By Anna O'Neal
Kywe,* an older Burmese man of small stature and gentle spirit finds a seat in the front of the classroom every day. During lessons, he sits up straight, focusing closely on the curves of every letter the teacher writes on the board. He furiously copies it all, apologizing under his breath when he makes a mistake. When we read together, he follows along in a bashful, hushed tone. That's the only time I hear him speak.
Admittedly, my interaction with Kywe has been minimal until this week. I would ask him how he was - the only question he would answer. That was the extent of our conversation. If I asked him what he did yesterday, he would look at me, and after a while, smile shyly. I would smile back. I wasn’t sure if I should press further, for fear of misunderstanding or making him feel uncomfortable.
Today, however, I sat next to him in class to help him hear the teacher. He needs a hearing aid in one ear. As I sat down, he looked at me in fear, waving his hands, and said, "No English, no English." How sad, I thought. If he is afraid to speak or listen to English in such a safe environment, he probably never speaks out in the community. How will we help him if he is so afraid? How will he communicate?
Later during the class, the teacher suggested I take him out of the room to figure out why he was uncomfortable speaking. Clearly he was afraid, but why? I sat down next to him on the side of his good ear and began asking him questions. I waited patiently for each answer, but eventually, they started to flow.
Kywe told me about his family and how his wife had recently passed away. He told me about her likes and dislikes and those of his sons. Through this, I learned a small part of his story; a story of perseverance, strength, and love. When he got stuck, he would explain that he couldn't speak English. But I told him that even though it was broken English, and slow in coming, he could speak!
The next day, the teacher sat with him, helping him hear as I taught the lesson. When I asked for a volunteer in the class to answer a question, he eagerly sat straight up, almost coming out of his chair ready to answer. The teacher pointed for me to call on him, and he gave an answer! It wasn't the answer I was looking for, but it wasn't wrong either. We praised his participation!
In a matter of 24 hours, I saw Kywe change. It was tangible. I hope it's sustainable. He found the courage to speak up! He was able to hear and follow the classroom activity. I can't be sure exactly what changed inside of him, but I can continue to encourage him to speak by listening and giving him time to respond.
Kywe helped me learn the value of taking the risk of misunderstanding to speak with someone. You never know how someone’s story might change you. At World Relief, our goal is to continue providing the kind of community in which both English students like Kywe and interns and volunteers like myself are safe to take risks so that together we can thrive.
* Kywe’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
Keith and Lisa’s volunteer journey with World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA) began over three years ago after they had retired from full-time work. “We wanted to have purpose in our retirement years and to serve God together in ministry,” they remember.
After hearing about World Relief's ministry through their church, they learned about the need for ESL tutors to help newly resettled refugee families practice English in their homes. They decided that this was their opportunity, and were soon matched with a young Burmese family. Now – 3 years later – the two families have developed a close friendship.
“Our weekly meetings have focused on English lessons, but have also allowed us to help out in practical ways,” Keith and Lisa explain. Lisa, who retired from a long career as a teacher, prepares the English lessons each week, while Keith has enjoyed helping their new neighbors set up their computer and organize their finances.
By combining their individual strengths and volunteering together, they have been able to support the family more holistically as they adjust to life in their new community. “We have also become ‘grandparents’ to their son and daughter, and celebrated holidays at our home together,” they beam. “This whole experience has been so rewarding for us.”
Serving as an English tutor is just one way that couples and families find to volunteer together with World Relief. Parents and their children can also participate together as summer youth club volunteers, families can organize donation drives together, and Good Neighbor Teams are often made up of spouses, parents and children all serving side-by-side.
Roxanne and Jason, who volunteer together with their four young children are thrilled by the opportunity WRDA gives them to serve as a family. "For us, volunteering with our kids is about helping them understand what welcome and extending love looks like. We believe talking about how Jesus invites us to love our neighbors is not enough—we need to engage in that act of loving," Roxanne says. “This means we spend time with folks who may look, speak or dress a bit differently, but as we move past these initial differences our kids learn to see the common humanity in each of us.” After visiting a Syrian refugee family recently, Roxanne and Jason’s daughter said, "Mama, I'm so thankful I have friends that are from around the world. Thanks for taking me with you."
