November 27, 2012

When Chris and his wife dreamed about becoming missionaries, they had a pretty traditional idea what that would look like.

“We thought we would minister around here for a few years, then we’d go overseas and be missionaries,” said Pastor Chris McElwee from Wheaton Bible Church. When a Muslim Iraqi mother and her five children arrived in the middle of Ramadan, their ideas of missions dramatically changed.

The family fasted during daylight hours.  They were up before dawn cooking all kinds of foods—aromas of soups and meat wafted through the house in the early morning hours. One night, after a few days of being woken up by early morning banging in the kitchen and working hard to help the family adjust and adapt, Chris and his wife were exhausted.

“We lay there awake in our bed, and we said, ‘We are missionaries.  This is what God has for us.’ We could never do in Iraq what we are doing now and right here.  This family has become our family.  Our kids know them.  We pray for them.  We celebrate birthdays, Christmas and other holidays,” Pastor McElwee said.

Pastor McElwee shares the heart of the church at large.  A heart to see people in the community growing and thriving—with a particular heart for the foreign-born.


Wheaton Bible sends more than 90 missionaries—spending a quarter of the church budget supporting international outreach in 39 countries. A plan to send more than 20 missionaries to France to work with Muslim immigrants over the next five years, working closely with Greater Europe Mission, has really open the eyes of the congregation to the Muslim world.

Iraqi refugees have provided a great opportunity for families considering service in France to begin working with the foreign-born right in their own backyards.  In fact, working closely with a newly arriving refugee family has become a part of the required missionary preparation all Wheaton Bible’s prospective missionaries go through.

The partnership has engaged the church’s families, helping prepare them for missions and dramatically impacting World Relief’s work.

“After more than three decades of refugee resettlement in the area,” says World Relief’s Gretchen Schmidt in Wheaton, “our need to expand into new communities was significant.  The support of Wheaton Bible enabled us to help families resettle in a new area.”

Westwood Apartments

Just a couple miles up the road from Wheaton Bible sits Westwood Apartments, a complex made up of 90 percent immigrants and a growing Iraqi refugee population. In June, a young couple arrived with their 8-month old daughter. Within their first day, they had already been rushed to the hospital with stomach problems.

Around 15 Iraqi families have apartments in the community—and several served as translators for the American forces. Most fled for their lives, leaving behind jobs, families and an entire way of life. Each family that arrives through World Relief’s network is partnered with a family or individual from area churches, including Wheaton Bible.  They help them adjust, walk with them as they look for jobs, and ensure they become self-sufficient quickly. 

“The number one need for most of these families is relationship,” says Pastor McElwee. “And working with refugees has changed the lives of all the families that participate.  It’s enriched their lives.  They have learned about God.  It’s challenged them and it’s made them pray more.”

Pastor McElwee says working with Muslim families has transformed not only his life, but also the lives of many others in his local church. “God’s heart for immigrants and refugees is immense,” he says.  “God is moving and He is so faithful.”

Your donation to World Relief DuPage/Aurora empowers local churches to continue serving the most vulnerable people in our communities. To donate securely online, click here

November 27, 2012

All around us, there are many reasons to give thanks.  At World Relief DuPage/ Aurora [WRDA] we are filled with gratitude—for freedom and safety, for God’s provision, and for the opportunity to witness lives transformed! Through the collective efforts of our staff, volunteers and donors, we have resettled over 500 refugees and served some 4,200 immigrant clients this year. Not only are we grateful for the opportunity to stand with the world’s most vulnerable, but also for the privilege of seeing hope renewed.

From Silence to Sound
Because hearing loss disproportionally affects many Bhutanese refugees, WRDA developed a medical case management program.  When Bhutanese refugees, Nan and Dhal Ghorsai, arrived in the U.S. early this year, they were functionally deaf.  However, a partnership between the WRDA medical case management program and a local audiologist resulted in hearing aids for the couple. Now, Nan and Dhal no longer struggle to read lips, can hear the sound of their children’s voices and are learning to speak English.

From Flight to a Home
Refugees, by definition, are not from communities or countries that celebrate their contributions to society.   After fleeing from their home in the Congo and living in four different refugee camps, Pierre and Virginie Lokombe arrived in Aurora in 2010 with their four sons. Immediately, the family felt welcomed and began to invest back into the community.  Today, Pierre is a student at Waubonsee Community College, and the family, through the Individual Development Account program, is in the process of purchasing their first home in Aurora. 

From Alien to Citizen
Last April, Maria Flores attended our Citizenship Workshop, but was unable to complete the application process due to residency guidelines.  However, despite some personal and financial struggles, Maria continued to pursue citizenship and not only took the oath of alliance in October, but following the oath ceremony, registered to vote for the first time.

Finally, we are thankful for you—the community and friends who graciously welcome strangers and invest in the transformation process.   In fact, your hospitality is evident in two community events focused on celebrating refugees and immigrants.

