The Path to Peace: Jerome's Story

August 26, 2020

Article by Jerome Bizimana, World Relief Staff Member

Our feature this month is the firsthand account of life as a refugee from World Relief staff member, Jerome Bizimana. Read about his struggle to escape hate and violence in what felt at times like a hopeless quest for peace.

It was 1996 and the war had just broken out. The Democratic Republic of the Congo had always been my home, but it was a brutal, bloody war, and it was too dangerous to stay in the country, so my family and I fled. For the next nineteen years we lived in one Tanzanian refugee camp after another. When one camp closed, we packed up and moved to another. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a life away from the war.

One night in 2012, I was attacked by criminals at my home. Luckily, nearby police officers were able to save me from harm, but my assailants escaped. Before fleeing, they told me that they would kill me. They told me that they had to “terminate my life,” but never gave a reason why. My heart was broken, and from that day forward, I lived in constant fear. I couldn’t sleep, and many nights I would go to bed wondering if I would wake safely in the morning.

My eyes are wet with tears as I write this. I do not usually talk about my past. I prefer to forget the thirty-one years of my life that I lived hopelessly, but I hope that sharing my story will help others by bringing awareness to the need for refugee resettlement support.

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Sharing the Love: Brenda's Story

July 30, 2020

Article by Emily Miller, World Relief Staff Member

Our feature this month is a story of perpetual giving. Read how a young woman has overcome obstacles during the pandemic and is now mobilizing support for others in need.

Brenda’s heart sank when she logged on to her bank’s mobile app. She had been working at a laundromat, diligently saving extra pennies, when the unthinkable happened: the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Illinois. Her work hours were cut in half, several of her friends contracted the virus, and Brenda’s comfortable housing arrangement suddenly became unstable after three of her housemates decided to move away.

I have been Brenda’s case manager since October 2019, starting after she was granted asylum in the United States. After her arrival and prior to the pandemic, twenty-year-old Brenda had made great strides toward stability while settling into life in the Chicago area. She had established care with clinicians, started working, and had connected with a local church.

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On the Front Lines

May 27, 2020

Article by Robert Carroll

In this month's feature, read how twin sisters from Iran went from religious refugees who couldn't speak English to important front line workers in the fight against COVID-19. Click here for COVID-19 resources in over 20 languages, or click here to learn what items you can donate to help families in need during this time.

Sona Barichi can’t hug her young son when she gets home from work even though he cries for her and doesn’t understand. She has to take a shower first. She keeps her clothes and shoes in the garage until they’ve aired out for at least twenty-four hours, and then she washes them separately from her family’s laundry to prevent contamination. After she is convinced that she no longer carries any germs from her long shift at work, she can finally greet her family. She can finally hug her son.

Sona must take these precautions because she is a respiratory therapist at Delnor Hospital in Geneva who continues to work every day with COVID-19 patients. Her twin sister, Hana, works as a phlebotomist for Elmhurst Hospital, and she, too, is taking care of COVID-19 patients daily. Both sisters, they tell me, are doing their absolute best to help every single person that comes in through their hospital’s door, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. As religious refugees from Iran, they know all too well what it feels like to be shoved aside, to be forgotten, to be refused. They also know what it feels like to be in danger.

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From Myanmar to DuPage: A Valentine’s Day Love Story

February 26, 2020

Article by Amy Ullo, Communications Manager for workNet DuPage

For this month's feature, we welcome guest writer, Amy Ullo, Communications Manager for workNet DuPageLocated in Lisle, IL, the workNet DuPage Career Center is home to several organizations working in partnership to provide employment services for employers and job seekers in DuPage County. workNet DuPage is a valued partner of World Relief.

February 14 has a special meaning for a refugee family in DuPage County.

Valentine’s Day signifies more than the wedding anniversary of Lian Mung and Sian Nu, a young couple from Myanmar (also known as Burma): it’s the date they arrived in the United States seeking safety from violence and persecution.

For the past half century, ethnic and religious conflicts have forced hundreds of thousands of Myanmarese to uproot their lives trying to escape devastating human rights abuses.

Lian, a Christian worship leader, fled his homeland in Tedim, Chin State, a mountainous northwestern tribal area of Myanmar. In 2008, he made the treacherous journey to Malaysia by way of Thailand smuggled in a van during the day and on foot at night in the jungle. At only 24 years of age, Lian left behind his wife, his mother, two younger sisters, and the only life he had ever known. 

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Starting from Zero: Mohammad's Story​


December 21, 2019

Article by Robert Carroll

In this month's feature, read how a high school senior from Syria rose to the top of his graduating class just three years after arriving in the United States as a refugee with no English and only a few years of standardized schooling. This young man and his four siblings were enrolled in school and joined an after-school homework club that further ignited his intense passion for learning and helping others. Read on to learn more about the impact you make possible when you partner with World Relief.

