In parts of Ethiopia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo there is a practice called bride kidnapping. A man abducts and rapes a woman, and then forces her to marry him in order to avoid cultural shame. In some cases, if a man’s first wife dies, he may choose to abduct her younger sister to be his second bride, because this means he will not have to pay the family a second dowry.
Thanks to one woman, there is a refugee camp in Tanzania where this horrific practice no longer occurs.
In 1996, the First Congo War, which has earned the nickname Africa’s First World War, was raging between Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, and Rwanda. Kiza’s province in Eastern Zaire was the most hotly contested area, so at 11 years old she fled home with her family, crossed Lake Tanganyika into Tanzania and settled in Nyarugusu refugee camp.
Kiza grew up in the camp, along with over 100,000 other refugees. She attended and graduated from high school, and later she began working as a teacher in the camp. She met her husband and was married, and she gave birth to five children in the camp clinic.
A few years ago, the UN announced that they needed volunteers to serve as representatives for refugees living in Nyarugusu’s many villages. Kiza volunteered to be a women’s representative. “In Congo, women could not speak in front of the men,” Kiza remembers. Through her job as a women’s representative, she learned about women’s rights and found her voice.
Kiza trained in conflict management and mediation, and she helped resolve small disputes and disagreements between community members. “If a husband and wife were fighting, I brought people from the community together to talk to them about their disagreement.” If someone made an allegation of rape or another more serious crime, Kiza would refer the case to more senior community leaders.
When Kiza heard about cases of bride kidnapping, she knew she had to do something. Kiza, along with the other community representatives and the camp’s religious leaders, both Christian pastors and Muslim imams met together. After many hours of discussion, everyone agreed that this practice was wrong, and together they committed to change their traditions. “Now,” Kiza says proudly, “this doesn’t happen in the camp anymore. Now every woman knows she has a voice.”
In 2017, after almost 20 years in Nyarugusu, Kiza and her family were accepted for resettlement in the U.S. Just a few months after arriving in Aurora, Kiza was already looking for ways to champion women’s rights in her new home and community. “There are women everywhere,” she declares, “so I knew I could make a difference in America, too!”
For now, she is focused on encouraging other Congolese and African women like herself. She wants to help them thrive in their new home, but she also wants them to use their transition to the U.S. as an opportunity to hold on to the beautiful traditions of their culture and let go of practices that are destructive. “Even though we are in America, we don’t want to lose our culture, she says. “It’s very important to keep [the good traditions] and not be ashamed to be African.”
Life in the refugee camp was filled with difficulty, and Kiza’s new life in the U.S. has challenges of its own. But her prayer for women in both places is the same: “I hope women will learn that they can speak what is in their heart.”
Most economists agree that immigration is a net benefit for the U.S. economy, with immigrants filling labor shortages and taking jobs that complement the positions of American workers. But while it’s one thing to read this in a book or newspaper article, it’s far more compelling to see it playing out first hand in our own community.
At World Relief, we work closely with 50 companies through our employment referral and job skills mentorship programs, and over the past five years we have placed refugees and immigrants in positions at over 400 companies. Recently, we sat down with Steve Laing, a human resources manager at Smithfield Foods, to talk about the important role immigrants play in their workforce.
Smithfield Foods is a $15 billion global food company with operations in five countries and more than 54,000 employees. Laing oversees human resources at their St. Charles plant, which is the largest dry sausage facility in the United States. Production employees process and package products like genoa salami and other sausage products on two shifts.\
As a people-oriented company, Smithfield prides itself on being an “employer of choice.” This means that they provide their employees with full benefits and opportunities for advancement. Smithfield also offers their employees unique benefits like tuition assistance for employees furthering their education. “Our employees can make this a career,” Laing says.
Rett Janzen, World Relief’s Employment Services Manager, adds that, “Smithfield offers refugees a job with benefits that pays a living wage. This allows them to provide for their families and maintain a higher quality of life than a job that pays closer to minimum wage.” He tells the story of a refugee woman from Central Africa who began working at Smithfield several years after arriving in the United States. She and her husband saved the additional income from her new job to buy their first home. “That would have been out of reach for them if they were working minimum wage jobs,” Janzen says. The goal of the World Relief Employment Services team is to build relationships with even more companies like Smithfield, so that refugees and immigrants have better opportunities to advance their careers and improve their quality of life in the United States.