The Aurora Historical Society (AHS)
In November, AHS hosted an exhibit on the people groups that make up Aurora.  The goal was to highlight recent immigrant groups and their contributions, which includes WRDA clients.  

There’s Room at the Table
Uniting America will host the opening of a local photo documentary project, There’s Room at the Table, which is a collaborative effort between Wheaton College, Uniting America, and World Relief DuPage/Aurora. The project highlights the daily life of refugees, immigrants and the native-born population of Wheaton and Glen Ellyn.  The exhibit opens on December 9 at 1 p.m. at the Gary United Methodist Church in Wheaton, and runs through December 16.  Hours are Sunday from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and Wednesday 5:30-7 p.m.


November 27, 2012

Matthew Soerens, World Relief Immigration Counselor

The Issue

World Relief’s mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.

Here in suburban Chicagoland, we – and many of our church partners – have found that a good number of immigrants fall into that category of “most vulnerable.”  Refugees and other immigrants face many unique challenges: language confusion, cultural barriers, the haunting memories of the circumstances that led them away from their country of origin, and very often separation from family members left behind.

There is much that we as God’s people, working together through local churches, can offer to these newcomers by meeting physical needs and reflecting Christ’s love. 

While there is much that we do on a personal level, we also often encounter structural problems that inhibit our new friends from integrating and flourishing in their new countries, and we believe that we have a responsibility in these circumstances to advocate for changes to laws.

As an immigration counselor at World Relief, I hear stories nearly every day of families who have been separated by what I have come to believe is a broken immigration legal system.  Immigrants who have received their green cards usually wait more than five years to be allowed to bring minor children or spouses to the United States, a desperately long time to wait for a family.  The wait times for other family relationships can be even longer – up to eighteen years for adult children of US citizens and twenty-two years for siblings of US citizens.

Others have entered the country or overstayed a temporary visa unlawfully.  While we do not condone their unlawful action, it is easy to understand why so many feel forced to make that decision, given the economic desperation from which most of these immigrants came, and the unavailability of visas for them to have entered lawfully. 

Our legal system is tragically broken. Our economy, even in the current downturn, relies heavily on foreign-born workers, particularly for “low-skilled” jobs like agriculture, construction, and hospitality industries, but we have not created adequate legal mechanisms for individuals to enter to fill these jobs.

As a result, individuals enter unlawfully or overstay a visa not intended for a permanent stay, and then live their lives in the United States in the shadows, working hard but always afraid of apprehension and deportation.  The issue becomes further complicated by the fact that so many of those without status in the United States have U.S. citizen children or spouses, so their deportation means dividing a family and, sometimes, leaving the U.S. citizen family members dependent upon public aid and charity.  

So What Do We Do?

The question of what to do with these individuals who have broken the law is one that World Relief has wrestled with over the years.  While there is a great deal of rhetoric on all sides of the debate, we believe our call as Christ-followers is to consider this complex issue through the lens of the Bible.  Scripture guides us repeatedly: God loves and looks out for immigrants, along with other vulnerable groups like orphans and widows, and He commands us to welcome immigrants, treat them justly, and love them as ourselves (Lev 19:33-34, Deut 10:18, Deut 24:14-15, Ps 146:9, Ezek 22:7, Mal 3:5, Mt 22:35-40). 

But, of course, scripture also tells us to submit to the governing authorities, which God has established for us (Romans 13:1-4).  That tension is further complicated by the reality that many of these undocumented immigrants are our brothers and sisters – members of our communities and churches – and as we hear their stories, it becomes increasingly more difficult to dismiss them as “aliens.”  They are human beings made in God’s image, with families and faith, just like us.  Biblically, we are inter-dependent parts of one body (1 Corinthians 12:26).  

Our nation desperately needs a comprehensive reform of our immigration laws. 

To be Effective, Reform Must Concurrently Do 4 Basic Things:

  1. Secure the border and create enforceable employment authorization documents so that it becomes much more difficult to enter or work unlawfully in the United States. This eliminates the incentive to migrate.
  2. Create lawful mechanisms for legal entry that match the supply of work in the United States, both for high-skilled and low-skilled jobs.  No one would choose to make a dangerous illegal entry across a desert if they had the option of undergoing a background check, paying a reasonable visa fee, and entering through the front door. Although the news we hear says differently, a relatively small number fear background checks or attempt to smuggle in contraband. Most are well-meaning workers looking to support their families.
  3. Increase the number of visas available for family reunification so that the backlogs in the current system are significantly reduced and families can “live together in unity” (Ps 133:1)
  4. Create the possibility for those currently here unlawfully to pay a reasonable fine, register with the government, pay any back taxes owed, and get on a path to citizenship and integration (presuming they can clear a criminal background check).  By creating a mechanism for undocumented immigrants to pay a consequence but not resorting to the harsh response of deportation, we can uphold the biblical value of reconciliation. 

