“Amazing” April: One Month in a Growing Movement to Welcome
How do you know you are part of a movement that is gaining steam? It is evident when, in a single month, over 40 churches and community groups invite WRDA to lead or participate in events and discussions on serving and welcoming the stranger among us. Here are just a few of the top highlights:
- Glen Ellyn Evangelical Covenant Church hosted a 2-week emphasis on missions that featured a panel of refugees who are part of the 2 other churches that share their building - one Burmese and one Bhutanese. WRDA speakers also gave talks as this partner church of many decades is encouraging a new generation of members to get involved and to serve.
- First Baptist Church of Bolingbrook served their immigrant neighbors by hosting a WRDA Citizenship Clinic on April 16. Over 100 people were screened and 97 applications for citizenship were initiated in a single day that had folks lined up as early as 5:30 a.m. to be served.
- One church that made a tough decision to dissolve invited WRDA to join them for their final service. Even though this church is closing its doors, they decided to invest in welcoming the stranger by presenting WRDA with a large check from the assets of the, now former, congregation. We are so humbled and so very grateful to continue the legacy of this body of believers.
- The Compass Church in Wheaton held a panel event on April 10 about welcoming refugees and immigrants of the Muslim faith. This church, which shares its building with 3 churches within refugee communities, invited World Relief’s Matt Soerens to be a part of the presentation and discussion, along with Vincent Bacote and Roy Oskevard.
- Pleasant Hill Community Church and First Baptist Church of Wheaton both dedicated a full Sunday to missions, including speakers from WRDA talking about foreign mission opportunities right here in our neighborhood.
- WRDA’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Event and International Street Festival was held on April 22. This event brought out some 225 people who shared food from Burma, India, Congo, Bhutan, Latin America, Iraq, Iran and more. Entertainment was provided by a Mexican cultural dance troupe, by a professional singer from Iran sharing traditional Persian songs, and a group of Bhutanese Seniors got lots of volunteers and attendees to join them in dancing. Check out the photos and video on WRDA’s Facebook page!
- Pastor Talargie Tefesse of the Sensae Church (Ethiopian and Eritrean) came to speak to the WRDA staff on April 20. He brought an encouraging message about “home”. His faith, his own experience as an immigrant, and his role serving a church that is about 1/3 refugees, gives Pastor Talargie a deep understanding that, for Christians, “home” is neither here nor in another country. Home is with God eternally.
- Journeys of Hope opened in Wheaton on April 24. This is a special exhibit of the art of refugees and those who have some alongside them as they have come to our communities. WRDA’s John Rakow, himself an artist, helped to put this exhibit together and a special reception brought together many friends and lovers of art. You can still see the exhibit through May 15 at the Burning Bush Gallery, a ministry of Gary United Methodist Church on Main Street in Wheaton.
- Runners and walkers are naming WRDA as the organization they are supporting in the DuPage Human Race scheduled this Saturday, April 30. They are giving their time and their energy to be a part of this welcoming movement.
After such and Amazing April, stay tuned for what is in store next!
Every year Willow Creek Community Church hosts a “Celebration of Hope” that focuses on ministries and causes that are a part of the church. Through special exhibits and activities over the course of 3 weeks, members of the church learn more about important issues and ways God is working through the church’s many partner ministries. This year WRDA represented World Relief globally and locally as attention was focused on the refugee crisis in the Middle East.
A haunting display that depicts a bombed out building in one of the many Syrian cities now destroyed by the ongoing civil war, called attention to one little girl standing amid the rubble. She makes us think of the thousands of Syrian and other Middle Eastern children who have no memory of anything but war and violence, or of a life of fleeing for safety.
WRDA staff were on hand to share about the work of World Relief in Jordan, Turkey, Germany and other parts of the world to create “child friendly” spaces to give some children a place and a chance to be kids and step away from the horror and trauma of war. Classes of children and other members also learned about the work of World Relief, through offices like WRDA, in resettling refugees from Syria and other parts of the world who are accepted to come to the United States.
Then on Saturday, April 23, over 4,000 people participated in a 5K run named the “Run for Refugees”. Through this run, Willow Creek is partnering with World Relief and World Vision in this vital ministry. World Relief is thankful to partner with churches and other like-minded organizations as we take on the daunting challenges of our day.