Mohammad Marie looks and acts like a typical high school senior—one that has spent his entire life living and learning in the United States. When I meet him, he’s wearing a hoodie, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. His backpack is loose on his shoulders. He owns an iPhone and he carries a pair of Apple airpods in his pocket. He greets his friends with high-fives, and he jokes lovingly with teachers using American slang and gestures. He has an Arabic accent, but his English is otherwise impeccable.

But Mohammad Marie is not a typical high school senior.

Mohammad and his family, which includes three brothers and a young sister, fled war-torn Syria earlier in the decade in order to seek safety in the neighboring country of Jordan.

“We left Syria because of huge civil war,” he explains. “The people were fighting the government. The government was of course stronger. They had a lot of heavy missiles and they started shooting people and shooting houses down and stuff.”

Mohammad is a charismatic young man who usually speaks with excitement. He’s usually very animated. But when he recounts the war in Syria for me, his tone is sober and his face lacks expression. The way he says “and stuff” seems to cut right to the truth of the matter. What more does one have to say after “heavy missiles” and “shooting people and houses down?” If I haven’t gotten the point by then, it’s likely that I never would.

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Trauma, Suffering, and the Fight for One's Own Soul: Nazish's Story

November 20, 2019

Article by Robert Carroll
Photographs by Roxanne Engstrom

In this month's feature, read how one exceptional woman rebuilt her life here in the United States, found the mental healthcare she needed, and overcame the odds stacked against her. Then, at the end of the article, please enjoy the poem, "A Lonely Girl," written by this remarkable person in both English and her native language of Urdu.

Thanks to partners like you, World Relief is able to provide needed counseling for refugees and other immigrants struggling to find help for the mental and emotional trauma that they have experienced.

Nazish is a poet both in words and action—gentle, calm, contemplative, deliberate. English is her second language, but she wields metaphor and turns phrases with charming purpose—an astonishing thing to witness considering she will occasionally pause mid-sentence to find the correct vocabulary. It’s like her heart knows the rhythm of what she wants to say long before her mind can find the words, and her soul is patient enough to make it work.

When Nazish enters the room and meets me for the first time, she smiles warmly, but I can see that behind her smile is uncertainty. I’ve been told she’s a bit nervous to sit down and conduct the interview, but I’ve also been told she’s eager to share her story. According to those that know Nazish, she has decided that she will no longer let fear prevent her from being a positive example for all the refugee women silently suffering from the untreated effects of mental illness. Before her own treatment, the fear she now conquers on a daily basis would most certainly have kept her at home rather than here now, sitting across from me, a stranger, to whom she will soon divulge details of a deeply personal persuasion about an often stigmatized condition for which many parts of the world, including her country of origin, still want her to feel shame.

So, in many ways, Nazish is also a warrior.

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From Prisoner to Patriot

October 15, 2019


In honor of Veterans' Day next month, we're proud to share this first-hand account of one refugee's escape from an Iranian prison and his quest to fight for the freedom of others as a member of the United States military.

The Iranian interrogator held up a ballpoint pen and warned me of its power.

“Can you see the small metal ball on the head of this pen?" he asked. "I can break your neck with this small metal ball. I only have to write two paragraphs and you'll be gone forever.”

After forty-six days of interrogation and torture, I knew that he wasn't lying. He could do whatever he wanted to me. There were no laws stopping him. He put his pen to paper and within a few hours, I found myself in Evin Prison, the scariest prison in the world.

But I was happy.

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Crisis in Venezuela

September 25, 2019

The crisis in Venezuela was born during the presidency of Hugo Chávez, but it did not end with his reign. More than six years after Chávez’s death, the situation in Venezuela is worse than ever, and the economic fallout is considered by many to be more severe than that of the United States during the Great Depression, or that of Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Marked by hyperinflation, escalating starvation, disease, crime, political persecution, and rising mortality rates, there appears to be no immediate solution in sight, and this has resulted in massive emigration from the country.

Isabella Martinez was one of the many that fled Venezuela while the country continued to unravel.

“After Chávez died,” she explains, “the political situation got even worse. Things started to go bad for anyone who didn’t support the ruling party.”

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August 29, 2019

When Bunga and Hortence arrived to the United States on a cold November day in 2013, they were thrilled, relieved…and sad. They were thrilled that they had been welcomed to a country where they could live permanently and rebuild their lives. They were relieved that after enduring 17 years in refugee camps in Nigeria, they had finally found somewhere safe and stable to raise their youngest son Mayo.

And yet they were sad, for they were even further away from their oldest son Jonas, who had been away visiting relatives when the rest of the family fled for their lives from their home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Jonas was trapped by the conflict back home in the DRC, and his parents worried daily for his life.