Recently, volunteers have begun serving together in a new way as they welcome refugees and immigrants to their new homes, neighborhoods, and school districts. As In-Home Family Adjustment Tutors volunteers build a relationship with a refugee family with school-aged children and walk alongside them as they adjust to the U.S. school system. For 4-6 months, volunteers visit a family’s home, assisting the children with homework and helping the parents understand more about how they can support their children’s education.
Malita Gardner, the Children and Youth Program Manager for WRDA’s DuPage office, explains how In-Home Family Adjustment Tutors can help refugee families as they integrate into their new communities. “As a refugee student it is hard to keep up with homework, and as a parent it is hard to sort through and keep up with all the announcements, papers, and activities, all while learning English and perhaps having different cultural expectations about parental involvement.” She continues, “To be paired with a family who is still figuring out how to adjust to these changes and to be able to practically help both the student in their academics and the parents in adjustment is a gift, and transforms both families in different ways.”
If you would like to volunteer with your family as an In-Home Family Adjustment Tutor, or in another capacity, you can get started by filling out a new volunteer application.
By Cheryce Berg, Volunteer
I first noticed the dolls. They are life-sized—ages 5, 3, and newborn. They spend their days in classrooms full of adults from Burma and Nepal, Sudan and Eritrea, Vietnam and Ukraine. They are the voiceless volunteers helping Jill Braselton teach refugees and immigrants how to keep their families safe. Their task? Impassively and repeatedly being buckled into car seats.
Car seats challenge even the most capable adult. They are something we grunt and groan over as we struggle to stuff children plump in diapers or jackets under binding buckles in small spaces. Do they face forward or back? It’s complicated.
Complicated for someone who has been using one since the ’80's and can read the English labels on the side.
For someone from another country who may have never owned a car, car seats—and even seatbelts—speak a foreign language. Yet, they speak of life or death. As Jill says, “When you don’t know what you don’t know—like you don’t know you’re supposed to wear a seatbelt—if your child is severely injured or dies in an accident, the weight of it would be horrible.”
Her goal is to give information and resources to keep refugee and immigrant children safe.
Jill, a nurse who has served with Central DuPage Hospital for thirty years, longed to make a difference in her childhood community of West Chicago. After being part of a field study on booster seat use, she observed that some residents didn’t have the resources or the understanding they needed. She knew she had to help, and she knew what to do.
Jill knows car seats. And she knows courage.
Jill found an opportunity with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) for car seat grants so she wrote one. IDOT responded. Jill then asked Wheaton Bible Church (WBC) if they could store a bunch of car seats and they agreed.
“Now what do I do?” she asked the Lord. “I have the seats, but how do I get them to the people?”
While partnering with WBC to distribute the car seats, Dan Jealouse told Jill’s story to his wife Karen who works for World Relief. They knew of an immediate need for a car seat for an Iraqi family expecting their second baby. “Can you help?” they asked Jill. Jill was ready.
Jill is a Christian and wants to do what God has gifted her to do. “I know car seats,” she explains. “It is a small piece of the puzzle, but it is protecting people and giving them information to care for their families.”
Where does she keep finding the money for them
“I always tell people that my program is on a faith-based budget,” she says. “If God wants me to do it, he’s going to give me the money. And it is unbelievable. I’m like—-God what else do you want me to do? When you are doing what God wants you to do, it’s crazy what doors will open and what doors will close.”
Using generous grant money from IDOT and her hospital, Jill distributes between 300-500 car seats a year. She charges family members just $5 for each—a way to give each client ownership while still being affordable.
Is she making a difference? Although it is hard to prove that what you do for injury prevention matters, she knows she is. She has seen the number of traffic citations for child safety drop dramatically in the years when she is able to provide more booster seats and rise when she cannot. She may not know details of lives saved or injuries prevented, but she trusts that God is at work.
Jill also provides training on seatbelts, drunk or distracted driving, pedestrian safety, and bike helmets—which she hangs from the handlebars of bikes donated to World Relief. She longs to do more, especially in the areas of fall prevention for the elderly and home safety for young newly-arrived families.
I ask if there are any skills she wish she had more of and she doesn’t hesitate in her answer. “Language. I wish I could speak Spanish, Burmese, and Nepali.”
