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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September 30, 2014
Oath ceremony

For those of us born in the United States, citizenship is not something we think about on a regular basis. However, for the refugee or immigrant who has fled their country due to war, oppression or violence, the pursuit of citizenship is always at the forefront because it means having a country to call home again.

In 2009, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] began the Citizenship and Integration Grant Program, awarding grants to immigrant-serving organizations to help them better assist permanent residents preparing for citizenship. In 2012, World Relief DuPage/Aurora [WRDA] submitted an application and was one of two Illinois organizations to receive this Federal grant.

“We were honored to receive this grant. It’s highly competitive---only 40 grants are given nationally each grant cycle,” said Karen Jealouse, WRDA Director of Education.

At the time of the announcement, the grant criteria did not allow for organizations to reapply when the grant cycle was over, which would end funding for Citizenship Classes, citizenship tutor training, and certain ILS services. However, in 2013, the guidelines were changed---allowing WRDA to reapply.

Last week, WRDA learned that the USCIS grant was renewed for another two years. The renewal means that the Immigrant Legal Services [ILS] department will be able to continue offering free services to those applying for citizenship, allocate time to more complex applications, and hire part time staff to assist with the administrative process. With regard to education, in addition to offering regular citizenship classes, the grant allows for clients with lower English skills to be served by our teachers who specialize in teaching those with little to no formal education.

Over the next two-year grant period, WRDA will be offering free citizenship classes in both DuPage and Kane counties. In addition to passing a civics test, the applicant must speak, read, and write English; therefore, the focus of each class is on helping the students gain the knowledge and tools needed to pass the naturalization interview. According to Andrea Gerhart, WRDA Education Projects Coordinator and citizenship teacher, the students come to class already internally motivated because obtaining citizenship is so important to them.

As a teacher, my goal is to equip the students in such a way that they walk into their interview with confidence,” said Gerhart.

Former citizenship student, Sara Gomez, believes that without World Relief classes, she would not have been as prepared for her interview.

“I could have memorized the questions on my own, but I wanted to become a citizen from the inside and outside,” said Gomez.

Motivated by her two children who are citizens by birth, Gomez never missed a class because she wanted to learn all that she could about U.S. history.

“I wanted to understand how freedom was achieved and how women got the right to vote in the U.S.,” said Gomez.

Furthermore, without the commitment of attending a class, Gomez says that she may have not put aside the time every week to study.

Currently, Sara’s mother is starting the application process towards U.S. citizenship and Sara is urging her to enroll World Relief classes. Citizenship classes will begin again in October in Wheaton. For more information on these classes, contact the DuPage office at (630) 462-7660.

To review the steps to citizenship, visit Or if you would like to learn about becoming a Citizenship Tutor, helping students who require help outside of class time, contact Jamie Daling, WRDA Volunteer Manager, at or 630-462-7566 x 1046.


September 22, 2014

The New Year is a time to reflect on the past and plan for the future.   At World Relief, our past includes a long history of meeting humanitarian needs and serving the world’s most vulnerable. Around the globe, World Relief has faithfully served people affected by war, poverty and disaster.

This year, World Relief will honor the past and look towards the future in celebration of 35 years of refugee resettlement services in California, Georgia, Illinois and Washington--- and 70 years since World Relief was founded!  As one of the original areas where refugee resettlement began in the U.S., we are doubly excited---celebrating 35 years of resettlement in DuPage and 15 years of service in Aurora!

“It is a testimony of God’s faithfulness and of the vision of these communities that World Relief has grown here and communities have been open and welcoming to refugees and immigrants,” said, Emily Gray, WRDA Executive Director.

World Relief has selected the image of a tree as the symbol for the anniversary year because of its similarity to the experience of immigrants and the World Relief local ministry.  Immigrants have all been separated from their original roots and seek roots in a new place.  And through the support of churches and volunteers, the roots grow deeper and stronger over time.    Eventually, the immigrant becomes firmly planted—learning English, gaining new job skills and investing in the growth of their community.  While some hardships are experienced along the way, similar to a sturdy tree, the immigrant is resilient and their limbs grow strong---producing much fruit.

Throughout 2014, we will observe the anniversary each month here in the newsletter with an article on our history and announcements of special anniversary opportunities.  In addition, we will weave the celebration into our regular yearly events such as Refugee & Immigrant Sunday and our annual Benefit Dinner; however, our big celebration will take place in conjunction with our annual World Refugee Day Picnics. We ask that you reserve the weekend of June 20 for WRDA celebrations, which will bring together both former and current immigrant clients, volunteers, community partners and employees.