Bunga and Hortence went about making a new life for themselves here in Illinois as best they could. They completed World Relief’s Job Readiness Class, received a donated van, signed up for ESL classes, and enrolled their son Mayo in school. With the support of their volunteers and a local church, they quickly felt at home in their new community, and they learned what it takes to survive and thrive in the United States. They were doing well, but they longed to be reunited with Jonas.

When the couple learned of World Relief’s Immigration Legal Services (ILS) program, they immediately set up an appointment with a legal specialist. The specialist listened to their story, asked a number of questions, and explained the family reunification process to them. Bunga and Hortence were overjoyed – they once again had hope.

Over the next two years, World Relief’s ILS specialist helped the family navigate the many stages of the legal process. Through constant communication with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and the U.S. Embassy in the DRC, each phase of the process progressed, albeit slowly. Finally, in April 2016 – almost two years since they had their first legal consultation at World Relief – Bunga, Hortence, and Mayo stood waiting in hopeful anticipation at O’Hare Airport.

When Jonas walked through the exit, Hortence let out a cry and fell to her knees in gratitude. The family embraced in a reunion so emotional that strangers at the airport joined in on the celebration. It was a moment of pure joy, and a stunning example of how God can use people to move mountains and reunite families across borders.

This past May, Jonas triumphantly walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma.  And three months later, he is now beginning a new journey toward his college degree at College of DuPage. He plans to study engineering, and he hopes to use the new start that he has been given to contribute to the country that welcomed him.

The family now lives happily in a home that Bunga and Hortence purchased after just four and a half years of hard work and saving. Like many of the immigrant families welcomed to our community, Bunga, Hortence, Jonas, and Mayo are making the most of the opportunities and help that they have been given, and are living full, hopeful lives.

July 2, 2019

“For refugees, the middle country is tough,” Imrana says. “But it’s like this: before becoming a diamond, you are just a rock. For my son and me, Malaysia was so hard, but it made us into diamonds. Made us real gold. So when we entered the U.S., we were not rock. We were not stones. We were diamonds. We could really make a place for ourselves here.”

Imrana is a refugee from Pakistan who spent four years as a single mother in Malaysia. Though she has been through hardship in her life, her creativity, resilience, and your support has made it possible for her to open her very own business. Click below to read about the difference you have made in her story.

Read the rest of Imrana's story.

May 31, 2019

Soft spring light falls unhindered through the window—on the sixth floor there are no trees to block the sun. Abraham sits low on a sofa against the wall, papers spread out on the coffee table in front of him. He is wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt and jeans and has black slide sandals on over his socks. He leans forward to read the piece of paper in his weathered hand, an index finger helping him keep his place as he sounds out each word.


Across from Abraham, Everett crosses his legs in a wooden kitchen chair. He is wearing a blue button-down shirt tucked into slacks. It matches the sky outside the window. He listens patiently as Abraham reads and only leans in toward the coffee table to help if he asks. Abraham and Everett have been meeting like this—over papers spread out on a coffee table—for more than ten years. “I have learned many good things from Everett,” Abraham says with a smile.


The two men met in 2004 in one of World Relief DuPage/Aurora’s English classes for refugees. Abraham, who is from Liberia, had just been resettled in Wheaton after fleeing his home with his wife and four of their children 15 years before. He was learning English for the first time. Everett had recently retired and returned to Illinois with his wife after teaching in international schools for many years. He wanted to find a way to use his gifts in retirement, so he began volunteering as an ESL classroom aide.


Some might call this timing a coincidence. To Abraham and Everett it seems like providence.


For four years, they got to know each other during weekly English classes, and in 2008 Abraham wanted to begin studying for his U.S. citizenship exam and interview. Everett volunteered to meet him outside of class once a week to practice. For 18 months they studied together, and in October 2009, Abraham passed both his interview and exam and became a U.S. citizen.


“It was such an exciting day, and afterward I asked Abraham if he wanted to keep meeting,” Everett recalls. “He said, of course!” Now, it has been ten years and they’ve never stopped.


On this particular day, Abraham is reading part of his life story. For the past few weeks he has been recounting it for Everett, beginning when he was born in Liberia in 1924 all the way through to becoming a U.S. citizen. Everett recorded and typed the story so that Abraham could practice reading it and share it with his grandchildren. After finishing several pages, Abraham retreats to the kitchen to boil water for tea and to make hard-boiled eggs and toast. While he waits, Everett pulls out his tablet to play some Liberian music—Abraham’s favorite. “Abraham has helped me gain an appreciation for Liberian culture,” Everett says. “It’s so important to meet people from different places, so you’re not basing your opinions about that group on stereotypes.”


Abraham returns with the tea and the two men sit in silence as they drink it. The clock on the wall next to the window ticks faithfully. In the space of only two hours, Abraham and Everett have laughed together, shared in hospitality and served one another, and sat in this comfortable silence, just enjoying one another’s presence. If these aren’t the markers of true friendship, what is? Before they end their weekly meeting, Abraham confirms this. “He’s my very best friend,” he says of Everett. And Everett smiles from across the coffee table.