Jill desires language because she isn’t afraid to get to know her clients. She decries the news that tells only the bad about refugees—-most of which isn’t true. She goes to their homes and sits in their living rooms. “That is how you get to know somebody,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’m not afraid. I wish I could tell people to not be afraid.”
Jill loves what she’s learned about people from other cultures. She admires their desire hunger for knowledge. There is no expectation from World Relief families that they deserve the gift of a car seat. They are “so appreciative of everything and very thankful. So kind. They will do whatever they can for their families.”
One sweet memory was when she was able to help a new refugee family who had an older child with significant disabilities. They could not transport the child in the car until Jill fitted the child with a car seat. They can now get to doctor’s appointments safely.
Yet she’s humble. “Car seat safety is a small world,” she acknowledges. “There is so much need—basic needs like food and shelter. I’m part of a bigger picture, just one piece of the puzzle. It’s a tiny thing but so important. It’s protecting life, preserving life. So that’s why I do what I do.”
“I love working with World Relief,” continues Jill. “I desire to try and provide the best I can.” Jill is a model of love in action.
By definition, a refugee has fled danger. Thus, safety is a gift. And the puzzle piece that Jill provides—safety in the car, especially for a child—is priceless.
Jill’s comforting message to her refugee and immigrant clients? “You have the ability to take care of your own family and be safe. You are safe here.”
Don loves bicycles. They have always been part of his life.
When he thinks about the very first bicycle he received as a child over 60 years ago, a smile spreads across his face. He remembers how it glinted in the sunlight and the many happy hours he spent riding it through his neighborhood. He also recalls how, a bit later in life, he used a bicycle to commute to and from work for several years. Now, he spends hours each week in his garage workshop refurbishing donated bicycles for refugees, the homeless, and others who might need an alternative form of transportation.
“It started when my daughter introduced me to a local Syrian refugee family and I began visiting them weekly to help them practice English and answer questions they might have about life in the U.S.,” Don reminisces. “Only two of their three boys had bikes. That just did not seem right, so I started scrounging for a third.” He found a used bicycle and repaired it for the young boy.
“I took him for a ride and realized that he was not familiar with multi-speed bicycles, so I showed him how to operate it. The result of all this was three kids who had a great time riding their bikes around the apartment complex and going on a few excursions in the forest preserve with me and their dad.”
Don wanted to connect with even more refugee families in his community, so he completed World Relief DuPage/Aurora’s (WRDA) volunteer training and was quickly matched with a family from Nepal as a friendship partner. He wanted to get bicycles for these new friends as well. “I learned that World Relief gets donated bikes, but that many of them are not roadworthy. So I offered to fix some for them.”
Now Don has over 35 bicycles from WRDA and People’s Resource Center stored in his garage workshop, waiting to be refurbished and donated to a refugee family or someone else in need. He makes the necessary repairs and gives each bicycle a detailed cleaning. “I want to get them as close to ‘showroom clean’ as possible,” Don explains. “They may not be new, but I want them to look new! The smiling faces of the families I have delivered bikes to make all the elbow grease worth it.”
When Don delivers a refurbished bicycle, he offers a service contract to go along with it. “If I have prepped a bike for someone to ride to work and something goes awry, I don’t want them to miss work. I will come get it and fix it on the spot.”
Don, a mechanical engineer, has always enjoyed tinkering with bicycles in his spare time, but since he began repairing bicycles for refugees he has discovered the many ways that refugee families can benefit from them. “If someone has a job opportunity but lacks a vehicle, a bike can be a huge enabler,” he says. Having a reliable, roadworthy bicycle can make it possible to travel to and from work. “Second,” Don continues, “for teenagers whose friends live in different apartment complexes around the area, a bicycle enables normal socialization.”
“Finally, families with limited means are as keen on getting their children playthings as any of us are,” Don reflects. “Getting a six-year old his or her first bike is as big a thrill for me as it was to do the same for my own children, and it brings the parents so much joy to be able to watch their kids riding and having fun with their friends.”
Like so many of World Relief’s volunteers, Don has found a way to use his unique skills and passions to bless refugee and immigrant families. The joy he feels as he prepares each bicycle and delivers it to one of our new neighbors is what we want for each of our amazing volunteers.