In 1979, the founders of World Relief’s ministry among refugees, Grady and Evelyn Mangham, cast a vision of hope.  And by partnering with those willing to stand and welcome the stranger---many lives have been transformed over the years.  While the mission of World Relief has evolved, it has never wavered from the goal of empowering the local Church to serve the most vulnerable, and to see refugees, immigrants and members of their communities become fully-functioning, integrated participants in society.

Today, WRDA is a grounded organization with many dedicated volunteers, donors and community and church partners.  Over the coming year, together we will celebrate God’s faithfulness and all of the new beginnings that have been planted by WRDA and your service to the foreign-born.

September 22, 2014

A Donor’s Point of View

Bruce Barton became a World Relief donor after working on The Life Application Study Bible.  After five years of working on the Bible, Bruce and his wife, Mitzie, made the decision to donate a portion of their total giving---one third to their church, one third to evangelism, and one third to the poor.  At the same time, Bruce was working with Youth for Christ in Carol Stream---across the street the World Relief offices.  Approximately 25 years later, the Barton’s are still faithful World Relief supporters.

“As a donor, I think we are supposed to be responsible about our giving and I feel good about giving to World Relief,” said Barton.

Barton believes that financial giving is not primarily an emotional response. While he enjoys hearing success stories about refugees getting a good job, earning citizenship, or starting a small business, those stories are not a means-to-an-end. Instead, Barton views these stories as a conformation that World Relief is doing a good job with the resources entrusted to them.

“For me, it is like watching a magician.  After the first three tricks, you just start to trust the results--- and everything World Relief does backs up their promises with quality,” said Barton.

When asked about his involvement as a World Relief donor, Barton relates his commitment to the feeding of the 5,000, which is found in all four Gospels. He believes the Bible mandates that we proclaim God’s word by showing His love and concern for others.

“Jesus trained his disciples and told them to feed the people, which says to me that we too are called to serve and give physical help to others.  Or in other words, continue to feed WRDA---the conduit that serves refugees,” said Barton.

Finally, when asked what he would say to a potential WRDA donor, Barton responded, “If you are moved to give to refugees then World Relief is the best place---you can count on them to handle your money well.”

 WRDA History

Djoua Xiong came to the U.S. as a Hmong refugee from Laos to escape violence and start over in a safe place; however, God had a very specific mission for Djou.

During the mid-1970’s Djoua and his family were among the Hmong people seeking political alyssum.  Upon arrival in Wheaton, his first job was as a dish washer at Wheaton College and then in the shipping department at Tyndale Publishers.  Djoua adjusted to the culture and language quickly, and as a result he became a leader and advocate in the Hmong community.

Djoua was in the U.S. for a short time when he was recruited by Catholic Charities to serve as a case manager and help resettle other refugees arriving from Southeast Asia. In 1980, Djoua left Catholic Charities and accepted a position with World Relief to serve refugees being resettled throughout the Midwest.  But as his family grew, Djoua wanted to be at home more; therefore, he approached World Relief with the idea of opening an office in DuPage County.  His request was granted and he became the first official resettlement director for World Relief DuPage.

The DuPage office opened in 1982 with one case manager and a secretary, and together they resettled 100 refugees the first year.  During his tenure as director, with the help of volunteers, Djoua and his staff resettled thousands of refugees, from approximately 20 different countries.  “I would go to churches to speak and people were very sensitive to the refugees’ needs and responded,” said Djoua.

According to Djoua, during the early years churches and families would host newly arriving refugees in their homes, enroll the children in school, and run the ESL classes.  When Djoua left World Relief in 2000 to serve as president and CEO of Overseas Tribal Service, Inc., the DuPage office had both a strong volunteer and Church network---and nearly 50 employees!

Some of Djoua’s accomplishments as director include: establishing local refugee churches, a summer youth program, an on-site counseling center, a senior adult program, a community garden, and a program for refugee women to sell their handmade goods.

Today, Djoua continues in his advocacy work by helping to create access for missionaries to serve the tribal people of Southeast Asia.

