Love

The Congolese family that the Newtons were hosting didn’t show up until midnight. They didn’t eat the culturally appropriate meal that the Newtons had prepared. And they didn’t come alone. Throngs of Congolese community members came from the airport to show the family to their hosts’ home.

“It felt really welcoming for them,” Lindsey Newton said. Opening their home once fueled the Newtons’ passion to welcome more refugee families, a ministry that they joined through their church, Communitas, which teaches about refugees in the context of Christ the sojourner.

“As Christians, that’s what we are.” Josiah Newton said. “We’re sojourners in a land in which we do not belong.” Thinking about refugees as travelers in new lands held special poignancy for the Newtons, who hosted their first refugee family just 3 months after they moved to Spokane themselves.

“We are called to love them, and it’s something we have to choose to do,” he said. The Newtons hosted two more families and faced challenges like getting Iraqi kids to play in 2 feet of snow and keeping their dog separate from an anxious Somali family.

“It was inconvenient,” he said. “But it made us think more about what their situation might have been.”

The Newtons’ have forged their deepest relationship as the cultural companions to a Syrian family. When newly arrived or especially isolated refugees ask for extra help, World Relief matches them with American friends. The cultural companions meet at least once a week for 6 months to help refugees develop skills and become self sufficient.

Shortly after the Newtons arrived in Spokane, they attended World Relief’s volunteer orientation. They figured the big new house with a finished attic they had just bought would be perfect for hosting newly arrived refugees for the 7-10 days before World Relief finds them permanent housing. Days after the orientation, World Relief asked them if they would be interested in the cultural companion program.

“We said yes,” Lindsey said. “That’s been a really great experience for us.” In November 2016, the Newtons began meeting with the Syrian family, which came to Spokane only 3 months after they did. They have a great deal in common. The mothers are both teachers. Josiah, a nurse, has helped family navigate a thicket of doctor appointments, prescriptions, and medical jargon. And although the kids are different ages, they get along well. Most of all, the family connected over their shared newcomer status.

“The family primarily wants friends,” Lindsey said. “That’s the best thing we can offer them.” Their support was especially valuable over the Ramadan holiday, when the mother missed the celebrations back home. Lindsey provided an ear to hear her friend as she talked about what she missed from her life back home and showed Lindsey pictures of festivities from Syria.

The Newtons let their cultural companions shape the relationship. They help their friends set boundaries by letting them decide if they’ll meet at someone’s house or at the park. They have also helped them learn to say “no” to meeting at certain times if it doesn’t work for them.

“It’s a way that we can choose to love them over ourselves,” Josiah said. But in choosing to love refugees, in opening their home, sharing their time, and becoming vulnerable in friendship, the Newtons have felt their own welcome.

They are usually greeted with a “feast” whenever they visit their companions. They also recalled visiting one of the families that they hosted, who served them a filling and delicious meal that was bought completely with WIC vouchers and food stamps.

“It reminds me of how I need to be generous with what’s been given me,” Josiah said. Their ministry with refugees has also helped the Newtons find community at church. They connect with other volunteers to share experiences and lend support. Lindsey says she has found encouragement in the way her church community supports her friendship with her Syrian companions. Her husband agrees.

“Being involved with refugees here in Spokane has completely changed my view of Spokane, and in such good ways.”

If you’d like to get involved with the refugee community in Spokane, fill out a volunteer application here. We are always looking to serve with people who have a heart for the vulnerable. 

Ben Shedlock, a World Relief Spokane volunteer, wrote this post.