Are you interested in building a friendship like Everett & Abraham’s? Right now, over a dozen refugees and immigrants are waiting to be matched with an in-home English tutor. Apply on our website today.

May 22, 2019

In 2016, when Gao Guanghua arrived in the U.S. after spending years as a refugee in Thailand, you were there to walk alongside him. As a community of volunteers and donors, you helped Gao find a doctor who speaks his language, gain access to subsidized senior housing, connect with new friends in the community, and more.

Gao Guanghua’s story began long before he became a refugee, and long before his path intersected with World Relief. He shared a small part of that story from his apartment near Chinatown. Click the image below to read some of Gao's story in his own words.


Gao Guanghua

March 28, 2019

“There’s a defining moment in life when you have to decide if you have the faith to make the jump,” Scheri tells us. She is a petite woman from Chile, and her story is indicative of faith and consistently learning to “make the jump.”


Recently, Scheri received a car through World Relief’s vehicle donation program. It was quite a victory for her, because Scheri is handicapped and uses a wheelchair, which has made transportation a challenge.  


In addition to limited physical accessibility, another challenge for disabled people in the U.S. is finding jobs that can adequately support them. For Scheri, this has been even more complicated because she is a Dreamer, a term that describes individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children and may be  protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA. Scheri’s parents brought her to the U.S. when she was two years old. Now, she is 29.


When DACA was implemented in 2012 Scheri says, “it was like I was in an ocean and finally came up for a breath of air.” Finally, she could work legally and find a job to support herself, even though she is still  not eligible for disability services as a Dreamer.  Despite this improvement, Scheri is still frustrated and unsatisfied with the instability of her status and the way some politicians use immigration and policies like DACA as a way to further other interests. “We are not a bargaining chip!” she exclaims. Scheri talks about how hard it is to live your life when immigration law is constantly changing and you are never sure when you will still have a work permit and when you won’t. Dreamers are forced to live in the “now,” to work with what is right in front of them. But though her long-term goals have been affected by things she can’t control, Scheri still has several short-term goals that keep her motivated.


Scheri tells us that her independence has always been very important to her, and it’s easy to see why. In 2016 she left a difficult situation at home and set out on her own for the first time. She lived in several different shelters while she continued looking for work that would cover all of her expenses, and recently moved into her first apartment.


After finding a job and an apartment, the next challenge was transportation. Before receiving a car from World Relief, Scheri took the bus to her job at Walmart. But even in this challenge, there is a victory that she is really proud of. At first, the bus stop was some way down the road from the store, which meant she had to navigate snow and ice to get from the store to the bus stop, and waiting for long periods outside even caused her to get frostbite. Scheri worked with the store manager to get the bus stop moved closer to the building, ultimately helping other employees and customers who were taking the bus to the store.


Scheri learned about World Relief and their services for immigrants and refugees from a friend at her church who works for World Relief, and she found out about the car donation program while working with Sasha, one of World Relief’s employment counselors. Sasha helped Scheri complete the process to receive not just a car, but one that was designed specifically to allow her to drive with her disability.  Mobility Works, a company that outfits cars for drivers who use wheelchairs, made the modifications to the donated car. Scheri describes the changes, saying, “Now there are some levers up by the steering wheel, so that I don’t have to use my feet to drive.” Her church helped pay for part of the adjustments, and she paid for the rest.


Now, Scheri has her own apartment and is continuing to work for her independence. She gives other people rides to work or home whenever she can, because she knows what it is like to not have the freedom that your own transportation affords. She is also attending community college and is only five classes away from getting her Associate’s Degree. After that she hopes to transfer to Aurora University to study psychology. “I want to help other women who are also going through struggles and be a shoulder for them, because of the emotional impacts that I have had in my own life,” she shares.


But for now, Scheri is grateful and excited about her new car. It gives her the freedom to travel to school and work without having to rely on public transportation, and it also allows her to bless others in her life by giving rides to friends and coworkers. “Also, I think the car just goes with me,” she laughs. “I love my little blue car!”

February 25, 2019

"When I was a refugee, I also learned a lot from using the internet at home: video editing, graphic design, how to run a business, coding, apps. A little bit here, a little bit there. That’s how I learned, and eventually that’s how this restaurant happened..."

Unable to work legally as refugees in Malaysia, Alif and his family forged their own path. When they arrived in Chicago, you  helped him find employment. Last month we spoke with Alif about his latest entrepreneurial project in Chicago: Tea Leaf Garden.

Click the image below to read Alif's story in an interactive format, complete with pictures, maps, and more!


Tea Leaf Garden

February 1, 2019

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.”

January 10, 2019

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.

December 3, 2018

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…

October 30, 2018

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.