 Update: Director’s Reflections

One of the benefits of looking back at the history of WRDA is seeing God’s faithfulness.  Over the years, God has shown through as He used people like Djoua – transforming them from refugees into faithful servants who serve and advocate for others.  His faithfulness has shown through people like Bruce and Mitzi, who have both lent their talents and been faithful financial supporters.

Recent events have led us at WRDA to realize how very dependent we are on God and His faithfulness through his people.  Last month in this newsletter, we shared concerns about public funding that was originally designated for refugees is now being used to meet the desperate needs of unaccompanied children entering the U.S.  Congress did not take action before its recess, so funding cuts to several of our refugee programs have gone into effect.   This re-allocation of funds represents the largest single drop in public funding WRDA has experienced in recent years.  As a result, we have scaled back several programs and we will face further reductions in October if Congress does not approve sufficient funding in the FY15 federal budget.

While this drop is dramatic, over the past several years public funding has been decreasing steadily---yet God has been faithful.  Even in the face of these cuts, we believe He will again be faithful through His people.  We believe that, as Bruce and Djou said so well, churches and individual donors are willing to step up to serve refugees and provide for the funds World Relief needs to continue to be a part of serving refugees, immigrants, and local churches.

I want to highlight two ways that you can be a part of helping us meet current challenges:

- On Friday, September 26 WRDA will host its annual benefit dinner at Piper’s Banquets.  This is always an important event for us, but never more than this year in light of these funding cuts.  It will be an inspiring evening of seeing how God has worked in the lives of immigrants and volunteers, as well as hearing a special message from Evelyn Mangham, one of the co-founders of World Relief’s Refugee Ministry 35 years ago.  You can help to fill the hall with supporters, friends, churches and sponsors.  Tickets are available now.  Click here for more information.

- We are 2/3 of the way toward our goal of raising $15,000 to meet a challenge grant of another $15,000 from the IDP Foundation for teaching Job Readiness ESL, which prepares refugees for jobs in the U.S.   The deadline for this match is fast approaching, so if you are willing to help us reach this goal, click here and choose “Help a Child or Adult Learn English” to designate your gift to this match.  Or, for more information, contact Bill Janus at

I ask you to pray for immigrants coming to our communities, to pray for the Church to rise up to welcome immigrants in the name of Jesus, and pray for us here at World Relief as we endeavor to do what God places before us each day.  I hope to see you in September!

Emily B. Gray, LCSW
Executive Director

June 25, 2014

When *Qing’s mom got the opportunity to leave China in 1994 and study in the United States she was faced with a difficult decision.  Her student visa did not allow her to work in the U.S., so she had to leave little Qing behind in China with family. At first Qing’s mother was fortunate, after completing her studies she was offered a job and granted a work visa.  As a result, five years later, Qing’s mom was able to reunite the family by bringing Qing to Chicago.

Qing did well in school and adjusted to the new culture quickly.  Although she was from a different country, her upbringing in the suburbs of Chicago was similar to her classmates----until she turned 12-years-old.  In 2001, Qing and her mother learned that their attorney missed the filing deadline to renew their visas---leaving them undocumented and without a remedy.  Without legal status, Qing’s life changed considerably.

As she got older, she was not able to attain milestones like her peers.  She could not get a driver’s license, work, or attend college.  Qing and her mom faced the possibility of deportation every day, even though life in the U.S. was virtually all Qing had ever known.

In May of 2003, the Illinois House Bill 60 opened-up new educational opportunities for undocumented students after high school.  As a result, Qing was able to attend and graduate from one of Chicago’s top universities; however, she was not able to pursue a career---until August 2012.

On June 15, 2012, President Obama issued a memo calling for pro-active deferral of deportation for certain young people who were brought to the U.S. as children.  The executive order, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, allows children who meet specific criteria to apply for a type of permission to be in the United States for two-years.  While it is not a path to permanent residency or citizenship, if the applicant is accepted, he or she can get a Social Security number, and Employment Authorization Card, and obtain a Driver’s License---depending on the state.

When Qing heard about the DACA program she wasted no time gathering all of the required records that she would need for her application.  And upon being accepted into the DACA program, she landed a job in her field.

“Now I have the ability to contribute to the country where I was raised and be self-sufficient, “said Qing.

Furthermore, DACA gave Qing the opportunity to apply for “Advance Parole” giving her permission to travel to China to visit aging family members, with an approval for re-admittance back into the U.S.  Because DACA is a two-year authorization, Qing is currently in the process of renewing her application, but hopes for the opportunity to become an American citizen one day.