Canon Andrew White knows firsthand about the persecution facing some Christians in the Middle East. Known as the “Vicar of Baghdad”, he served until November 2014, when circumstances made it impossible for him to continue, as the pastor of St. George’s Church, one of the largest in Iraq. On a recent trip to the U.S., Canon White and a colleague, Dr. Sarah Ahmet, with whom he now works as part of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), visited with the staff of WRDA.
“It was a tremendous honor to meet him in person. He’s such a courageous person who has been through so much,” said WRDA Sr. Employment Specialist Barb Galli. Equally inspirational were the thoughts shared by Dr. Ahmet, a female physician and a Muslim who is orchestrating FRRME’s operations in northern Iraq. Emily Mudge, WRDA Staff Attorney noted, “I liked her answer about if she thinks about serving people who are of a different faith than she is. She said she doesn’t think about it and it doesn’t change how she thinks about what she does for people.” Another staffer said “Dr. Sarah is so sharp, gentle-hearted despite the terror she has seen and experienced. How she loves her people is very inspiring.”
Canon White encouraged the staff of WRDA to spend time with the refugees who are resettled here, to share meals with them and really show them we care. This is always a strong staff desire, even in the midst of real time constraints of the day to day work tasks. As the world and media has turned its focus to the crisis in Syria and Europe, it is easy to forget that ISIS started their terror in Iraq. Many agencies, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others, are not adequately funded to respond to the need. The work of Dr. Ahmet and Canon White is crucial for the internally displaced and the refugees still living in Iraq.
When a growing group of Chin Burmese Christians became too big to continue meeting together in homes, they began searching for a larger place. After finding some doors closed, they were welcomed by the Christ Community Church in Wheaton who began sharing their building. This church already had a history actively serving the refugee community through offering garden plots to refugees and hosting English conversation classes.
Over the past several years this partnership has continued to deepen and the Chin church has continued to grow as more refugees are welcomed and as the church has become a central part of the life of a thriving community. Eager to have a permanent home, the church began talking with the leadership of Christ Community Church about the future.
Talks and prayer have led to the signing of a contract between the two congregations that allows for the Chin church to work on a 5 year plan toward the purchase of the building and ushers in a new era in partnership that is impacting both congregations. “I love our Chin brothers and sisters, and believe that God is indeed introducing new wineskins into our midst, and I want to support that wherever possible,” said Caleb Smith, Pastor of Christ Community Church.
As they continue down the road to the final purchase of the building, the UCC held a special service of dedication and praise on April 3. We celebrate with them as they continue to make Wheaton home.
Yusuf Nur lived a quiet life, selling fruits and vegetables on the streets of his native Somalia to support his wife and seven children. But in 2006 the Islamic Courts Union (militant factions of which would later form Al-Shabaab) challenged the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and renewed civil war broke out. Amidst the chaos of the war, Yusuf was kidnapped, beaten and tortured, which left him with many injuries. While Yusuf was taken to the hospital, his wife and children ran for their lives to the nation of Djibouti, a small country to the north of Somalia on the Horn of Africa, but they were unable to let Yusuf know where they had gone.
Unsure if his family had found safety or where they were, Yusuf remained in Somalia for two years searching for them before fleeing for his own safety to Egypt. While in Egypt, friends helped the family to reconnect, but they were unable to be reunited or to apply together for the refugee resettlement program. So, In September 2010 Yusuf came alone to the United States as a refugee while his family remained in Africa. Through WRDA he was placed in an apartment with a roommate and assisted to begin the cultural adjustment journey. Although he was in a safer environment, his transition to life in America was difficult.
First was the physical struggle. Still suffering from the results of being tortured in Somalia, he was initially unable to work and had to rely on charitable support to pay rent and bills. The extent of Yusuf's injuries required that he undergo several surgeries. Then there was the emotional struggle. While waiting on physical healing, Yusuf began to learn about the process that would be required in order for his family to join him in the U.S. While he recovered from surgeries, he needed his family, but had to wait.