World Relief has a long relationship with Laing. More than 10 years ago he needed to hire 45 employees in a short period of time to complete a seasonal job at his previous company. He learned about World Relief online and met with the employment team to fill the positions. He was so impressed with the work ethic of the refugees he hired that when he began working for Smithfield five years ago, he continued utilizing World Relief’s referral program to fill openings.
Laing mentions that the meat processing industry has been experiencing a mild labor shortage recently, but this has not affected Smithfield’s St. Charles plant. “Refugees and immigrants are playing a valuable role within our company.” Laing says. “Immigrants have a good work ethic, they want to do well, and they are teamwork oriented.”
World Relief’s relationship with Smithfield is not unique. Human resource managers from dozens of the companies we work with affirm that they utilize our referral services, not out of a sense of charity, but for very practical reasons. They have open positions, and they want to fill them with the best workers. “I just want to find the best candidate.” Laing says. “For every refugee I interview, I probably interview 3-4 non-refugees. I hire refugees 3-to-1 because they are often the best candidates.”
Over the last five years, Laing has hired approximately 45 refugees through World Relief’s referral service. Most of them had already been in the United States for one to three years and spoke English well (a requirement for many positions at Smithfield), but were underemployed in their previous job. “They appreciate the stability and opportunity to provide for their families,” Laing says, “and we appreciate their enthusiasm and work ethic.”
Janzen says, “Many of the individuals we have referred to positions at Smithfield are still there years later because of the tremendous opportunities for growth.” At World Relief, we are so thankful to partner with great companies like Smithfield that offer refugees and immigrants stable jobs with a living wage and the opportunity to build a career. And the companies we work with appreciate having a reliable source of qualified candidates to fill their open positions.
Christmas is a special time at World Relief. Students in our Education program celebrate the season with a potluck, singing, and dancing just before classes break for the holiday. It is a perfect opportunity for students to share about the unique Christmas and holiday traditions they have developed all around the world.
Through the ministry of World Relief, people born around the world and those born here in the U.S. are building friendships and sharing cherished traditions and life experiences. This sharing together can enrich all our lives. Here, Cheryce Berg, one of World Relief’s volunteers, reflects on how learning about unique Christmas traditions from Ukraine and Burma has enhanced her own experience of the Christmas season as she celebrates Jesus’ birth.
Much to my surprise, I find myself wishing I could spend a Christmas in Burma.
I would need to arrive on November 30 for Sweet December. I would want to be well rested from the long flight (because sleep is scarce during Sweet December), carrying bags of candy and small gifts (to be distributed widely), and geared up for feasting on water buffalo meat. My vocal cords would need to be warmed up for hours of carol singing and my bag packed with camping gear. But most importantly, my heart, soul, mind, and strength would need to be ready to fully worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ my Savior. For hours and hours. With entire congregations and their neighbors.
It would be nothing like my normal routine as November tips into December—that of gift shopping and tree-chopping, party hosting and mail posting.
I’m reflecting on these differences as I chat with World Relief’s ESL students in the basement of College Church. Some of the students I’m talking with are from Burma, of Chin and Karen ethnicity. The others are from Ukraine.
My new friends from Ukraine are all young women who look like they could be teenagers, but tell me they are married and have toddlers. In Ukraine, December 19th is St. Nicholas Day, and their toddlers will awake to discover presents under their pillows. I am concerned about gifts too large to fit under pillows, but they reassure me that those gifts may be placed next to their beds.
They skip right through December 24th and celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th, followed by Christmas Day January 7th. There are no presents under the pillows on this day. But there is lots of food: twelve dishes, one representing each of Jesus’ disciples. For the Greek Catholics, there is no meat or fat but rather fish, potatoes, and other items I don’t recognize.
And instead of just saying, “Merry Christmas”, one greets another with “Christ is Born”, to which the other responds, “Glory to Him!” (all in Ukrainian, of course). I delight in the reminder of why Christmas is merry in the very words of their greeting.
All three of these young women will celebrate Christmas this year here with their husbands’ families, while missing their own mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters back home. They bravely came here as young brides to escape conflict in Ukraine.