World Relief has been advocating for reform based on these principles for several years, and many of the evangelical churches, denominations, and leaders whom we work with have come to the same conclusion. 

Our parent organization, the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents most major evangelical denominations in the United States, passed a resolution in October 2009 calling for Comprehensive Immigration Reform that meets these principles.  

Naturally, with an issue as complex and controversial as immigration, there will be some degree of disagreement.  We find that much of the initial disagreement is moderated when people understand the issue better, sorting through the rhetoric that those on both side of the debate tend to use. 

World Relief Resource

As a tool for education, Jenny Hwang, World Relief’s Policy & Advocacy Director, and I have co-written a book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

We hope it’s a helpful tool for many believers struggling with this complicated issue. All of the authors’ proceeds go back to the work of World Relief.  

Upcoming Events

  1. Missions on Your Doorstep Annual Conference provides workshops and discussion on immigration
  2. February 22, 2010 – World Relief and Community Christian Church in Naperville are partnering together for an immigration educational event. Stayed tuned for more details!

Advocacy: Get Involved!

World Relief is actively advocating with our legislators, asking them to support compassionate and sensible solutions to our nation’s immigration problems.  A simple call to a Member of Congress from a constituent in their district can really make a big difference, especially when there are many calls coming in! 

  • Click here to learn how to add your voice to this cause and to learn who your U.S. Representative is!
  • Email to be added to our monthly advocacy update
  • Text the word “Justice” to 69866 to get occasional text message updates about immigration reform advocacy.  

What Next?

Most likely, immigration reform proposals will be introduced in the Congress within the next month or two, and probably voted up or down before the end of April.  When those debates take place, please lend your voice to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Pr 31:8) and to join World Relief in asking our legislators to support Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

Most of all, we would ask you to pray.

  • For legislators, who need wisdom and courage as they re-work our laws
  • For churches and their congregations as they struggle with this complex issue
  • For the immigrants in our community, that God would meet their needs and that they would know His love and protection 
November 27, 2012

Written by Andrea Simnick Xu / Edited by Gretchen Schmidt

Character Counts at Glen Ellyn Bible Church as they host the third annual Step By Step program this summer.  Sixty-five Burmese refugee children learn the importance of being people of character within their community.

For the past three years Glen Ellyn Bible Church has partnered with the Burmese community and World Relief DuPage to assist Burmese students in taking steps to adjust to life in America.  The program provides a meaningful, enjoyable, and loving environment while addressing academic, spiritual, and social needs.

The team of volunteers rotates the kids through vocabulary and writing lessons, snack time, and playtime involving jump rope, soccer, and knitting.  All of the activities are centered on a character trait of the week.  Throughout the mornings, relationships are built and kids’ confidence is grown.

“Its fun to see that this is home, and they are thriving here,” says Resource Coordinator, Lynn Kubat.  This is a place where bridges are built as the program reaches across the different ethnicities within the Burmese people group.

“The kids who have been coming back [each year] are respectful and grateful and they know we are here to help them and walk alongside them,” says Curriculum Coordinator, Sue Macaluso.  

The original vision of the program was to provide literacy development, but it has evolved to include much more.  Development Coordinator, Cindy Hendriksen says, “The morning ends and we feel the children are being loved. It’s not about getting through the material.”

Attendance has grown from forty-five students the first year, to fifty-five the second, and now sixty-five children benefit from the program.  This is the first year, however, that scriptural reading is part of the curriculum.  Macaluso says, “It’s just awesome to open the word of God with them.  That’s been the highlight of the year.”

The passages the kids read – and act out in skits – highlight honorable attributes of Biblical characters like Noah, the Good Samaritan, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

All the kids take home a New Testament at the end of the program.  “I just feel God is at work in this program and in these kids. We are definitely in the business of planting seeds,” reflects Macaluso.  

Volunteers representing six churches run the program; half of them are teachers by profession.  One volunteer got involved after assisting a Burmese child at school. “I just wanted to help out and serve and get to know the Burmese community more,” she says. “Because I worked with him, I wanted to get to know his friends and siblings.”

New volunteers with minimal cross cultural experience coordinated the knitting activities. Hendriksen says, “These ladies were concerned about communication, but that went very well. In fact, the volunteers quickly connected with the girls, will continue to pray for them and are looking forward to helping with next year’s program.”

Inspired by Step By Step, other churches in the community have observed the program desiring to model after it. “We hope to have a four-year curriculum that we can rotate through and pass on to other churches interested in doing the same thing,” says Macaluso. An essential part of the program’s effectiveness is the collaboration of Burmese community leaders. “They were instrumental in steering us toward a format that would especially draw in and engage the teenaged boys,” comments Hendriksen.

World Relief seeks to empower local churches to serve the most vulnerable. Though Step By Step formed from a mutual desire to increase support for the Burmese community, Glen Ellyn Bible Church provides complete oversight of this valuable program. Their ability to take World Relief’s model of empowerment and combine it with a heart for their vulnerable neighbors has had a far-reaching impact.