For Yusuf, like for many refugees, the family unification process can be long and frustrating. In October of 2011 Yusuf was able to apply for his green card with the help of World Relief’s Immigration Legal Services. After applying for his green card, Yusuf applied for reunification with his family, and though the applications were approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in December of that year, the waiting would continue for another three years as his family went through the requirements of multiple interviews for applicants, medical screenings and the lengthy security screening process for any refugee admitted to the U.S.
Finally in December of 2014, Yusuf was able to greet his family as they arrived in the U.S. They were assisted to find suitable housing and start the adjustment journey again, but this time as a family. After waiting the required year after their arrival, in January 2016 the Immigrant Legal Services team helped the rest of Yusuf's family apply for their green cards. And for Yusuf, who had now been in the United States for the required 5 years and had passed the required tests and interviews, the family was together to celebrate as Yusuf became, in February, a naturalized U.S. Citizen.
“I will always cherish Yusuf’s indescribable joy when I told him that his families’ petitions were approved,” Susan Bachmeier, Immigrant Legal Services Senior Specialist at World Relief said. “Cases like Yusuf’s are the ones that keep me motivated and make me love my job.”
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me in...” This quote from Jesus from the gospel of Matthew is a driving force for World Relief and for many others who choose to help make our communities welcoming places for refugees and immigrants. But what does “welcome” really look like?
Some things are easy to see as “welcome” - volunteering to be a friend to a refugee family, becoming an English or Citizenship tutor, or helping to stock a new apartment with items family needs. But there is so much more. As refugees and immigrants have been more in the news, we have seen neighbors using their creativity and the opportunities they have right in front of them to support and love refugees in special ways; ways that are also a part of what “welcome” looks like.
Judy Duncan, owner of Café K’Tizo in Wheaton, has used her business to host events in partnership with WRDA where refugees are invited to tell their own stories in their own words. Judy has helped WRDA develop our “Spotlight” series and has, so far, opened K’Tizo for events focused on Syria and on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each event has drawn over 100 neighbors together to listen and to learn, and these folks go home with a greater understanding and appreciation of immigrants. Judy has also donated a portion of the sale of the cafe's delicious teas and coffees to WRDA on Spotlight days. Because of the success at K’Tizo, Spotlight events are also starting up in Aurora, reaching even more people and creating even more understanding. That’s what “welcome” looks like.
Roxanne Engstrom is the talented photographer behind Hawa Images. Roxanne has used her love of people, photography, art and kids in multiple ways. First, some of the beautiful images in WRDA media are gifts from Roxanne. But this month Roxanne coordinated the second “Share the Love” event. This event celebrates Valentine’s Day by showing love to the refugee kids in the Hawthorne Elementary after school club. In anticipation of Valentine’s, Roxanne gathers kids and parents she knows for a day of creating hand-made Valentine’s cards. Then, the group brings the gifts plus some sweet treats to the Hawthorne club and shares this tradition of love with kids who are adjusting to life in the U.S. This year they also collected school supplies as part of the Back to School in February drive. That’s what “welcome” looks like.
A group of students at Glenbard West High School had a school project in entrepreneurship to see how much money they could make with $100. And for the last three years this enterprising group of students has used this money, and solicited other donations to do a movie marathon of holiday movies called “Triple Play for World Relief.” This year these teenagers turned $100 into just under $3,000 and are helping to underwrite the costs of summer activities for refugee students. And, since this year the students who started “Triple Play” are going to be graduating, they have recruited younger students to whom they are passing the baton to keep the service going. That’s what “welcome” looks like.
A group of women who love sewing and quilting work together at the First Baptist Church of Wheaton. They talk, stitch and share life together. They take scraps and pieces of cloth and put them together in interesting and complex patters to create beautiful, functional art. But they also are aware that refugee families need blankets as they adjust to the cold of a winter in the Midwest. These ladies could have collected store-bought blankets to meet the need, but they chose to use their gift of quilting and their time together to bless their neighbors. Earlier this month this group gave 23 beautiful quilts for the beds that will welcome refugees. That’s what “welcome” looks like.
We are so thankful not only for the gifts of these volunteers, but also for the challenge they give to each of us. They challenge us to continue to look for creative ways to meet needs big and small in the lives of our immigrant neighbors. They challenge us to look to our own passions, skills, abilities and opportunities. So, where will your creativity take you? How can you be a part of what “welcome” looks like? To learn more about volunteering through World Relief, or to share your creative ideas for creating a welcome, go to the WRDA involvement page.