That is what volunteering is all about.
Written by Cheryce Berg, Volunteer
“I started after the death of my husband—several months after. My doctor asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Sometimes I watch TV or sometimes I read my holy book.’ He said, ‘Is that all?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘No, try to make something… something to fill your time. Don’t just sit like that and wait for your death. You have to do something.’
“So I began. I didn’t succeed with the crochet you know…” she chuckles.
And so begins a story of resilience, a story of a battered seed re-blooming into something beautiful after a long, hard winter – the story of Suhad and her art.
Canvases bursting with color and flowers line the walls of her apartment. Each exhibits intricate stitched-on creations of ribbon and beads overlaying the paint. Sequined waterfalls cascade over mountains. Roses and grapes spill over a terrace. A peacock made of jewels struts proudly. A bicycle delivers bright bouquets.
Suhad continues, “I find myself so lonely. So this is something I can do to accomplish something.” I marvel at her humility in this room blooming with talent.
After serving tea and pastries, she settles into a stuffed chair and carefully removes her gray scarf from her long salt and pepper hair as she tells her story.
It began years ago, before 1958, when Iraq was still a kingdom—the time that carries her best memories of home. After that, “step by step, Iraq went a little bit down down down until now,” she laments. Once a country rich with petrol and agriculture, her homeland was slowly destroyed by years of war.
Suhad learned English in fifth grade, and French later on, in addition to her native Arabic. She studied in Kuwait in high school and went on to university. It was while working at Iraqi Airways that she met her husband. She is a Sunni; he a Shia—warring communities in Islam—but their families didn’t live that way. They loved each other and had a daughter and two sons.
And they had a garden, one full of roses and gardenias, oranges and lemons, mint and celery, onions and dill.
He continued to work with the Airways and she with the Ministry of Higher Education. They lived for a time in Denmark and Thailand. They were educated, productive, and happy.
But none of that was enough to protect them from the horrors of war.
As it surrounded them, their house was hit by so many small missiles and bullets, until holes marked the walls and they were forced to live in two rooms in the back. Her youngest son was nearly killed, and her daughter was at risk of being kidnapped. She and her husband made the hard decision to send her to Jordan to live with an aunt in safety.
They were unable to follow, however, as Jordan’s borders closed to Iraqis. In 2007, they escaped to Syria, which at that time was safe and cheap. They carried only four suitcases with them, having made the difficult choice of what to leave behind. She shows us a few small brass vases that she was able to bring with her from home.
Then began the long wait.
Unable to obtain work visas, they were forced to start dipping into their savings. Her husband returned to Iraq to sell the house they had fled, only to discover it had been ransacked by neighbors four times. He sold everything that remained and rejoined the family in Syria.
Their youngest son was approved to travel to the U.S. in 2008. But Suhad, her husband, and two other children would wait seven more years before joining him — three in Syria and four in Jordan. They visited the UNHCR office frequently, all the while watching their money slip away as they spent it to survive.
Finally, in 2014, they were welcomed to Illinois. Her husband, who had suffered from arthritis in his knees for years, underwent two knee surgeries after they arrived. Everything went well, and he was recovering.
Until the afternoon he went to take a nap and never woke up. He was only 68 years old and had suffered a heart attack.
“It was a shock for me. For the first two or three days, I’d imagine that he was traveling or something. Before my prayer at dawn, I’d hear his voice—‘Suhad, Suhad, wake up.’ It’s very hard for me. Many nights I couldn’t sleep. I had so much hope that he would recover and everything would go well.”
Suhad tells how she only knew a handful of people at the time—having been here just eight months—mostly doctors and World Relief staff members, all who had helped them greatly. She speaks of Laima, her counselor at World Relief, and Kim and Madeline, friendship volunteers, who walked with her through months of grief.
We ask if there are others she has met in the now four years since her arrival.
“I don’t go out. I don’t have friends. Each one of my children is busy with life. I don’t drive. This is a problem for me. I cannot drive so I have to depend on my son and my daughter,” she laments as she waves a hand at the cane she leans on to walk. Her daughter works and her son is ill.
Here she sits, a woman highly educated and engaging, funny and able to speak three languages. She is surrounded by beautiful artwork of her own creation, a talent discovered and nurtured in her 60’s, on the heels of tragedy.