My heart aches for them as they wonder if and when they will see their own families again. Tears form in the eyes of one as she tells me she will call her mother on Christmas. I wish later that I would have given her a mother’s hug before she walked back to her classroom.
I next meet four refugees from Burma, one from the Karen culture and three from the Chin culture. They too have family members spread across the globe and will be missing home at Christmas.
These friends introduce to me “Sweet December.” I hear how on November 30th Burmese Christians of all cultures stay awake into the early morning of December 1st singing, worshipping, playing, and dancing. The youth group (which broadly includes anyone under the age of 35!) walks door-to-door singing Christmas carols. At midnight everyone chants, “Sweet December! Sweet December! Sweet December!” three times to welcome in the month of Jesus’ birth.
Early in the morning of December 25th they gather again at church. Some are in charge of killing a water buffalo to prepare for the mid-day feast. They open the day with a service of prayer and then eat a giant potluck meal of rice, goat, chicken, pork, beef, bananas, and oranges, plus the freshly roasted water buffalo meat. Banana leaves double as plates. After feasting, they spend hours just playing—children and grown-ups alike. I try to imagine my own church congregation just playing together and can’t.
After playing, they distribute presents to everyone—mostly just pieces of candy, but sometimes shirts, jackets, pants, notebooks, pens, Bibles, or even slippers. Then there is singing and the telling of the story of Jesus’ birth. The celebration continues all the way until midnight. In the warmer valley villages, the people camp around their tiny churches throughout the days surrounding Christmas to continue celebrating. The cooler mountain dwellers sleep at home but return to church early and stay late.
And what’s more: the celebration includes people from the entire village—not just those of the specific church! Everyone is welcome. Catholics, Baptists, and Buddhists join together in the festivities.
I ask how their celebration is different now that they live here, wondering where one finds a water buffalo to roast. “There is no room to play,” they lament.
A Chin pastor writes, “I imagined that ‘How wonderful the Christmas celebration in USA would be?’… But I found out that the actual Christmas Day was very personal without celebration and I was in shock. My first day of Christmas in USA was the most lonely day in my entire life… We had only a small candle light service on Christmas Eve. I enjoyed it but it was so quiet, short and simple. After the end of the service people went home themselves not staying long in the church… I found out that we, the Chin Christians, have no money to spend but have plenty of time to enjoy. Christians in United States have money but have no time to enjoy their life.”
As I prepare for Christmas this year, I ask myself, “How do I love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength? And who is my neighbor?” I think I know the answer. Now if I can just master Ukrainian or hunt down a water buffalo…
By Cheryce Berg, World Relief Volunteer
“We are now without a country.”
My friend Sasha and I listen as a beautiful South American* family tells a story entangled with hardship and hope. Renata*, the mother, has just told us that their government is destroying all official documents—such as birth certificates—of their fleeing citizens. She, along with her husband Andrés and two children Mateo and Isabella, escaped violence and persecution, but were not able to apply for protection from the U.S. until after their arrival here.
They are waiting, and we call them “asylum seekers.”
Waiting, for them, is active. Renata—once a litigator and accountant—is taking a tax accreditation course and hopes to find work as an accountant.. Andrés—former owner of a glassware company—received help from World Relief to find a job at a meat packing company while getting his GED. He supports his wife’s education and is saving to start a business. Mateo—once a university student—is working and has applied for financial aid to help fund his own education. He dreams of one day becoming a pilot. Isabella, the youngest, is enrolled in middle school and violin lessons.
Why did they leave what they had in South America?
Mateo answers, “We wouldn’t be here if our government were good. In my country we were pretty comfortable, but the government destroyed everything. They don’t care about people. There was no food and no medicine. We raised our voice but they have guns to attack any person who raised their voice against them. The reason we got out was because we were in political activity against the government and they were threatening us. They wanted to find us and kill us. We have evidence.”
Renata’s voice breaks in, explaining that each neighborhood was controlled by a para-military unit. She and Andrés were speaking out against the government, but those who protest are identified, arrested, tortured, and sometimes killed. After their son Mateo was followed home from school by an armed soldier, they knew their lives were in danger.
They packed up everything they had and traveled to the U.S. to apply for asylum. The kids thought they were just visiting as tourists. Renata and Andrés waited until they reached Miami to tell them that they were actually seeking asylum.