Burma (Myanmar) ranks #23, according to the Open Doors’ World Watch List, among the 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution for their faith. One man has dedicated his life, in the face of religious and political persecution, to seeing that one group of Burmese Christians can have the Bible in their native language, known as Zokam.
Born into a Christian family in the Chin state of Burma, H. Gin En Cin read a very simple paraphrase of the New Testament that was written in 1938 by American missionaries. For years he had felt his language needed a more dynamic translation of the Bible; something closer to the original Greek and Hebrew, and more like the English translations he had seen in school. In 1983 Gin heard a voice calling to him. This voice was telling him to create it. That point 33 years ago began a physical and spiritual journey that would result in the creation of the Zokam Laisiangtho, or Zokam International Version (ZIV), and bring Gin to America.
Zokam is the language spoken by the Zomi people, who live in the Chin state of Burma and in the Manipur state in India. Though they share a common language and distinct culture, these people were separated by the colonial boundaries established between Burma and India.
With an 8th grade education and no formal theological training, Gin En Cin was determined to answer the call he heard. First he wrote a translation of the New Testament based on the New International Version (NIV) in English and other versions. To be sure of the accuracy of the work, he formed a committee of scholars from the Evangelical Baptist Conference in Burma and India to review and edit the translation. Though that translation took three years to complete, it wasn’t published until 1994. Even then, the family personally financed most of the printing costs to bring this translation to reality for the Zomi people.
The process was painstaking. First, Gin would translate and write by hand. That work was typed and sent to the committee for review and editing. The committee’s edits would then be typeset into a computer by Gin’s son, Thang Pil Mung, and daughter, Niang Muon Kim. Afterward, Gin’s wife, Don Khaw Hau, who worked as a nurse, would proofread. The family would go back and forth until it was correct. Of the family dedication to this project, Gin recalled, “When the Bible was ready, God gave us a son and daughter with computer skills.”
Once the New Testament was published, Gin began working on the Old Testament, first publishing the wisdom books in 2010. But during this time, the family was separated because of the war, conflict, and persecution of Christians in Burma. Thang Pil Mung, had to flee Burma because of oppression by the military government against student political opposition. As editor of a student newspaper, while he was in university, he was in danger for opposing the government’s oppressive policies. After fleeing to Malaysia, Pil Mung was admitted to the U.S. under the refugee resettlement program in 2007. Likewise, Niang Moun Kim, found safety in Hong Kong, and Gin and his wife made their way to the capital city, Yangon. Despite their separation, the family continued to work together on the translation, using email and the internet to share the documents. Pil Mung petitioned for his parents to be able to join him in the U.S., and in May of 2015, the family was reunited in Wheaton, where they live today.
Wherever the family moved, space where the translation took place became holy ground. They approached the work with reverence and focus, knowing the immensity of the task. Each day Gin would take off his shoes, wash his hands, and clear his mind before working. This is “holy work,” he would explain to his family.
Finally, in 2014 the Old Testament was completed, achieving a side-by-side translation with the NIV. Gin felt God’s presence in the translation. He completed it at the age of 77 and considers it the work of his lifetime. As the Zomi people are scattered around the globe – Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Norway to name a few places – this translation is going with them wherever they go.
In the summer of 2014 Gin En Cin, along with people around the planet watched Germany win the World Cup. Celebrating their lifetime achievement, the German players repeated the ritual of kissing the cup before holding it in the air. That September Gin remembers kissing and raising the final printed version, the first complete ZIV Bible, to mark what God had done through him. “It took one life to get it done,” he said.
In 2013 WRDA and Village Bible Church, Aurora Campus began a partnership that has grown by leaps and bounds. Starting with the church hosting Job Readiness ESL classes, the outreach has grown to now include gardening spaces for refugees, many refugees attending church and many more involved in church activities. As the church has been ministering to local refugees, Travis Fleming, Teaching Pastor for the congregation, has invested more and more in learning and understanding refugees, and he recently made a trip to Jordan to learn more and to connect with churches in Jordan who are serving some of the nearly 1,000,000 refugees there. Travis sat down with WRDA Church Mobilizer, Keith Draper to talk about this trip and how it has shaped his vision of "glocal" (global + local) ministry.