Suhad’s love of flowers reminds me that, as a gardener, she knows that a seed that looks dead after a hard winter freeze still carries life deep inside. She has restored that life through her talent.
Suhad’s path describes the road to recovery for many a resilient refugee:
“So I began, step by step. So I began, a little bit. I succeeded. I didn’t expect myself to succeed. I found myself so lonely. So this is what I’m making to make me feel satisfied and happy inside. I accomplished something.
“When I make the flowers, I remember my garden.”
When Gabriela talks about her hopes and dreams, she doesn’t sound much different from other ambitious young Americans. But as she tells more of her story, she reveals that she has had to fight harder than most to make her dreams a reality.
Gabriela came to the U.S. with her mother when she was nine years old. She did well in school, and during her high school years participated in Jr. ROTC. During her senior year she was offered a military college scholarship, but had to turn it down because of her immigration status. “I loved America. I wanted to serve in the military,” she remembers, “but I couldn’t because I was undocumented.”
Instead, Gabriela chose to study political science and sociology in college, hoping that she would somehow be able to put her degree to work after graduation. She was frustrated that being undocumented was keeping her from planning her future. At heart, Gabriela was a dreamer, but the uncertainty of being undocumented was an ever-present obstacle to those dreams.
In 2012, things began to change. The introduction of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, allowed Gabriela to apply for work authorization, secure a driver’s license, and receive temporary protection from deportation. “DACA was a huge relief. I got my driver’s license when I was 29 and it was one of the happiest days of my life!” she recalls. “Just having that piece of plastic changed my outlook and made such a difference for me. After 10 years of driving and working with such uncertainty, I was able to live with peace of mind.”
Gabriela was finally able to plan her future and pursue a career. Today, she is a case worker for at-risk women and children, using her college degree and making a difference in her community. Now her family is growing and she has a son who is just a few months old.
DACA has allowed her to dream again.
But now, all that could change. The DACA program is currently set to expire, and if Congress does not pass a long-term legislative solution for Dreamers, thousands of young people like Gabriela will lose their work authorization and be at risk for deportation. Once again, Gabriela is living in uncertainty. But she is doing what she can to prepare for what may lie ahead, saving up for when her work permit will expire. She even questioned if she should purchase a crib for her son. It just seemed like too big an expense.
“I’m tired,” Gabriela sighs, “I just want to live without all these worries. I want a future for my baby. I want to give him even more than my parents were able to give me.” So, she takes every opportunity she can to educate others about Dreamers, and to urge them to act. “A lot of people don’t want to get involved in politics because it’s messy,” she says, “but there’s no other way to change things. We can’t just look the other way.”
If we, together with Gabriela, refuse to the look the other way, and instead choose to stand with Dreamers, thousands of young immigrants may once again have the chance to boldly pursue their dreams.
To contact your Members of Congress and urge them to pass a legislative solution for Dreamers like Gabriela, visit PowerToAct.org.
By Cheryce Berg, Volunteer
Rebecca reaches chubby fists to grasp Fischer-Price Rock-a-Stack rings. Serena pastes daisy stickers and brown paper dolls on pink paper. And Hlu Ling skips around a low table dotted with numbered hearts, covering each with a matching pink one.
Here, they are safe. Yet each belongs to a family who fled a place of danger.
I wonder at the stories their refugee parents will tell them. True stories of countries far away, of loved ones left behind, of colors and smells and flavors muted in America. Stories that might be hard to carry.
But today, these three are innocent of those stories. And they are happy. Happy to be in classrooms with teachers who love and care for them while their parents learn English down the hall.
I’m visiting their classrooms, chatting with three of these teachers. Oksana is a refugee, Wade is an American, and Erin is an American married to a refugee.
Oksana sits on a brightly colored rug, snuggling two babies. Rebecca—brown eyes wide—eyes me and my camera from the safety of Oksana’s lap, having now traded the rings for a teething ball.
Why this job, I ask? “Because we were refugees, too,” Oksana says. Fleeing religious persecution in Russia, she arrived here at the age of nineteen with her Christian parents and most of her eleven siblings. She started working for World Relief when her oldest boy was a year old, and she has done so now for over ten years.