From there they traveled to Arkansas where a generous Mexican woman welcomed them into her home for six months. Renata eventually moved to the Chicago area ahead of the family to find better work. The church that provided her a place to sleep connected her with World Relief. With World Relief’s help, Renata found housing big enough for her family to join her, and connected with community resources that provided healthcare, clothing, counseling, transportation, and job opportunities.
I ask what their lives were like before all this—when their country was “normal”, as they refer to their memory of it.
They smile as they describe a free education and a warm and hospitable people. People in their country love to celebrate everything—even the birthday of a pet! Celebrations welcome all and include food, drink, dancing, music, and joking—with everyone talking at once, something I notice even now as I scramble to take notes. The family interrupts each other in a friendly way, their words tumbling over each other in their eagerness to speak.
My mouth waters as they describe the foods of home while Renata disappears to the kitchen to cook for us. Isabella describes arepas: flat fried cornmeal patties with flavorful meat and melted cheese between. We look up pictures of empanadas (dough folded over fillings of meat and cheese and then fried) and tequeños (sticks of fried dough with melted cheese inside).
I hear of their country’s wealth of oil—higher than anywhere else in the world. I see pictures of a bridge near their city, high enough for oil rigs to go under and five miles long, the longest in the world. And they boast of the world’s highest waterfall which Isabella shows me on her phone and I recognize from the animated movie Up.
But now inflation, food shortages, and political oppression have changed everything, and made emigration inevitable.
I ask the family if they feel welcome here in their new community.
The children answer first, again speaking at the same time. “We feel welcome because the people here are very nice. They always say hi, good morning, good afternoon, goodnight. They have manners. They are pretty good people. That’s why we feel welcome here.” Andrés speaks up, his voice overflowing with gratitude. “It’s a free country. We have so many options to make our future better in this country. This country is blessed. America gave us the chance to come here.”
“We are living in a movie here. My friend says to me—‘When you come here, you will live in a movie’—and it is true. We are living in a movie.”
I think back to Isabella’s picture of the waterfall and the movie Up. In that movie, life is upended for both cranky old Carl and earnest young Russell, but with redirected dreams comes unexpected joy.
I hope that for this beautiful family.
*The names of this family have been changed and the name of their country left out for their safety.
Note: Since this story was written Renata and her family have been granted asylum, which means that they will be allowed to remain in the U.S. and rebuild their lives with the same rights and privileges as other recognized refugees.
“We come from a country in conflict, where we can be killed or raped at any moment. It’s a country where the government does not think about the governed, a country where injustice reigns, where the rich become richer and the poor poorer, and where human rights are not respected.”
Myrrha, her husband, and their three children are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country in central Africa that has been at war for over 20 years. Because they lived in Kinshasa, the capital, they were able to avoid the dangers of conflict for a long time. Myrrha had an MA in Public Health and a good job, and her husband worked in IT logistics. But in 2012, the conflict crept closer to Kinshasa.
Food prices soared. “You could go to buy bread one day, and the next day the price was double,” Myrrha remembers. Innocent civilians were killed in the streets and homes were broken into. Myrrha and her husband decided they would apply to emigrate to the U.S. Two years, several interviews, and mountains of paperwork later, they received their visas and arrived in Chicago in October 2016.
“Now the difficulty starts,” Myrrha continues. Because they had spent much of their savings applying for their visas, they only had a small amount left to restart their lives. They found an apartment, enrolled their two older children in school, and Myrrha’s husband found a job packaging food. But the stress of moving halfway around the world, and the uncertainty of the future began to take a toll.
Myrrha developed joint pain, chronic headaches, and severe back pain. She became unable to walk or to pick up her baby daughter. “I wanted to die,” Myrrha’s voice quiets. “I wanted to move back to Congo, but I didn’t come here for myself. I came here for my children.”
But then Myrrha learned about World Relief’s free English classes and Early Childhood program at College Church. Even though walking was difficult, she was determined to attend. She remembers in the early weeks of class, before her health improved, how volunteers would carry her baby daughter for her, making sure she was safe. “English class was the first time I went outside and met other people,” her face lights up again. “It gave me something to accomplish. It gave me hope.”
Through one of the volunteers in her class, Myrrha and her family were connected to Glen Ellyn Covenant Church, another one of World Relief’s church partners, which has become a strong network of support for them. “They are like my family. I did not choose them, but they love me.”