What sparked your trip to see a refugee camp and visit with a church serving refugees?
God put our church in a position we didn’t expect a few years ago. He placed a refugee resettlement community less than a mile from our church, and we saw it as an opportunity to not only reach out to our community, but to reach the world. For us to visit with another church doing that in a foreign land, seemed like a no-brainer. We are helping the same people just in different places. And if we can figure out a way to help partner with one another to help the most vulnerable among us to know who Jesus is, then we should.
At the request of Christians in the middle east working with refugees at great person risk, this article is being edited to protect their identities. Please check back later, and in the interim please be in prayer for those who are serving in dangerous places.
Over the days since the attacks in Beirut and Paris, WRDA has gotten a lot of questions, and our Executive Director has spoken with many members of the press. So, we thought it might be helpful to the readers of our monthly newsletter to see how Emily is responding to some of the questions many people have in light of the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris and the announcement on Monday by Illinois Governor Rauner seeking to bar Syrian refugees from Illinois.
Is WRDA still resettling refugees after Governor Rauner's announcement?
Yes. It is not yet clear if any governor can seek to bar individuals legally admitted to the U.S. by the federal government from their state. I have spoken with people at the U.S. Department of State who will be advising refugee resettlement organizations like World Relief, but the situation is not yet clear. But even while the resettlement of Syrian refugees is debated, there are refugees from many other parts of the world who are arriving and who we are serving in community with many local churches and volunteers. We are committed to welcoming and serving because that is part of our Christian mission, and we believe that our communities will continue to be welcoming places as they have been for over 35 years.
Do you believe the resettlement program is safe?
Yes, I do. The process of screening refugees prior to entrance into the U.S. is the most rigorous of any process that exists for a foreign national to enter the country. It is more detailed and thorough than tourist visas, student visas and work visas. The process has been very effective and has been refined over the many years since the Refugee Act started in 1980, and especially as conditions in our world have changed. It has been proven successful in protecting the American people. Since 9/11 nearly 800,000 refugees have been admitted. None have committed terrorist acts, though 3 people were detained and questioned, but they did not do any harm. The process works. I am not afraid.
If things like the attacks in Paris can happen in Europe, why do you not think they can happen here?
Like France we are vulnerable to what our own citizens do, and it does appear that the perpetrators of these attacks are mostly, if not all, European Union citizens. But, beyond that, comparing the migrant situation in Europe to refugees in the U.S. is comparing two very different things. Migrants enter Europe directly from conflict zones, and they are, by and large, people seeking asylum - like those who enter other neighboring countries from other world conflicts (Burundi, Chad, Nepal and Malaysia are some examples). These migrants may have been in their home country just days before entering Europe. And, while they may receive refugee status at some point, they are just starting on a process of having their claims verified. In contrast, refugees admitted to the U.S. have been able to prove their claim of persecution through the United Nations, been referred to the United States and undergone a multi-agency (Homeland Security, FBI, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) screening by specially trained staff. Our program is simply not like what is happening in Europe.
Isn’t ANY possible risk too much risk?
No, not for us as a Christian ministry organization or for us as Christians. Love is messy. Love may involve risk when we risk our hearts in friendship with another person. But love is our mission. We are called by Jesus to welcome and to love. We respond in love because we were first loved by Him. We are also called to “do good”, not just to those who are like us, but to all people. We cannot shut down compassion and continue to be like Jesus. We need to be showing love and working as a nation, as NGOs and as the church in all areas of dealing with the suffering that war brings. For those in conflict zones we work to improve situations and bring peace; for those displaced inside their country or in neighboring countries we provide aid and seek to make a safe place of refuge for them where they are; and for those who complete the rigorous process to enter the United States, we welcome them as our neighbors and our future fellow-citizens. We are called to follow Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” in caring for others as told in the story we call the Good Samaritan. Serving for this Samaritan was not particularly safe, it was messy, it involved some cost and some sacrifice, and it was aimed at someone not at all himself. Our risk is managed by a good program, but we must also risk to show love.
How does WRDA select refugees to be resettled in DuPage and Kane Counties?