Camilia Rubiano has a similar story.  She was just six-years-old when she was brought to the United States from Colombia.  According to Camilia, as a kid her legal status was never an issue because kids don’t talk about citizenship; they just treat each other the same.

During her sophomore year in high school, her mom heard about DACA and encouraged her daughter to look into it---this was the first time she realized that she was undocumented.

“This was the first time I understood why having a Social Security number mattered,” said Camilia.

Camilia applied and was accepted for DACA in 2012 and is also in the process of renewing her application.  With DACA she was able to obtain a driver’s license and a work permit.  Currently, she is studying towards a nursing degree at College of DuPage and working two jobs to support herself.   Although DACA has provided opportunities, Camilia would like to be a U.S. citizen and have a voice as a voter. And while she would like to visit Colombia one day, she considers the U.S. her home.

*For the protection of our client, we have changed her name to Qing for the purpose of retelling her story. 

Click here to learn more about DACA and the DACA renewal process.  To schedule an appointment with Immigrant Legal Services call 630-462-7660 for the Wheaton office and 630-264-3171 for the Aurora office.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Because DACA is an executive order and not a law; it can be revoked at any time.  According to the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical leaders, the only true remedy is for immigration law to be reformed to meet the current realities of our country.   As a partner organization, World Relief believes that our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis; therefore, our nation’s leaders need to work with the American people to pass immigration reform that: respects the God-given dignity of every person; protects the unity of the immediate family; respects the rule of law; guarantees secure national borders; ensures fairness to taxpayers; and establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.  Click here to learn more about the Evangelical Immigration Table and how you can take a stand for comprehensive immigration reform.

May 21, 2014

In today’s fluctuating economy, the ability to make sound financial decisions is crucial to one’s future.  And if you are a refugee starting over in a new country, stability is tightly connected to financial literacy.

At World Relief DuPage/Aurora [WRDA], Asset Development programs are designed to help refugees move toward community integration through financial literacy and asset-building opportunities.  Through education, refugees receive the financial tools needed for success.

All newly arrived refugees take their first step towards financial freedom during their first six weeks here.  As a part to the ESL Job Class, Rebekah King, WRDA Asset Development Coordinator, walks the students through the process of budgeting and explains the difference between income and expenses.  Furthermore, Rebekah discusses the importance of having a bank account, enrolling in direct deposit, and using an ATM machine.

“Essentially, the lesson on budgeting shows the students that there is no extra money, at first, to spend on non-essential items or check cashing fees, “said Rebekah.

Once the client is established in a job and able to show a monthly margin of $400-$600 in their budget, additional opportunities for financial growth are available through partnerships with programs such as, Ways to Work.

Ways to Work is a national program administered locally by the Salvation Army Chicago Metropolitan Division. The program assists low-income families who have either no credit or bad credit obtain a low-interest car loan.  According to Jacqueline Lopez, Ways to Work Loan Coordinator, the loan is a credit building tool. The loan process includes a comprehensive application, a valid driver’s license, a credit check, proof of employment, and attendance at a financial education class.  Another component is a written personal statement to convey to the loan the committee what a car would mean to the family.

“World Relief helps us identify qualified participants.  We have never had a WRDA client make a late payment on their loan or be rejected for the program,” said Jacqueline.

As a nontraditional lender, Ways to Work is about seeing people succeed—and the success of the program speaks for itself.  According to Jacqueline, there have been applicants who were on public aid when they started, and by the time they finished paying off their car loan, they were off public aid and in a better job.

Recently, WRDA refugee client Ibrahim Alameir was able to purchase a vehicle through Ways to Work.

In August 2014, Ibrahim arrived with his wife and son from Iraq.   Due to the strong work with ethic Ibrahim learned from his father, he immediately went to work as a machinist to support his family.   Ibrahim was able to carpool to work, but without a car, he would ride his bike from Carol Stream to Wheaton for appointments—even in the winter.  Due to his hard work and lofty financial goals, by February 25, 2014, Ibrahim had earned a driver’s license,qualified for a car loan through Ways to Work, and purchased a used mini-van. Ibrahim’s next financial goal—- enroll in college and earn a license to practice dentistry again.


April 23, 2014

For a single mother, life inside a refugee camp is overwhelming. Survival depends on her ability to overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of adversity.