For Myrrha, World Relief’s ESL classes were not only a place to improve her English, but also a portal to connections and friendships that have enriched every part of her family’s life. Thinking about all of the ways their life is better now than when they arrived two years ago, she says, “I see how Christ is with me and my family, showing us the way. Now I smile. Before, I couldn’t smile.” And she beams.
By Dan Peterson
All around us at World Relief stories are coming together and creating a new fabric of human experience. The stories of the people we serve here reflect the hardest realities of living in our world, but in the midst of their pain, they still hold a great vision for the future.
I have met many such people. Too many to count. And a great tragedy is that their voices, when they are needed the most, can be heard the least. Their voices call me to see something greater on the horizon. They speak to me about a vision that sees beyond a typical understanding of success to a vision of transformative community.
I sat in the living room of a recent refugee from Sudan. She is a wife and a mother of four. Her family had been in the U.S. for eight days and I was meeting with them to talk about how they envisioned this new life before them. We worked through my usual questions and became acquainted. Finally, we landed on the most challenging question: “What are your goals now that you are here in America?” She paused for a moment, looked into my eyes, and through an interpreter said, “I will reach a point where I can give back to the community. I will help those who have allowed me to come here.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Here was a woman who had lost everything when she was forced to run for her life, and yet even before she was able to provide for her own needs she was seeing far beyond what would occupy my mind. Her American dream was for a community, lifted up through the efforts of its members, and she was determined to be part of that movement.
We often have assumptions about the immigrant journey. Even people like myself, who are working directly with our new neighbors, hold these assumptions. It is easy to assume that an immigrant’s primary focus must be to improve their own life. When immigrants enter a country that will provide them with better opportunities, we expect them to be thinking only of their own family. Yet, this often isn’t the case. Many of the immigrants I have worked with express a larger vision that sees beyond what is ‘normal’ and into what is communal.
Another man speaking about his efforts to start and maintain various businesses both here and in his home country in Africa told me, “We have received so much from this community, so we have to reinvest in the community. We cannot only see for us, but beyond—for others. This is my vision. We can see beyond and have generational and community impact through our business and work effort.”
The stories of these new Americans will continue to evolve and shape the larger story around them. I am thankful for the great vision of my new neighbors who inspire me to lift my eyes to see beyond what is ‘normal’ and to see the ways that I too can give to my community.
Their stories can challenge each of us to shift our vision beyond our own personal circumstances. These immigrant voices can remind us of the great American experiment that has propelled our country for the past two centuries. This is the dream that our communities can rise to greater heights as we acknowledge our interdependence regardless of race, ethnicity or creed— that all people can belong and contribute. If you find yourself caught by this vision of seeing beyond, find out how you can join this movement by partnering with World Relief.
In our world today, over 68 million people have been forced from their homes due to conflict, including 25 million refugees. In spite of this, in the U.S. we have seen the sharpest decline in refugee resettlement since 1980. And many immigrants—including those seeking the safety of asylum— are fearful about how policy decisions will impact their future in the U.S.
In the face of these realities, there are many ways we can respond. We can advocate, volunteer, learn, talk with friends, or post on social media. These are all good and important responses. But during September, we specifically want to invite you to join us in a response of prayer.
At World Relief, we believe prayer is active resistance to pain, suffering, and evil, as we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in all things and plead with him to intervene in our world. Scott Arbeiter, World Relief’s President says, “In prayer, we rebel against the world as it is. In prayer, we refuse to accept what might seem unchangeable in our own hearts or the world around us.” We believe that prayer actually effects change; we recognize it as a vital way that we can stand with the most vulnerable in our community.
Last week at World Relief DuPage/Aurora, we began a 40-day prayer emphasis. While it is always important to pray, right now we feel a particular urgency to cry out to God. First, we pray because we expect the next month to bring U.S. policy decisions that will affect refugees and immigrants for years to come. But we also pray because we are witnesses to an increasingly hostile environment in which vulnerable people are vilified, and our faith demands that we intercede. All people are made in the image of God and loved by him, and God's word emphasizes his heart for people on the margins. As followers of Jesus, we want to have the same heart.