Actually, we don’t. There are 9 national organizations that work with the US Department of State, of which World Relief is one. The focus of the Department of State is to run a humanitarian resettlement program, which means that the U.S. focuses on the most vulnerable – children, single mothers, the elderly and those facing medical challenges. About 50% of the refugees referred to the US are under age 18. Refugees are referred to the U.S. by the United Nations, screened by multiple federal agencies and then given by the Department of State to one of the agencies who will assist with the on-the-ground resettlement work. Every week representatives of the 9 organizations meet together with the Department of State and cases are distributed. In the simplest terms, WRDA is notified of cases assigned to us and we prepare to receive the family.
How many Syrians does WRDA expect to resettle?
Over recent years, WRDA has welcomed 5 families from Syria. While we anticipate about 575 refugees between now and the end of September next year, only a very small portion of those are anticipated to be from Syria. We never know exact numbers until we are assigned cases from the Department of State. Despite what people may see online, the goal of the State Department is to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees as a part of the 85,000 refugees slated to enter the U.S. by next September. I have heard rumors and false social media posts saying that 10,000 Syrians will arrive by January. This is just not true. Because of the screening process for refugees, about the only Syrians who could possibly arrive this federal year are people who are already in the screening processes, and who have been already working through the process for months or years.
How can I or my church help?
Learn more. Fear is often the result of misinformation and the more we can spread facts and truth, the more we can help combat fear. I and others at WRDA would be happy to talk with any churches or members of our community to give more information and to help build understanding that reduces fear. We want to encourage looking to scripture and the character of God as our guide for our actions, not our political situation.
Pray. This is not a platitude, this is a plea for a genuine seeking of God’s favor on our world, strength for us in our task of loving others, peace in areas where chaos reigns, and for power in His church to be the salt and light this world desperately needs. If you need some ideas for prayer, we have our prayer guide on our website that gives 7 days of focus to how pray for refugees.
Act. I know that refugees who are already in our community are afraid as they hear the negative backlash against “refugees.” They need to know that they are welcome in our communities. Please be a part of an active welcome – which means meeting refugees, helping meet their needs here and being a friend they can count on. We have a lot of ways to get involved, including #GivingTuesday in just a couple of weeks. Others are listed here: (get involved page)
Is there anything else that you think people reading the WRDA newsletter should know?
Serving and loving people in our broken and frightening world is hard. I do not take lightly the events taking place nor the responsibility WRDA assumes as a small part of the U.S. Resettlement Program, but I and the team here seek to serve and love as we have been loved and to provide opportunity for a new start to some of the millions of refugees, who are themselves victims of terrorism, violence, war and horrible atrocities. We continue to be grateful for those who serve with and alongside of us and the immigrants of our community. I’ve been holding on to the verse in 2 Timothy as this week has unfolded, where the apostle Paul reminds the young Timothy that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-control.” I hope that spirit will continue to lead us.
Rami Abou Jabr grew up in a middle class family in Homs, Syria. He never expected the devastation of his homeland and his family that would come in 2011. He had a normal Syrian childhood; his father worked as a cab driver and his mother stayed at home to care for the children, including Rami, his brother Raed, who was born with developmental disabilities, and 2 sisters. After high school Rami went to university while working in a granite factory, finishing granite countertops. After finishing his associates in veterinary science, be began assisting a veterinarian with caring for cows and eventually chickens, providing them with vaccinations. Rami stated that there were probably 5,000 chicken at each site where they worked. He liked working with animals because he was able to care for them and know that they were all being treated well.
Everything began to change when the Syrian revolution started in March of 2011. Rami remembers that at first there were just protestors in the Homs region. Then the government and police counteracted and things became increasingly violent. From their home the family could hear the gunfire outside the city. A short time later the violence and aggression moved through the city itself. In Rami’s neighborhood people were leaving in large numbers, until only those who had lived there for a lifetime were left. Rami’s family stayed at first because his father was ill and needed regular medical treatment. But he often would not go the hospital because it was periodically taken over by soldiers and was not safe.
Rami fled to neighboring Turkey to try to find a safe home and work so that he could take care of his family, including his wife Rajaa and their 2 children. He eventually found work as an air conditioner repairman and sent for Rajaa and the children. She made the difficult journey to Turkey alone with their 3 year old son and their one year old daughter. She took whatever rides she could get, going from car to car. She did not know the people who transported her and the trip was both dangerous and frightening.