Due to political violence in Togo, Djigbodi Touleassi fled with her two young children to a refugee camp in Benin.  For approximately three years, they struggled to make it as a family; dealing with inadequate shelter and limited resources.  “I was so afraid for my daughter’s safety that I would carry her everywhere on my back so that she was close to me,” said Djigbodi.

While in the camp, Djigbodi met and married Atakora Agoro who provided a new sense of security; however, the celebration of their marriage was cut short when only she and her children were offered resettlement in the United States.   Because Djigbodi’s first marriage was considered “cultural”, she had no paperwork to confirm the divorce.  As a result, she arrived in Aurora, Illinois with just her children—Atakora had to stay behind.  Alone, Djigbodi faced the obstacles of learning a new language and engaging a different culture.  “I knew we were safe, but life in America was very different,” said Djigbodi.

With the help of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services, after a series of appeals, three years later Atakora was able to join his family.  Although together, the family’s struggle for a new life continued.  “Here, you need an education for money and for a future,” said Djigbodi.

Although educated professionals in their country, both Djigbodi and Atakora knew that in order to be successful in the U.S., they would have to start-over with their education.  Therefore, Djigbodi enrolled in WRDA’s Childcare Microenterprise Development program and received the training and certification needed to open an in-home childcare business, which allows her the flexibility to take classes at Waubonsee Community College.   Atakora, a math and physics teacher in Togo, works fulltime to support his family and goes to school fulltime.  In May, he will receive his associate’s degree and plans to pursue both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Northern Illinois University.

After establishing a routine and finding a balance between work and school, the couple’s next goal was to create stability for their children.  And when they learned about Emmanuel House and the opportunity to buy their own home, they applied for the program.

With the goal of helping the working-poor overcome poverty, Emmanuel House uses a Networked Saving Program to make it possible for a working family to save for a down payment on a home.  For 18 months, the family lives in housing owned by Emmanuel House and pays market-rate rent.  As resident of Emmanuel House, the family attends personal finance classes and their rent money is put into a personal savings account—to be used as a down payment on their first home.

Today both Djigbodi and Atakora are optimistic.  Their children are doing well in school and are involved in extra-curricular activities.   In the near future, Djigbodi plans to grow her childcare business and join Atakora at NIU as a nursing student.  And the entire family looks forward to their first home purchase.

March 24, 2014
Zataari Refugee Camp, Jordan


  • fear for your safety because your country is unstable
  • have witnessed cruel acts of violence and suffering
  • know that your only chance for survival is fleeing your home, your culture, and your country
  • are now warehoused in a camp amongst thousands of others struggling for survival
  • experience anger over the lack of resources in the camp, but with no legal status, you can’t work
  • hope camp life is temporary, but going home may not be an option and only 1% get resettled
  • are anxious because your future is unknown


You – are a refugee

At WRDA we are fortunate to have an on-site counseling center to help meet the emotional needs of the refugees we serve. Celebrating 15 years of service in June, the WRDA Counseling Center is comprised of four mental health professionals and two trained group facilitators who care for clients through a variety of modalities: individual and family therapy, adjustment groups, and community resources such as a visiting psychiatrist for those who require medication.  During 2013, the counseling center staff served approximately 176 severely traumatized refugees and over 300 individuals through adjustment groups.

According to Liliana Popovic, Counseling Center Director, no matter the circumstances, resettlement is always challenging because the process requires refugees to “move-on” and adjust to their new surroundings quickly.  “Our job as counselors is to help normalize the process as much as possible,” said Popovic.

Due to the difficulties refugees face upon arrival, such as learning a new language and acquiring job skills, stress and anxiety are high amongst the population.  Therefore, refugees are assessed upon arrival and a treatment plan is recommended.  Those who present with severe mental health issues are matched with a counselor, while others are connected to a support group.

When it comes to treatment, the main obstacle our counselors face is that western practices of therapy are not effective when working with people from different cultures.  For that reason, after learning about their background, the counselor helps the client regulate their emotions by reduplicating a task or an experience from their country of origin; for example, sewing, gardening or music.   By associating the client’s feelings to something that was a part of their daily life, the refugee gains a new confidence and hope.

Another tool that the Counseling Center utilizes is the adjustment group.  Varying in size and duration, the groups give clients the opportunity to find affinity, become more self-aware, and learn new coping skills.  These groups help to normalize difficult experiences and provide support and strength through sharing.