Each day through the end of September, WRDA’s staff are joining together to pray for refugees around the world and an end to the situations that are forcing people to flee their homes. We are praying that immigrants in the U.S. would find welcome and belonging through local churches and their communities. And we are praying that policies that will impact the lives of countless immigrants and refugees in our community would be marked by wisdom, justice, and compassion.
We are anchoring this season of prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 (ESV), which says,
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Would you consider joining us in this season of prayer? If you would like to participate, please consider setting aside time to pray regularly through the end of September.
Here are some specific requests to guide your prayer:
Pray that our country would remain a safe haven for refugees, and that our government would craft policies that focus on family unity and respect each person’s God-given dignity.
Pray that the U.S. would set a goal to welcome 75,000 refugees during the 2019 Fiscal Year.
Pray that refugees and asylum seekers who are still awaiting reunification with their loved ones would be reunited quickly.
Pray that refugees and immigrants who are already living in our communities would experience safety and find support as they rebuild their lives in a place of welcome.
Pray for refugee and asylee children as they grow up living in transit and insecurity without adequate access to education, medical care, and carefree play.
Pray for asylum seekers who are seeking safety through the southern U.S. border, and for protection and just policies that provide opportunities for asylum appeals to be heard.
Pray for God's peace to reign over the earth, especially in places of crisis where people are forced to flee their homes.
Here are some additional resources to help guide your prayer for refugees and immigrants.
Seeking Refuge: A 7-day devotional on God’s heart for refugees
Discovering and Living God’s Heart for Immigrants: A Guide to Welcoming the Stranger
5 Days of Prayer for Dreamers
We are so thankful to be united with people who are regularly praying for immigrants and refugees. And as we see the many ways that our community is growing, lives are changing, and people are learning from one another, we pray with anticipation that God hears our prayers and is at work among us to bring lasting transformation.
By Cheryce Berg, Volunteer
Tawk’s ambition is to bring a new taste to town.
Tea Leaves Salad does it. My friend Sasha and I start our meal at Pa Lian Burmese Restaurant in Wheaton sharing a plate of this popular dish made of “grounded tea leaf, fried yellow beans, fried lava beans, fried peanuts, sesame seeds, sliced tomatoes, cabbage and lime”. It is crunchy, salty, and full of flavor—a perfect complement to the tiny cups of hot green tea we are served.
I order Shan Noodle as my main dish: clear flat rice noodles topped by ground chicken curry and soy bean paste, with a bowl of chicken soup on the side. After my first spicy bite of the curry, Tawk instructs me to ladle the broth over the noodles and mix well. He also graciously hands me a fork when I hesitate at my ability to eat noodles with chopsticks. I love the contrast of the slippery noodles with the crunch of the topping.
Sasha orders Nangyi Thoke: a salad of thick rice noodles, ground chicken, sliced shallots, hard-boiled eggs, tamarind sauce, fish sauce, and fried onions, served with a small bowl of chicken soup. She describes it as “tasty and texturally interesting, with thick, hollow noodles that make a playful elastic feeling in my mouth that contrasts with the crisp fried shallots.” It is mild, tangy, and yummy—something she’d order again.
Tawk pauses in the quiet hours between the lunch and dinner crowds to sit and tell us his story while we eat.
He grew up in the old capital city of Burma, called Rangoon (Yangon). He doesn’t call himself Burmese but rather Chin, which names the state from which his family comes. He obtained a civil engineering degree but soon learned that education didn’t matter to employers. Details such as parentage, religion, ethnicity, and birthplace topped all other qualifications.
Tawk eventually fled the persecution of a militaristic government and came here seeking political asylum, hoping for a safe place and a better life. He immediately began work at a Whole Foods deli every day of the week for twelve hours a day. He credits his deli friends as the best teachers he ever had, as they had the task of growing his textbook English to fluency. They also introduced him to American food. His favorite? Tuna salad, eaten on rice instead of bread. But he can’t stand one of our most iconic dishes: macaroni and cheese.
“I really appreciate those times. I will never forget it,” he says of his deli friends and early season of hard work at Whole Foods. He still goes back to visit them and they tell him with pride: “You made it.”
Tawk later began work as a case manager for World Relief, where he learned how to teach fellow refugees and immigrants how to survive in America. His message to them? You don’t need to adopt the American culture, but you need to learn about it. Explore and respect it and you will gain friends.