November 27, 2012

Glenn Oviatt, Intern

As a missionary for almost 30 years in Central America, Emily Gray needs only to take a short drive each morning to her new field of work as Executive Director at World Relief DuPage and Aurora. And she wants to show the local church what she discovers continually: that ministry to the world’s most vulnerable takes place each day in the Chicago suburbs.

“If you want to serve people from all walks of life and all cultures, you don’t have to get on a plane,” Gray said. “They are our neighbors.”

Gray, who began as Executive Director on September 13th, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who spent the last five years as Director at Merit Hospice Services in Lombard, Ill. World Relief North Regional Director Brad Morris said Gray’s dual background in healthcare and missions will allow her to provide guidance from multiple angles of experience.

“She has some key elements in her background that will bring cohesiveness to all the programs at World Relief,” Morris said.

Already, Gray has used her background in healthcare to provide guidance for a complex medical case that might have taken hours for Refugee Services to sort through.

Refugee Services Director Susan Sperry said she is thankful to work for someone with such an extensive background in social work and is excited by Gray’s energy and enthusiasm. “She’s not daunted by the number of challenges that we face in our line of work,” Sperry said. “She is excited and energized by those challenges.”

As Executive Director, Gray said she hopes to show the breadth and depth of World Relief to the communities surrounding the Wheaton and Aurora offices. “There are so many ways for people to plug in to the good of World Relief at so many levels,” Gray said.

She also hopes World Relief can empower the local church to better love its neighbors without fear of cultural, religious, or racial differences.

“We unfortunately have a learned fear of that which is different from us,” Gray said.

Gray said personal relationships that community members can develop with immigrants and refugees from all over the world create an understanding that will overcome any learned fear. Dramatic changes can occur when someone begins to identify a person from another nationality, culture or religion as “my friend,” Gray said. “When [a person] goes from being ‘a Cuban’ to ‘the guy who is sitting beside me in the pew in church,’ then you can begin to see the world from someone else’s point of view,” Gray said.

In relationship with others, Gray said we can overcome our fear of the unknown and begin to learn more about “what unites us rather than what separates us.”

“God doesn’t see us in groups,” Gray said. “We are all His creation.” Gray said this understanding will not only change the communities near Aurora and DuPage County, but will begin to spread peace throughout the country and the whole of society.

“The more we break down the barriers between an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ the more love can develop,” Gray said. 

November 9, 2012

“In 2007, when I got a job with the coalition forces, things were unbelievable,” said Qasim “Steve” Hazim. “I was in Baquba.  The insurgents would come with a severed head.  They would tell you, if you serve with the coalition forces—if you serve with the Iraqi police—this will happen to you.”

Steve was injured by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It exploded under the striker he was in and he suffered significant head trauma.  Steve rallied, and was back at work within a month. Work was difficult.  Steve was stationed in some of the hardest hit areas of Iraq – Baquba, Tikrit, and Erbil.  He was far from his family, but traveled to be with his wife and son on his leave every three months.

The roads were treacherous, and military and insurgent checkpoints were everywhere.  One trip he was threatened at a checkpoint.  Fearing for his life, he sped away as threats and shots rang out around him.

He continued to have to pass through that checkpoint to see his family and then to report back to work.

“I pulled my hat down low, I grew out my beard, I tried everything to disguise myself,” Steve said. “But I constantly lived in fear.”

He was afraid to let his commanders do anything, afraid of reprisal for him and his family.  Finally, he knew it was time to take his family and leave.  He applied for and was granted a special immigrant visa (SIV) for Iraqis who have served with the coalition forces. “By the time we received our visa and went to the airlines to buy our tickets, my wife was 8 months pregnant.  The airlines said there was no way she could fly.” Amel had their baby in November.  They were warned the baby’s visa could take a year.  They didn’t know what to do as the threats continued to plague them.

On January 19th, they left the country for the United States, too afraid to stay any longer—but they were forced to leave the baby behind with Steve’s parents.  The separation was agonizing for the family.

“Amel began crying all the time.  She could not control herself,” Steve said.  “It was so hard.”

World Relief DuPage, a Wheaton-based refugee resettlement agency, picked Steve and his family up from the airport and provided them with housing, orientation, connection to public services, employment, English classes, counseling, legal services and an introduction to Wheaton Bible Church. Members of the church were eager to walk alongside them as they adjusted to their new life.

Amel’s despair soon landed her in the emergency room three times.  She feared she’d never see her baby again, that he would be killed, that she had abandoned the baby to its death. Immediately, friends at Wheaton Bible Church—including Chris McElwee, the Local Impact Pastor, and Isaac Heath, Steve’s volunteer—jumped to action to provide the care and support the family needed.