Overall, the main goal of the WRDA Counseling Center is to provide care during the adjustment period— helping the client plant the deep roots of stability.   “What we do has an impact on the resettlement process, both here at WRDA and organization wide,” said Popovic.

With regards to the next 15 years, the Counseling Center team hopes that treating refugees will become more mainstream in the mental health field.  Click here to learn more about the WRDA Counseling Center.

The Most Traumatized Population on Earth

According to Dr. Issam Smeir, WRDA Senior Mental Health Counselor, refugees are the most traumatized population on earth.  In fact, he estimates that approximately 90% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Originally from Jordan, Dr. Smeir came to the U.S. approximately 12 years ago to earn a doctorate in psychology. At the same time, he joined the Counseling Center staff at World Relief.  As one of the few Arab-speaking experts in the field of Narrative Exposure Therapy [NET], a treatment for survivors of multiple traumas, Dr. Smeir has a passion for training counselors in the Middle East and Africa on ways to effectively treat victims of trauma—especially refugees.

Dr. Smeir teaches counselors techniques exclusive to helping refugees process their trauma and understand what is happening to their bodies, minds and psyches. He acknowledges that trusting others is difficult for refugees because their hearts have hardened over the years.

While refugees living in camps receive housing, water, and food—professional help to deal with emotional pain is scarce. Syrian refugees without financial resources end-up in a camp, where the violence and trauma continues. With the UNHCR reporting over two million Syrian refugees, in 2013 Dr. Smeir traveled to his home country to train local metal health works serving inside the camps.

Dr. Smeir is an advocate for early intervention because only 1% of the world’s refugees get resettled to another country. As a result, in 2014 he will once again return to Jordan to provide further training for local counselors.

If you would like to learn how you can pray for the crisis in Syria and Syrian refugees, click here.




February 18, 2014

The definition of mercy is love in action—taking the empathy we feel internally and turning it into an external action. At World Relief DuPage/Aurora, we witness acts of mercy daily from those who have a compassion for the vulnerable and seek to love in tangible ways; for example, through a high school project, a church team or a special birthday party.

Love is…The Hundred Dollar Project
In order to participate in her youth group’s summer mission trip to Rwanda, Glenbard West sophomore Claire Morawski, had to answer the question: What have you done/given to your community? Familiar with the struggles refugees face, Claire suggested to her Hundred Dollar Project team that they raise funds for local refugees.

The Hundred Dollar Project is a club at Glenbard West High School that provides students with the opportunity to learn about local philanthropic organizations, while building entrepreneurial skills.  After submitting a proposal, the club loans each team $100 to help put their plan into action.

Claire’s team consisted of 10 sophomore girls who met weekly with the club sponsor, Mrs. Denney, and club board members for feedback and support.  The team organized and sold tickets to a holiday movie night at the Boat House in Glen Ellyn entitled, “Triple Play”—because they planned to show three holiday movies.    In addition to selling tickets to the event, the girls obtained snack sponsors, gathered raffle prizes, and designed a commemorative t-shirt.  Approximately 110 people attended “Triple Play” and over $1,500 was raised for WRDA.

According to the girls, The Hundred Dollar Project taught them about team work and business planning; however, the biggest lesson was learning about refugees and their specific needs.

Love is…a Good Neighbor Kit
When presented with the needs of newly arriving refugees in Aurora, small groups at Christ Community Church in St. Charles took action. 

For approximately eight years, Vicky and Damon Carlson have led a small group Bible study for couples.  Over the years, the group has looked for ways to serve together and the opportunity to collect Good Neighbor Kit items for refugees was a perfect fit.

“At first, when the list of items was presented, it was a bit overwhelming, but once we split the list amongst the group it seemed doable,” said Vicky Carlson.

In fact, in two days the group had collected nearly all of the needed items for a Good Neighbor Kit—just in time for a refugee family arriving from Iraq.  “It felt so good to be able to do something to help; we wanted to do more for the family,” said Vicky.

Another group that got involved with collecting items is a weekly prayer group for moms with young children hosted by Brianna Saxer.   A couple of weeks before Christmas 2013, she saw a Facebook post from James Pomeroy, WRA Volunteer Coordinator, asking for Good Neighbor Kit [GNK] items.  Brianna brought the idea of collecting GNK items to the group and the women embraced the project.  As result, the list of needed items was divided amongst the group members and delivered to Brianna’s house.