Oksana quietly shares that she needed to take a break when her husband became ill and subsequently died. The text she received that invited her back was an incredible answer to prayer for a job she loves with a schedule flexible enough to parent her three school-aged boys.
You wouldn’t know from her warm smile that she’s experienced such grief. Maybe that’s why she’s so good with babies that arrive for the first time and are handed over the nursery counter by trembling parents, themselves overwhelmed with everything new.
Oksana is gifted with children. “All children,” she says, "understand the language of love.” She wants these babies and their parents to know that people care about them—“that they can be comfortable in this country.” She gains their trust quickly, and I can see why.
What is her message to Americans about refugees? “That we have to care about each other,” she says. “Jesus wants us to be a good example with more than our words. Show love. We are the same—all God’s creation.”
“It’s nice when somebody cares about you,” she reflects. She knows.
I say good-bye and move to a classroom of 3-5 year olds. I sit down in a tiny chair next to Wade—a lawyer with a flexible schedule who volunteers two mornings a week. He is helping Serena paste.
Wade tells how a presentation from World Relief at his church—plus the stirring of God in his heart—triggered his desire to serve. He loves to sit with the children and play, read, or teach them new things. Last week he brought in his trumpet and let them press the keys, to their immense joy!
What skills does Wade bring to this role (besides owning a trumpet)? Patience, understanding the impulsivity of a preschooler, and being quick to praise.
We follow a trail of children upstairs to the gym where Wade leads them in Simon Says before releasing them to race around in tiny trikes. Sunlight shines through the large windows and they laugh out loud at the freedom to run.
What has Wade seen in these children? “Resiliency. You wouldn’t know all they or their families have experienced for all the joy they express.”
“Refugees have the grit necessary to be a contribution to our society. They are driven to succeed regardless of their education and nationality. They are a benefit to us all.”
Wade’s reason to serve? He loves watching them develop and having fun with them while modeling his own faith in Jesus with both words and actions. “It’s good to give back. And I get more out of it than they do.”
My last visit is with Erin, in the young 2’s and 3’s class. Erin—a pharmacist and mother of three— brings her youngest, Simon, with her two days a week while she volunteers in his classroom.
Erin echoes some of what Wade and Oksana say. She, too, volunteers because it’s a good way to give back by doing something she really enjoys.
I ask her to describe one special child. Erin smiles as she points out Eh Nay, a happy boy in a black sweatsuit dancing around the gym. She describes him as sweet and responsive—a mother’s dream. Eh-nay learns quickly, is eager to help the teachers and his fellow classmates, and exhibits a warm and tender spirit.
Erin’s story is unique in that she is American-born and married to a refugee. She comments that her husband wouldn’t be here without the work of World Relief and the support of the church, school, and community throughout his childhood.
“I want these children to know that someone here loves and cares and wants them to succeed—that I wish the best for them,” she says. It is that same support that helped propel her husband from a Sudanese refugee camp all the way to Harvard. His name is Selamawi Asgedom, and he writes of his incredible journey in the book Of Beetles and Angels.
What does Erin want the rest of us to know about volunteering with World Relief? “There is such a need. The needs can be so overwhelming, but if you just do something little like this, you can change the lives of a handful of kids.” And it is enough.
What Oksana, Wade, and Erin do matters. It matters to Rebecca, to Serena, to Hlu Ling, to Eh Nay, and all the other children loved in these classrooms.
It matters to us. In serving the most vulnerable, these three demonstrate what is valuable.
I think back to Hlu Ling’s pink foam hearts, carefully paired one-to-one with those on the table. I imagine each of us caring for one refugee, pairing our hearts with theirs.
We could welcome them all to safety if we did.
“…but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” - Matthew 19:14
Semira* pulls off her gloves and holds them in her hands, gently twisting them as she talks about her home, her escape, life in a refugee camp, and the challenges she has had to overcome to start over. This is Semira’s first winter in the U.S. and she must not be used to Illinois weather quite yet, because she doesn’t take off her pale pink coat. The hood, edged with faux fur, rustles as she talks. It’s January and there’s snow weighing down the bushes outside the window.