Catherine Norquist, World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Director, worked to ensure all the paperwork was filed both here in the United States and in the embassy in Iraq so that Steve could go back to pick up his son. Steve would have to travel on his Iraqi passport, availing himself to the protection of Iraq, a risky move. Filing the correct forms to name herself Steve’s legal representation and Steve’s mother the power of attorney, Catherine cleared the way for Steve to return to the country he had fled from three months prior.

Meanwhile, Steve’s mother journeyed from northern Iraq to Baghdad where she was escorted into the green zone around the embassy. After a medical examination for the baby and an interview to obtain the baby’s visa, she returned to northern Iraq to await Steve who was due to arrive days later. When Steve received the phone call that the visa was ready for his son, Wheaton Bible Church bought his ticket to Iraq.

“I was afraid to go back,” he said, “I knew my life was still at risk, but I had to get my son.”

With a turnaround time of less than 48 hours, he flew into northern Iraq, met his family, gathered his son and boarded a flight back to the United States via Germany. 

When he attempted to get on his flight in Germany, the ticket agent asked him for his baby pass—an unexpected and unexplained expectation.  Steve did not have a ticket for his son, nor did he have a credit card or enough cash to purchase one. “I was so worried that if we didn’t get on the flight, my wife would panic,” he said.  “She has been through so much, I needed to get home.”

So he did the first thing that came to his mind—he called his friends from Wheaton Bible Church.  Isaac picked up his phone at 1 in the morning, knowing that Steve likely needed help.

“You know people are your real friends,” Steve said, “when you need something right away, you can call them—even in the middle of the night.”

Isaac jumped to action, managing to purchase a baby pass just in the nick of time.  As Steve walked down the jetway, the flight attendant closed the doors behind him.

Their arrival at the airport in Chicago was a tearful reunion. “I am so happy now.  I don’t cry anymore.  I was so depressed and could only think about the baby before. When I saw the baby, I just ran and hugged him.  We were all crying,” said Amel.

Transition to the United States continues to be a challenge—the economic situation has turned Steve’s job from full-time to part time.  He would love to go back to school, to continue to provide for his family, but he is still grateful for the safety his new country provides for his reunited family.

“It is hard, but thank God we are safe here. I feel I did something for Iraq—for my people and my country.  And for the United States—for my new country.”

November 9, 2012

Allows refugees to budget and save for houses, vehicles and education

y: Glenn Oviatt, Intern

For many newly-arrived refugees, saving money for a car, a home or a college education on a tight budget is daunting.

However, a recently renewed savings program at World Relief DuPage/Aurora will match the savings of qualified refugees and make it easier for them to secure necessary assets.

The Individual Development Account Savings Program (IDA), which began in October, can match up to $2,000 for single refugees and $4,000 for families toward a home, a vehicle, post-secondary education or training, or the expansion of a small business.

With funds provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the program will last for three years, and replaces the previous five-year IDA grant which ended in September.

Laurel Opal, IDA Coordinator at World Relief DuPage/Aurora, said the program has three main components: asset development, self-sufficiency and planning for the future.

Opal said every participant is required to organize a household budget, attend basic banking classes and take part in asset-specific trainings such as home-buying informational sessions or vehicle maintenance classes.

“The program helps newcomers contribute to their community and helps stimulate the local economy,” Opal said.

Adam Beyer, Employment Services Director at World Relief DuPage/Aurora, said the classes, trainings and experiences of the program ultimately empower participants to become more self-sufficient.

“One of the goals of the IDA program is to teach people how to save – to show them how much money you can save if you put away a little bit every month and how you can improve your life through that,” Beyer said.

Burmese refugees Hoi Vang Thang, husband John and baby (front left) saved to buy a used car through the help of Opal and Beyer of World Relief DuPage/Aurora (front right) and Michael Soehlke, Facility Manager at Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn (back left).
Photo courtesy of Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn.

A great part of that empowerment process happens through World Relief’s partnership with Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn, where all IDA participants have their accounts.With free checking accounts and help from interpreters, Community Bank has been personal and gracious to the refugee community, Beyer said.

“It’s a good learning place,” Beyer said. “I think there are some refugees who come here with banking experience, but for most, it’s a foreign experience.”

Through the previous five-year program, 157 of the 255 participants successfully secured money for their asset goals.

Of those, 14 purchased their first home, 13 acquired higher education or training for themselves or their children, and nine started or expanded a small business. Unexpectedly,121 participants successfully purchased a vehicle.

Opal said many applied for homes when the program began in 2005, but after three years, the economy bottomed out and many lost their jobs. Incapable of saving money, the jobless participants were also unable to qualify for a mortgage loan.

While some dropped out of the program, others simply changed their asset goals.

“We had a lot of people change their goal to [purchasing a] vehicle,” Opal said. “Almost all of the people in the final year and a half of the program applied for a vehicle.”

Beyer said their achievements provided great benefits for themselves and their communities.