In addition, the moms were able to involve their kids and make it an object lesson on giving, “Our kids had a blast helping us shop for the items, “said Brianna.   But more importantly, their kids’ showed tremendous empathy for those they were serving.  For example, Brianna’s son wanted to know more about the family and why they had to leave their country, and another boy still asks his mom if she thinks the family is warm enough because he  picked-out their blankets.

In the future, the group hopes to provide more GNK items.  “It is a tangible way to invest and serve others,” said Brianna.

Love is…a Birthday Party

As a way to focus on the celebration, Leah Anderson has made “no-gift birthday parties” the norm for her family.

A couple of weeks before her daughter Anneka’s seventh birthday in November, Leah learned about WRDA’s need for household items for newly arriving refugees.  As a result, she and her daughter agreed that this year, instead of bringing birthday presents to her party, Anneka would ask her friends to bring a household item to donate.

Leah originally came up with the “no gift” concept because gifts for children’s birthday parties can start to add up—and not every family has the resources.  “This way no one feels bad”, said Leah.  And by giving to others, she has the opportunity to give her kids a sense of the world outside of Wheaton and teach them the importance of giving to others.

January 17, 2014

During the initial resettlement phase, refugees not only struggle with the loss of their homeland, but also with the daunting task of quickly adjusting to a new country.  Because the refugee resettlement program only provides rental assistance for the first three months, new arrivals face financial pressure the moment they step-off the plane.

As a result, upon arrival employable refugee are enrolled into the WRDA Job Readiness ESL program.  The six-week curriculum is offered on a continual basis with new refugee students starting on Mondays. Monday. Because working in other countries is very different from working in the U.S. and because refugees come from different backgrounds, they are enrolled in an intensive program.  They are taught basic English language skills, job search and retention skills, and cultural understanding---all with the intent of helping the refugee secure and retain their first U.S. job.

“We are not just helping refugees get a job, but we are also helping them keep the job,” said Karen Jealouse, WRDA Education Director.

All classes are practical in nature and designed to simulate a real job.  For example, strict attendance and tardy polices are enforced and students use a time clock to punch in and out of class each day.  In addition, every six-week cycle includes a visit to a company where students gain hands-on experience in industrial packing. By providing initial English language education and job skill training, refugees are on the path towards stability.

Meet Bunga Bola
In 2005, violence and government corruption forced Bunga Bola and his family to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for a refugee camp in Nigeria.  After spending eight years in Nigeria, where basic necessities were often limited, Bunga received news that he and his family were selected for resettlement in the United States. According to Bunga, he was nervous about the unknown, but the orientation before leaving Nigeria helped to prepare him for the next part of the resettlement journey.

Upon arrival in Wheaton in 2013, both Bunga and his wife began attending Job Readiness ESL Classes.  Having acquired some English language skills in Nigeria, Bunga knew he still needed to learn American sayings and cultural norms.  Although a trained machinist in the DRC, he was mentally prepared to start-over in the workplace because in the midst of fleeing he was not able to gather documents to verify his education and training.

After completing the required six-weeks of classes, both he and his wife were hired by a staffing agency to work as Sweepers at R.R. Donnelly.  Bunga recalls using lessons he learned from class immediately.

“I learned to be patient with myself and to ask questions if I didn’t understand---even if it is 10 times,” said Bunga.

And it was Bunga’s questions that prompted his supervisor to take an interest in him.  The supervisor showed him how to work various pieces of equipment, and because Bunga was a fast learner, he quickly moved from the position of Sweeper to Sorter.  And recently, he was hired by R.R. Donnelly as a fulltime machinist.

Bunga attributes his success in the workplace to the lessons he learned in Job Readiness ESL classes.

“I believe that my preparation in Job Class has helped me succeed in everything, “said Bunga.

In addition to working fulltime, Bunga is currently enrolled as a student at College of DuPage and plans to pursue a degree in manufacturing technology.


December 19, 2013

No matter the language, culture or tradition, Christmas is celebrated throughout the world.  As followers of Christ, we rejoice in hope and long for the peace as prophesied in the Old Testament. At WRDA, a part of God’s provision for immigrants and refugees in the western suburbs of Chicago is our employees.  Our staff is comprised of people from all over the world and includes PhD’s and engineers, teachers and social workers, pastors and legal professionals, licensed mental health counselors, accountants and dedicated specialist—each  with the calling to stand-up against injustice and a heart to serve the vulnerable.  This year, we would like to share the gift of our staff with you through the retelling of Christmas traditions from staff members whose country of origin is not the U.S.