In 2013, Semira left her home in Eritrea with her mother and older sister. She was 14 years old. Her sister had just completed high school and was facing forced military conscription. While country officials claim that conscription only lasts for 18 months, reports from organizations like Amnesty International report that in practice conscription in Eritrea is indefinite, often lasting for decades and amounting to forced labor.
“There’s no freedom to work or go higher in school, so we had to leave,” Semira says. So, with the help of others who knew the way, an Eritrean Underground Railroad of sorts, she set out with her sister and mother to escape. For two nights they walked through the forest from seven o’clock until three or four in the morning. During the day they slept, so that they wouldn’t be caught by border guards.
Finally, they arrived in Ethiopia and registered as refugees at a camp run by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Though relieved to be safe, there was little to do in the refugee camp. School was only available for the young children, so Semira, a 10th grader, didn’t have the chance to finish high school. “There was a bus that would take us to the closest town so that we could visit the library,” she remembers. “It was an hour and a half each way.” The edges of her mouth turn upward, revealing her optimism, even as she talks about hardships.
Every two weeks, for nearly four years Semira took the long, bumpy bus ride to the closest library. She checked out books on biology and anatomy. She wanted to become a nurse. There was no way to know how much longer she would be stuck in one place, but Semira didn’t let that stop her from moving her life forward. Now that she has arrived in the U.S., her hard work and determination are boundless.
Semira arrived in the Chicago suburbs in June. Because she had learned some English in school, she was able to immediately pursue her first job with the help of World Relief’s employment team. After only six weeks, both she and her sister were offered jobs with a local food manufacturer. World Relief connected them with another refugee employee who could drive them to work, but grocery shopping and other errands were difficult to do without a car or driver’s license in the suburbs. So Semira enrolled in World Relief’s driving permit class as well. She quickly passed her permit exam, and after practicing for several months also passed her driving test.
Shortly after earning her driver’s license, Semira and her family received a car that was donated to World Relief. In fact, the car was donated by a former refugee! Now Semira is able to pass on the opportunities she was given by driving her sister and another refugee to work. She has achieved so much in her short six months in the U.S., and she’s not done yet. She’s taking advanced English classes at a local community college and is working toward her GED – the next step in realizing her dream to become a nurse.
As she finishes telling her story and puts her gloves back on to guard against the cold, she smiles with excitement for what her future holds. She’s been through so much, and she’s confident she can overcome any obstacle. At World Relief, we are proud to add the resources we have – community connections, volunteer support, and the generosity of the local church – to the hard work and resilience of young refugees like Semira. Together, we will see transformation in our communities.
*Semira's name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Would you like to make a difference for newcomers in DuPage and Kane Counties?
By Susan Sperry, Executive Director
What a difference a year makes. A year ago World Relief DuPage/Aurora, our church partners and our communities were celebrating 687 refugees who had been welcomed in 2016 to restart their lives in DuPage and Kane Counties. These new neighbors had fled the unspeakable horrors of war and persecution and arrived to a place of safety. We were celebrating their strength as they, like many before them, were rebuilding their lives and livelihoods through English classes, jobs to support their families and education for their children in local schools.
But a year ago, things began to change. On January 27, an Executive Order brought the hope of safety and freedom to a sudden standstill for thousands of refugees. Since then, only 29,725 refugees have been welcomed nationwide, down from 99,183 during the previous year. For World Relief DuPage/Aurora, this has meant safety and a new start for only 246 people, less than half the number from the previous year. Given the many starts and stops of both executive and judicial action over the last year, this reduction in the number of refugees being resettled may not be surprising. But it should be deeply unsettling.
It should unsettle us to hear about a mother who weeps over the safety of her adult son, whose resettlement application has been suddenly halted by delays and whose life is in constant threat.
It should unsettle us to hear about families crying out to be reunited, but who now live indefinitely separated between lllinois and a refugee camp, an ocean between them.
It should unsettle us that welcoming refugees, as part of our nation’s response to the global refugee crisis, is often described by national leaders as being at odds with also caring for the poor, veterans, and homeless in our country… as if a compassionate response to suffering and the most vulnerable in our world is a limited, finite resource that we need to ration carefully.
It should unsettle us that, in our country and around the world, the identity of each refugee as someone made in the image of God and unconditionally loved by him has been attacked by dehumanizing language and unforgiving generalizations.