“A lot of the refugee communities are usually [limited] by having no transportation or having inadequate transportation,” Beyer said. “This puts them in a position of increased dependence on World Relief and others in the community.”

Through the help of the IDA program, many refugees who previously searched for an affordable but unreliable car were able to secure funds to buy a more stable vehicle.

“Suddenly they have this vision of something better,” Beyer said. “Being able to drive an $8,000 used vehicle that’s reliable gives them a certain level of independence they hadn’t had before.”

Under the new program, however, Opal said she hopes to find more people who can apply to save for a home.

“If we find people with a little bit more stable employment and who are really serious about finding a home, they’re more than capable of doing so,” Opal said.

Additionally, Beyer said that having a “steady stream” of successful IDA graduates over the next three years can positively influence the wider refugee community.

“They can be examples to show that it’s actually possible to do these things–even as newly-arrived refugees.”

November 9, 2012

This September, refugees and other immigrants living in Illinois had an unprecedented opportunity to apply for United States citizenship with an 80 percent discount.

Normally $675, the application fees were reduced to $145 through the New American Dream Fund (NADF), a state-funded program that helped subsidize the remaining costs for qualified applicants.

Although this discount was only available for one month, at least 1,040 people applied for naturalization throughout Illinois.

At World Relief DuPage, news of the discount spread fast, as 68 citizenship applications were filled out and sent before the September 30 deadline.

Erika Miles, Citizenship and Outreach Coordinator at World Relief DuPage, said the organization’s immigration counselors processed most of the applications within a two-week period, taking night hours and working on weekends to help as many clients as possible. “Even though it was a lot of work, it was worth it because we were able to help people who are low-income make their dream of becoming a citizen true,” Miles said.

Catherine Norquist, Immigrant Legal Services Director at World Relief DuPage, said the Dream Fund applicants were upstanding members of their communities and are “truly the ones the U.S. wants and needs as law abiding citizens of this country.”

Miles said many hard working, low income immigrants want to apply for citizenship, but cannot pay the normal fee because of the struggling economy. “It is very difficult to have the $675 in their pocket to apply,” Miles said. “It’s a lot of money for them.” Of the 68 applicants at World Relief DuPage, 17 were Meskhetian Turks who were refugees from Uzbekistan. Other applicants originated from 18 other countries including Liberia, Burundi, Sudan, Mexico, Venezuela, India and the Ukraine.

Norquist said many of the applicants were children, whose application fees will increase from $400 to $600 on November 23. One applicant was a young widow from Iran who was previously unable to afford the citizenship fee due to her tight budget while being the sole provider for her two children. “There would have been no way for her to apply on her income,” Norquist said. “It felt great to get her application in.”

After an application is sent to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, (USCIS), the applicant typically waits about four months for a response. Then, the applicant is required to take the U.S. citizenship test, which consists of questions about U.S. history, government and geography. Once a person becomes a U.S. citizen, they can vote, hold government jobs and petition for their closest family members to join them in the United States. For many who fled from difficult situations in their home countries, becoming a U.S. citizen provides security and peace of mind. “There’s a sense of real pride and belonging that can’t be quantified,” Norquist said

November 5, 2012

By Glenn Oviatt, Intern

On a frigid February afternoon in 2008, Jeannette and her six children disembarked from their plane at O’Hare International Airport and stepped onto North American soil for the first time.

Separated from their home in Tanzania by the fullness of the Atlantic Ocean and the width of the entire African continent, Jeannette entered her new life with many doubts.

How would she and her family adjust to the language, culture and customs of the United States? Would anyone come to her assistance when she needed help? Would she make friends?

But waiting just outside the gate for Jeannette and her family was Annette, a Wheaton woman who previously lived in Tanzania and had volunteered with World Relief for years.

Accompanied by several members of Wheaton Bible Church, Annette welcomed Jeannette and her family to the country with the few Swahili phrases she knew. Then, shivering together as they walked to the car through the unbearable cold, they set off to take the family to their new home in Wheaton.

When Annette first learned about Jeannette’s family through World Relief, she couldn’t ignore the similarities in both their names and their families. At home, Annette grew up outnumbered by five brothers; Jeannette had one daughter and five sons. Even considering their linguistic, cultural and ethnic differences, Annette knew they would form a lasting friendship.

Now, almost three years later, Annette and Jeannette have formed a bond stronger than either woman could have predicted in the moment they met on that frigid afternoon at the airport. ”We are not friends. We are sisters,” explained Annette.Jeannette’s Story

For most of her life Jeannette has been a stranger in a foreign land. When she was 11 years old, Jeannette fled from Burundi with her family while the country was in the midst of civil war and ethnic strife.

They came to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and traveled throughout the war-torn nation, trying to find a place where they could settle down without threats of violence. Continually moving to avoid the war, Jeannette and her family rarely found assistance for their daily questions and struggles.