While Rami and Rajaa were in Turkey, Rami’s father died because he could not get the medical care he needed. This was a huge blow to the family, and especially to Raed who was always close to his father, who took special care of him because of his challenges. Rapidly, conditions in Homs became even more dangerous, and Rami’s mother could not even take the time to mourn her husband according to their customs. Instead she gathered the family and fled to join Rami in Turkey.
With the whole family in Turkey and his father gone, Rami held the weighty responsibility of caring for his own family, plus his mother, brother and sisters. His mother and 2 sisters worked in a garment factory for a time, but they often did not have enough money to pay rent or to purchase food. They remember being treated poorly because they were Syrian refugees without rights or protections. Local citizens saw them as a drain on the society and employers could choose to mistreat or cheat them without any consequences.
After applying to the United Nations and being referred for resettlement to the United States, the family arrived in Aurora in 2015. Other members of their extended family have also fled Syria, some recently making it to Germany. Rami and Rajaa say that they thank God for being able to come to the U.S. because they know that many people do not have this chance. They want to make the best of this opportunity, and dream of a good education for their children. They are thankful for the labor laws of the U.S. and that their employers here do not mistreat or abuse them and that they pay a fair, consistent wage. In the U.S. they have found respect and a new home.
Rami hopes in future to continue his education and return to working with animals. He also wants to share the story of his family so that others will understand the trials of the Syrian people, but also so that they will know that there is hope.
Rami and Rajaa will be joining WRDA on Thursday, November 12 at 7 p.m. at Café K’Tizo in Wheaton for a special event, “Spotlight on Syria.” The event is open to the public and World Relief staff will be sharing about the Syrian refugee crisis and our global and local response.
They came from over 50 countries and gathered together at the McAninch Center on the campus of the College of DuPage (COD) with one common goal – to be a citizen of the United States. In a solemn ceremony, some 250 new Americans took the oath of citizenship in an event co-sponsored by World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA), the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and COD. United States Congressman Peter Roskam (R-IL) was also on hand to welcome the new citizens.
“Becoming a citizen gives our clients peace of mind in knowing their rights can’t be stripped away,” Catherine Norquist, WRDA’s Immigrant Legal Services Director, said. “Particularly those refugees who haven’t had citizenship in other countries now feel like they can say, ‘I’m a part of this country.’”
To become a citizen, an immigrant must be a lawful permanent resident for at least four years, nine months (or two years, nine months if married to U.S. Citizen for at least three years) and be able to speak, read and write English. Applicants must also pass a one-on-one interview with a USCIS official and demonstrate a knowledge of U.S. civics and history through a test. For many people, the journey is considerably longer, taking years or even decades.
In addition to the time required to achieve this goal, there is a significant financial investment for all new citizens. The combination of government application fees and other costs can easily reach into the thousands of dollars, but WRDA can screen citizenship applicants for eligibility of a waiver of the application fee for naturalization.
WRDA helps some 700 applicants become citizens each year. The staff of attorneys and accredited legal representatives works with church and community volunteers to offer citizenship clinics, often held in churches. At these clinics, legal staff screen for eligibility, and trained volunteers provide help filling out the USCIS application before the case is reviewed and submitted. To help prepare for the interview and civics test, WRDA education staff offer citizenship classes, and some local churches have developed citizenship tutoring centers to help immigrants prepare.
Many of WRDA’s citizenship services are funded through a federal grant administered by USCIS and, until recently a state program called the New Americans Initiative (NAI). Due to the budget impasse in Springfield, funding for NAI was eliminated on July 1. With the loss of state funding, WRDA has been forced to make some service changes. “These cuts have forced us to scale back off-site clinics in the community and tied our services to fees,” Norquist said. “We are seeking other sources of funding to maintain staff.”
Despite the challenges, seeing the dream of citizenship come true for so many people fuels WRDA’s determination to maintain a strong program for people like Ben (named changed for confidentiality), who spent over 15 years stateless. Having been stripped of his citizenship and civil rights by the government of his home country because of his ethnic group, Ben was forced into slave labor on a farm. He escaped to a neighboring country and was later resettled as a refugee. After 5 years he has now become a citizen of the U.S., and has taken his place in a long line of immigrants who have built America.