His work with Chin youth at church has shown him the widening gap between them and their parents. He boldly tells their parents: “Keep your culture but don’t mentally imprison your kids. They are changing; you have to change, too. Even if you don’t want to eat macaroni and cheese, you have to know what it is or you will lose connection with your kids. You can’t stop them from changing.”
Yet he continues to teach his own two little children the Chin language of Hakha, as well as cooking Burmese food for them at home.
Tawk knows the value of hard work. He says, “Don’t pray for things without doing anything. Appreciate the blessing and do something with it.” He knows that immigrants and refugees need courage—courage to get the education they need here and courage to work hard to survive.
Tawk has modeled hard work and courage. He and his wife saw family members opening small grocery stores and restaurants in Dallas and Indianapolis and decided to take the chance themselves. They spent a year renovating this space before opening their doors, which are now open six days a week from morning until night. They also provide carry-out and catering.
We ask him to tell us more about the food. He launches into an explanation of Burmese history—how their food was impacted by Indian and Chinese people brought to Burma by the Japanese in World War II. Burmese food relies heavily on onion, garlic, ginger, Thai hot peppers, Burmese kimchee, rice and noodles. They incorporate all kinds of meat as well: chicken, beef, pork, and seafood. Their dishes are spicy, salty, and sometimes sour—but within the realm of what a tamer American tongue can savor and appreciate.
Tawk does an excellent job explaining the dishes on the extensive menu. He plans to add ice cream flavored with mango and coconut as well as tea leaf cheesecake as dessert options. He says his most popular items are the curries, fried rice, noodle salads, and soups. He does all of the serving because he wants to explain each food to the customers, while teaching them about his country.
Pa Lian saw many Burmese customers the first month it opened, followed by a mix of Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and Americans. Tawk sees at least twenty of the same customers return a few times each week for fried rice and tea leaves salad.
What is the most rewarding thing about owning the restaurant? Tawk answers this question with pride. “We bring a totally new taste. New flavors to town. People say, ‘We never had that before. Your food is so good. We are so glad you are here.’ They encourage me.”
Yet at the same time he admits that he is tired. He also gives us a brief glimpse into the loneliness and isolation he feels in American culture, which may be part of the drive behind creating a restaurant to connect different cultures over a shared love of new food.
Sasha and I finish our meal sharing a glass of fresh lime juice mixed with water and lightly sweetened with sugar. It is a perfect end to the explosion of flavors from our dishes.
As we prepare to go, Tawk reminds us of his mission. “It’s not only about the business. Our heart is to bring new food to the town and impact the community. Learn about Burma: our culture and our food, too.”
“My place is a place for connections,” he adds. He’s right. I have discovered a new friend and new food at Pa Lian, and I’ll be back.
Written by Emily B. Gray, SVP of U.S. Ministries
God of our past and God of our future,
It is in your presence that we stand in this empty place,
Asking that before it is full of things and full of day to day activity,
That it first be filled by you,
By Your Spirit and
By Your Love.
We praise you for your faithfulness to World Relief DuPage/Aurora over the past 4 decades -
For the places you have provided as a “home” for this ministry,
For the office behind the laundromat that once stood at College Avenue and President St,
And for the building, for “Scripture Press”, that has been our home for the last 20 years.
In all of this we see your hand of provision and of grace
And we know this this new place, our next home, is also a gift from you. We are deeply grateful, Lord.
In the newness of this place we are reminded
That you ever go before us and before those we serve, making a way for us all.
We see in these walls and hallways that you are providing a place of help and a place of peace.
We know that there are people in our world today who do not yet know they will one day come to this place.
Today there is a distant family who does not know that they will one day have to flee their home.
When that day of violence, loss, and fear comes in their lives, Lord, we pray for their safety.
And we thank you that you are going before them,
Establishing, even now, this place where they will find help, comfort, and a reflection of your love.
We thank you for the people of WRDA who embody that reflection of love,
For all those that you have called to join you in this ministry of welcome.
For those who have served on staff and as volunteers in the past,
We give your praise for their faithful service.
For those who are the staff and volunteers today,
We give you thanks for their hearts to serve all those whom you will bring through these doors.
For those that you will call to serve here in the future,
We give you praise for providing today in advance this place for their future service.
Thank you for all those who serve and who have answered your call…
First to love you with all their heart, soul, mind and strength -
And then to love their neighbor as themselves.