Wishing you the gift of faith and the blessing of hope this holiday season!

Luisa Capobianco/Venezuela
WRDA Immigrant Legal Services Associate

Culinary, musical, and cultural traditions make the month of December very special in Venezuela.  As a predominantly Catholic country, starting on the December 16, Christmas festivities celebrate the birth of Jesus with mass very early in the morning (Misas de Aguinaldo).  During this time period, alarm clocks are not needed because the bells sound and firecrackers fill the early morning air to let everyone know it’s time. One unique custom is that early risers roller-skate to the local church to attend service.

The final worship service takes place on Christmas Eve or Nochebuena de Navidad and is held at midnight (Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Rooster). Families return home afterwards for a large meal, which includes traditional Hallacas.   Surround by cornmeal dough, Hallacas are similar to tamales— wrapped in plantain leaves and filled with a variety of meats, raisins, capers and olives.  Gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve after mass, but unlike the tradition of Santa Claus, Venezuela children receive presents from baby Jesus and the wise men.

Issam Smeir /Palestine and Jordanm. Senior Mental Health Counselor

Christmas is more relationship-oriented in this part of the world.  On Christmas day, from early morning to late in the evening, people visit neighbors, friends and family.  You are expected to visit those who have visited your home or it is considered rude; however, exchanging gifts is not expected.   Instead, visitors are greeted with Arabian Coffee and served homemade date-cookies and sometimes wine.


Susan Bachmeier / Peru
Immigrant Lregal Services Senior Specialist

Christmas in Peru is one of the most celebrated holidays.  Elaborate nativity scenes are set-up in homes with a variety of figurines representing whose who came to see baby Jesus.   At midnight on Christmas Eve, fireworks and the uncovering of baby Jesus in the manger signifies Christmas has arrived. Peruvians dance to popular music and share a traditional meal of turkey, tamales, panettone (Italian sweet bread), and Peruvian hot chocolate.  After dinner, gifts are exchanged and families visit with their relatives.


Durmomo Gary / Sudan
Support Services Coordinator

Visiting friends and family is synonymous with Christmas in the Sudan.  Sudanese women bake for days preparing a variety of cookies and sweet treats, while the men shop and wrap gifts for the entire family.  By the time Christmas arrives, everyone is prepared to feed many guests in their home.

Traditionally, on Christmas Eve families attend a midnight church service and then spend Christmas Day going from house-to-house celebrating; everyone is welcome.  A meal is eaten at each location because in the Sudanese culture it would be considered rude for a guest to turndown food offered by their host.


Esther Myahla/ Burma
Medical Case Specialist

In Burma, every family invites their neighbors and relatives to a special worship service in their home.  People bring food to share as a gift and the pastor gives a message and offers a blessing..  Depending on the pastor’s schedule, each the family selects the date for worship in their home, with the exception of December 25 when Christmas mass is celebrated at the church together.


Jessica Fernandez / Mexico
Immigrant Legal Services Associate

Festivities for Christmas in Mexico begin with Posadas— from December 16 through the 24. The posadas recreate Mary and Joseph’s difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter. Each night, the posada is held in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the home with children dressed as shepherds and angels.  An angel leads the procession, followed by Mary and Joseph, and adults  carrying candles. The pilgrims sing a song asking for shelter, and the host (inside the house) sings a reply.  Finally, the host opens the doors to the pilgrims offering hot ponche, buñuelos, and tamales. The posada celebration ends with a piñata in the shape of the Christmas star.


Liliana Popovic/Serbia
Counseling Center Director

Serbians follow both the Gregorian and Julian calendar, which means Christmas is celebrated twice—once on December 25 and then on January 7.  For the Serbian Orthodox Christmas on December 25, families gather for dinner.  Special round bread with decorations on top is served and torn into as many pieces as there are guests.  Tradition says that good luck will follow the person who finds the silver coin baked inside the bread.  Historically, on Christmas Eve morning, Serbian fathers take their eldest son to the forest to chop down an oak tree branch, which becomes the Yule Log. Today, Serbians have two branches— one branch from a nearby tree on December 25 and a second branch from the church on January 7.  When the branch is burned, sparks from the fireplace represent blessings from God.  The Serbian Christmas in January is celebrated by going to church, engaging in prayer, and visiting friends.