“We were still in Africa, but every place we moved to had a different language,” Jeannette said. “We found all kinds of problems along the way and nobody helped us through these difficulties. But God did.”

After Jeannette married and started her own family, they moved to Tanzania where she and her husband built a small house out of sticks and branches and raised their children.

Unfortunately, after steadily losing weight for nine years, her husband passed away due to complications with diabetes not long after settling in Tanzania. Unable to become Tanzanian citizens and unable to return to Burundi or the Congo, the future was uncertain for Jeannette and her family. With no safe place to go, Jeannette asked God to provide a better home with better opportunities for her children. When her family was offered the chance to move to the United States as refugees, Jeannette agreed, even though she was initially wary about moving again.

“Being in a foreign land, you don’t know where the doctor is, you don’t know what to do, and you don’t know the secrets of the culture,” Jeannette said. Although she was tired from a lifetime of traveling, Jeannette came to realize that God would provide for her family no matter what happened in America.

And God provided through Annette and members of Wheaton Bible Church.

“I remember receiving the original information on Jeannette’s family and knowing immediately that Annette was the right match,” explained Gretchen Schmidt, World Relief’s Communication and Church Engagement Manager. “God has shown us over and over again through the years how perfectly He paired these two together.”

A few months after Jeannette and her family arrived, doctors discovered a 3cm hole in the heart of her youngest son Minani, then eight years old. When the doctors suggested performing either open-heart surgery or a less-invasive procedure with a catheter threaded through a vein, Jeannette sought Annette’s guidance. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Jeannette said. “I just didn’t know what to think.”

Together, the two women – along with other members of Wheaton Bible Church – walked through the process of doctor visits and medical tests, including multiple trips to Children’s Hospital in Chicago. Jeannette ultimately decided on the less-invasive procedure. The day Minani was discharged, Annette picked him up. “When I got to the hospital, Minani jumped up and gave me a big hug,” Annette said. “He was ready to go home.”

Throughout Jeannette’s adjustment to America, Annette has walked beside her through her many questions and challenges – ranging from plumbing and transportation to medical decisions and family crises.

“I’m not by myself,” explained Jeannette.

Annette’s Story
Several years ago when Annette moved from the United States to Tanzania, she was robbed and beaten by a gang of men who shot their way into her home. Although she had only been in the country for a short time and didn’t yet know her neighbors, Annette said they “stormed the house” to rescue her from her attackers. Grateful for the Tanzanian neighbors who saved her, Annette has since dedicated herself to assisting her new neighbors who come to the United States.

“I reach out to my new neighbors now because I want to be the one to storm the house if they’re in trouble,” Annette shared tearfully.

When Annette befriended Jeannette and her family, she was ready to help in any way possible. What she couldn’t foresee was how deep their friendship would grow. In January 2010, during her final semester of graduate school at Wheaton College, Annette was diagnosed with stage one ovarian cancer.

It was now Jeannette’s turn to provide the constant support, prayer and friendship that Annette needed in order to make it through this immense trial.

“She was able to come and see me in the hospital after I had surgery,” Annette said. “She prayed with me right there.”

When Annette began chemotherapy, Jeannette regularly called to ask how she could better pray for her. “How are you doing?” Jeannette questioned. “Does it hurt? How are you sleeping?” And then she would say, “Okay, you go rest and I will pray.” “That was a beautiful, beautiful gift,” Annette said.

In the spring, Annette was strong enough to walk at her graduation. Jeannette watched her accept her diploma, reserving a great loving hug for after the ceremony.

The Continuing Friendship
Now that Annette’s cancer is in remission, she looks forward to deepening her relationship with Jeannette and sharing the ways they have seen God at work in their lives.

Together as sisters, they pray and read the Bible in Swahili and English and although both women need some translation to fully understand each other, they know that God hears them both and understands everything.

They continue to teach their languages to each other so that one day they can look back at their growing relationship and express their thoughts and feelings with nothing lost in translation.

“I’m looking forward to the day when we can speak in [the same] language and share deeply from our hearts,” Annette said. While Annette and Jeannette continue to experience each joy and every challenge of their lives, they will walk side-by-side—not merely as friends, but as sisters.

Get Involved
When you stand with people like Annette, you STAND / FOR THE VULNERABLE.

To learn more about World Relief and how you can get involved with refugees like Jeannette, click here.

November 5, 2012

Woman feared permanent separation from children

Written by Andrea Simnick Xu and Glenn Oviatt

The United States offers many services and safeguards for victims of domestic violence. Undocumented immigrants who suffer at the hands of an abuser are the group least aware of their right to ask for protection and most afraid to speak up. While the majority of clients served by World Relief Immigrant Legal Services are legal residents of the United States, this story highlights a small but vulnerable category of clients who receive legal advocacy. 

The names of some individuals have been changed to protect their identity.

Julia Garcia is a mother of two young daughters and the wife of an abusive husband. She is also an undocumented immigrant who married an American citizen and possessed little power to protect her children.