May this be a place that they find a new commitment to your call on their lives,
And renewed fellowship with one another through serving.
For the stressful days to come in the place, we pray your peace;
For the sad days to come in this place, we ask your comfort;
And for the joyous days to come in this place, we give you praise.
May all of the days lived within these wall be for your honor and your glory,
For you alone are worthy of our work, our worship and our praise.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
By Susan Sperry, Executive Director
Celebrating Our Past
“We are changing!!”
Recently one of our staff found an old WRDA newsletter from 1998 (pictured here), announcing the move to our current DuPage office space at 1825 College Avenue in Wheaton. When our leaders made the decision to move out of a cramped office behind a Wheaton laundromat and into a building owned by Wheaton College, they were stepping out in faith to a space that would allow them to serve more refugees and immigrants, in new ways. They had no idea what was on the other side of this decision, and what these twenty years would bring. Little did they know that God would use World Relief DuPage/Aurora to mobilize hundreds of volunteers and churches and grow to serve thousands of refugees and immigrants each year.
During the last twenty years at the Wheaton location, we have watched God faithfully provide as:
5,776 refugees arrived to build a home in our community.
2,214 students attended Job Readiness ESL classes, and thousands more attended adult ESL classes.
4,842 jobs were found – both first jobs and career-building jobs.
15,366 people received immigration legal services.
WRDA’s supports for long-term integration grew to include counseling, career-focused employment services, specialized ESL classes, and after-school youth clubs.
3,000+ volunteers stepped forward to welcome, tutor, host, transport, and befriend refugee and immigrant families; clean vans; provide office and interpretation support; and so much more. Countless others donated furniture and household items to furnish homes for newly arriving refugees.
Over 250 churches engaged in a ministry of welcome among refugees and immigrants.
Our location in Aurora launched in 1999, partnering with churches to support immigrants and refugees through a localized, holistic approach toward community integration.
We have witnessed refugees buying homes and starting small businesses, and immigrants being reunited with family members. Youth have gone on to graduate from high school and college, and elderly adults have found fun and community in World Relief’s Seniors Groups. Civic engagement continues to grow as thousands of refugees and immigrants have become citizens. Over twenty churches have been started by refugee communities, providing community support and the opportunity to worship in their own language.
None of this happens because of World Relief alone. These results happen because of the strength of the people we serve, and their resilience and courage as they create their future in a new place. And you – our volunteers, church partners, donors, community partners, and local advocates – play a vital role in the story behind these numbers. You have made possible the tremendous impact we celebrate as we reflect on the last two decades.
Reimagining Our Future
Next week, on June 8, we will move to 191 S. Gary Avenue in Carol Stream, our new DuPage County location.
We searched for an affordable, central DuPage office location for over a year after we learned that our current space would be closing to tenants, and are abundantly grateful for God’s provision of this new space. We are also deeply grateful to Wheaton College for its supportive role as our landlord these past twenty years, enabling World Relief’s ministry to flourish even in hard times.
Our move comes during a season in which we are reimagining the future of our ministry. Our ministry roots lie within refugee resettlement, and we remain committed to partnering with churches to welcome refugees who arrive to our community, seeking safety and the opportunity to build a new life. And yet for many years, we have dreamt of having the capacity to mobilize churches to serve vulnerable immigrants who are not newly arrived refugees: the asylum seeker living out of her car, the victim of human trafficking who is seeking a reliable job and counseling, the immigrant who survived a violent crime in the US and is trying to find healing. We are reimagining a future in which we will expand our church-based refugee resettlement approach to serve immigrants who face unique vulnerabilities. We look forward to sharing more about these plans with you in the coming months.
As we celebrate the past and look forward to a future with a new DuPage location and new ministry opportunities in both DuPage County and Aurora, we hope you will continue to celebrate and journey with us. Please continue to pray for immigrants and refugees, seek opportunities to get involved, and consider giving to support the future of WRDA’s ministry. We look forward in faith to the time when people will look back and point to the many ways lives were transformed through the love and welcome of thousands in our communities.
Are you able to help on move day? We are still in need of a few strong people to help with moving furniture and boxes on June 8th and 9th. Please contact Maggie Boynton at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested. And please continue to pray that all of the details and logistics will come together.