And it should unsettle us to know that, during the time of the largest refugee crisis our world has known since World War II, our nation of immigrants is poised to accept the lowest annual number of refugees since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.
This is not who we are.
A year ago many of us felt unsettled, shocked, confused, and filled with lament. Thousands rallied at airports across the nation. Locally over 1000 people came together at two WRDA-sponsored events to learn and take action to stand with refugees. What is happening today, the slow bureaucratic death of our nation’s commitment to refugee resettlement, is no less alarming than the sudden shock of the temporary halt a year ago.
When I feel unsettled, my gut response is to make the feeling go away. Sometimes I actively address what has unsettled me, but other times I pursue distraction, adopt simple explanations, or avoid the root cause completely. What could it look like if we, as a community and as a nation, don’t turn our backs from the situations and stories and human pain that unsettle us? What if we see these feelings as an invitation to help right wrongs, through our voice, our actions, and our prayers? What if we respond to these feelings with prayer, advocacy, and action to welcome the refugees who are most vulnerable?
As we look forward to the year ahead, my hope is that our faith in God, the relationships we have with refugees, and the strength of who we are as a country and a community, would be the fuel to move us to welcome those fleeing war and persecution. May every moment of being unsettled result in prayer, advocacy, and friendship on behalf of those who need us to use our freedoms for their good.
To learn about ways you can help, or to read the inspiring stories of families reunited and the ways refugee contribute to their communities, visit the following links:
Michel was in a college class studying medicine when a neighbor came in with news that turned his world upside down: Both of his parents had been brutally murdered. On top of that, the man who had killed them was headed to the university, looking for him next.
In that instant, Michel made an excruciating decision. He fled his country with only the possessions he was carrying and without a single goodbye.
It was 1999, and Michel’s home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (or DRC), was in chaos. Violence escalated between the Congolese government and rebel militias. Millions were killed or simply “disappeared.” It was one of the deadliest wars since World War II, but many don’t know about it—or that the conflict continues in the DRC to this day.
Michel ended up in a refugee camp outside the city of Ibadan in Nigeria. He grappled with the tragedy that had upended his life, but he was anchored by his faith and determination.
A United Nations officer discovered that Michel had been studying medicine, and the UN offered him a scholarship to complete his degree. Seven years later, he was hired as a surgeon in Ibadan. He often had to operate without light or electricity. He also traveled to other refugee camps for the UN, diagnosing other Congolese refugees, grateful to be helping others who had fled just as he had.
He met and fell in love with a woman from the DRC, and they married and had a son. They dreamed of resettling in another country where their baby boy could have a bright future.
In 2013, Michel’s wife and son were approved to travel to the United States—but not Michel. Michel’s wife had started the process before their marriage, and because the U.S. prioritizes the cases of women and children, her petition was approved first. When Michel’s wife arrived in the U.S., WRDA helped her find housing and a job so she could support herself and her son. Meanwhile, World Relief’s Immigration Legal Services team (which specializes in representing family reunification cases for refugees and other immigrants) helped her apply for a visa for Michel to join her and her son in the U.S.
It took two years, to the day, for Michel’s visa to be approved. Seventeen years after he fled his homeland, he finally found a country that welcomed him to stay. But reuniting with his family came at a cost. The medical credentials he had worked so hard for weren’t valid in the U.S. His first job was packing boxes at a local company. Though he was grateful to be supporting himself and his family, he longed to be back in the operating room.
Michel met two World Relief volunteers who helped him make that dream a reality. One, a retired ophthalmologist, connected Michel with doctors at a local hospital. Another, who had spent time with a missions group in the DRC, coached him through the application process and took him to interviews. Most importantly, these men gave Michel friendship, courage, and confidence to pursue his dream.
After rounds of tests and interviews, and only 10 months after arriving in the U.S., Michel was hired as a surgical assistant. The doctors at the hospital have also welcomed him, given him advice on how to advance his career, and even leant him textbooks so he can continue his studies.
When asked about the volunteers who have become his friends, Michel says, "Without them, I would not have been able to get this job. I am very grateful." Michel's story of hard work and resilience is just one of the thousands of stories of refugees who have found life-changing connections and relationships through World Relief's ministry over the years.