When Garcia came to World Relief DuPage in January 2010, she feared her legal status would deny her the right to ask for the safety of her children and herself. However, under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), an undocumented immigrant who suffers abuse from an American spouse can apply for a Green Card.

Matt Soerens, U.S. Church Training Specialist for World Relief, said the law provides protection for people who are in vulnerable situations similar to Garcia but many are unaware of these provisions.

One of “our jobs [at World Relief Immigrant Legal Services] is simply to help the law work as it’s supposed to: to protect people who are victims of abuse and crime,” Soerens said.

With a staff accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals, World Relief DuPage’s Immigrant Legal Services provides low-cost assistance to immigrants and refugees from around the world, seeking to keep clients well-informed of their rights, responsibilities and opportunities under the current laws.

Before Garcia approached World Relief, she pursued a visa through her husband. Instructed to return to Mexico to apply for a visa, Garcia followed bad advice from a Notario—a person who unlawfully gives immigrant legal instruction. Although some Notarios are well-meaning, many make a living off of the ignorance and fear of undocumented immigrants.

Based upon the Notario’s advice, Garcia believed she would only have to wait in Mexico for three years before returning to the U.S. if her visa request was rejected. After waiting almost a year to find out that she had been denied, Garcia learned that she would be separated from her children for at least another 10 years before she could legally reenter the United States, and that was only if her second application for a visa was accepted.

Garcia’s fear for the well-being of her children grew after an emotional phone call from her eldest daughter who said she was hungry and afraid of angering her drunken father by asking for food. Garcia decided she could no longer be separated from her daughters and attempted to cross the US-Mexico border. After being caught and sent back, she made a second – and more desperate – attempt, successfully returning to Wheaton to care for her children.

– – – – –

Upon hearing her story, World Relief Immigrant Legal Services told Garcia she had a strong VAWA petition and set to work obtaining the necessary paperwork. When Garcia was sent to the Glen Ellyn police department for proof that she’d never been arrested, the police detained her and transferred her to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Unbeknownst to her, Garcia had an outstanding warrant for her arrest issued in 2002. While pregnant with her first child, Garcia was attacked by some of her husband’s family members. After the police arrived, Garcia explained the situation and was let go. Because her husband moved her to a new location, Garcia never received the summons to appear in court and was charged with battery.

Garcia’s World Relief Immigration Counselor Elise Bryson hurriedly began building a case to delay her possible deportation. Unsure if Garcia would be on the next day’s deportation plane, Bryson stayed at the World Relief DuPage office past midnight, calling partner attorneys at DePaul University for advice and preparing Garcia’s case.

Garcia was soon transferred to the Broadview Immigrant Detention Center and appeared to be on the fast track toward deportation. No one was informed of her whereabouts.

Garcia’s eldest daughter believed she would never see her mother again, and grew to fear the police.

“It was a very panicked situation,” Bryson said. “Not only do you have someone being deported, but she also has two U.S. citizen daughters of very young ages who would have been in the custody of the abuser. Although he had never directly hurt the kids, his alcoholism had resulted indirectly in their endangerment before.”

The following morning, Sarah Diaz, a partner attorney from DePaul University College of Law, came to World Relief DuPage to help Bryson discover where Garcia was and how to petition for her release. Coincidentally, Diaz knew the supervising attorney at the Broadview Immigrant Detention Center from their days at the National Immigration Justice Center in Chicago. Through the personal connection Diaz was able to quickly get ahold of the attorney and informed him that Garcia was a VAWA client with two young children. An hour later, World Relief DuPage received a call from Garcia announcing her release.

When Garcia’s American neighbor and friend Cathy Anderson heard about the news, she responded with tears of joy. Throughout the night, Garcia’s family and neighbors prayed for her release.

“That was a miracle,” Anderson said. “It was really praying for hope against hope; it was like asking for the impossible.”

Later that day, Garcia came home to a joyful community of friends and neighbors.

“It was really emotional,” Anderson recalled. “When I saw Julia, we were hugging and crying.  And she was so grateful for everything everyone had done.  I think it was overwhelming for her to have people fighting for her, to have people getting involved and doing anything and everything to fight for her to be with her family… for her dignity to be valued and cared for.” 

Since her return, Garcia completed the VAWA petition through World Relief and was approved within the year. Now Garcia has work authorization, a Social Security card and a driver’s license. However, Garcia is still waiting for the government to grant her a green card.

Garcia’s eldest daughter, who was traumatized by the separation from her mother and continual threat of losing her permanently, is now regaining her trust in the police and the ability to engage in everyday activities, like attending school.

While Garcia and her husband work through the process of reconciliation, she now has freedom she didn’t have before – she can support her children independent from an abusive relationship and can seek the best life for her daughters without the fear of being separated again.

To learn more about the work of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services and how you can be involved, please click here