This August marks the 80th Anniversary of President Roosevelt’s signing the Social Security Act into law. Social Security has become a part of the fabric of American society - but to newly arrived refugees the program has a special significance.
Many refugees are “stateless” people, meaning that they are not citizens of any country. Without status or rights in any country, many refugees who come from Bhutan through Nepal, have been forbidden from working. The prohibition is part of the larger exclusion from normal society that refugees endure. For some us that may sound like a nice long vacation, “but when you’re not allowed to work for years and you have that taken away, it is wonderful to suddenly have someone say, ‘No, you’re allowed to do that here. We think that you have something to contribute,’” Alison Bell, World Relief Senior Resettlement Manager explains. “I think there’s a lot of significance in this little card. This little number in its own way says, ‘you belong here and you’re wanted and you’re one of us.’”
This card is so important that applying for it is one of the first tasks newly arriving refugees complete, with the help of WRDA staff or volunteers. Their Social Security card is one of the first official U.S. documents many of them receive. It is this document that refugees often use to prove their eligibility to work in the United States and within the first 2-3 months after arrival many World Relief clients find jobs with the help of WRDA’s employment services team.
Those first jobs allow clients to not only support themselves but provide a source of dignity and pride that many refugees had lost. Work is something that helps their own family and refugees immediately begin to contribute into the Social Security system that pays out benefits to retired pensioners, the unemployed, survivors of deceased workers, and the disabled. An article in the New York Times quotes a Social Security Administration official as saying that immigrants pay well over $15 billion annually into the Social Security system. At some future time or at retirement, refugee workers may be able to draw on those benefits, but more immediately, being part of the system and the workforce is part of belonging to the larger community.
Many refugees lost a sense of belonging through spent years in refugee camps or urban settings after being forced to flee their home country. Now in the United States and desiring to put down new roots, there is great power in a little 2”x3.5” paper card. With it, Bell adds, “we’re in a position where we can say, ‘Every American has this number. You’re here, you belong, here’s your number. You’re part of us. You get to work too.’”
I was born in 2001 in Baghdad, Iraq. At this time my father was in the Iraqi army, and he told us that the U.S. was coming to help. Saddam Hussein lied about having weapons of mass destruction so that the United States would be scared. My family was happy because they needed Saddam dead. He was not good to the Iraqi people.
We were scared because of the war. Baghdad was a dangerous place to live. The U.S. soldiers used to come into houses and take the men to jail. There were dead bodies in the streets, no water, no gas, and no power at times.
Things were not great in Baghdad because we didn’t have a lot of money. We all lived in one room and we all got sick, but we were happy because my father was with us.
My father found a better job working with his friend from school, and we found another house. We were so happy! It had a bathroom, and we could take showers. Then two years later, my father went back to the army because we needed more money. There were a lot bombs close to my house at that time. One day, bombs went off that were really close, and I was under the window when they exploded. My dad pulled me back, and almost the glass went in my face. This is why we had to move to another house. It was nice and good and we didn’t have any problems. But then we had a bigger problem.
My father was Sunni, and when he went back to the army we couldn’t say to the people that my father was in the army because they would put bombs in my house or take me or my father.
One day, my father was sitting outside and my uncle looked at him and said, “You need to get inside. If someone sees you, they’re going to shoot you!” We were all scared. If someone knocked on the door my father couldn’t open the door, just me or my mom could. He couldn’t go to the market. One day I needed a drink. I told my father, but my mom told him, “You can’t go. Please.” My grandmother had to go get me one.
At the funeral of my uncle, they tried to take my father away, but my other uncle helped him.
One day, 2 bombs were under the tank that my father was driving. They blew up, but he did not die. A month later, I was in my house, and I opened the door. I saw my father and half of his face was bleeding. He was ok, but he couldn’t hear out of his left ear.
A month after that, in 2008, my father died in the army. This is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. We talked to him the night before, and he was planning to come home in the morning. He was going to bring two white birds home for me. He did this every month, and together we would let the birds go flying away.
At that time I knew I would not have a dad again. In the morning they called my mom and told her he died. When they told me, I was outside and needed to go to school. After that, we didn’t have dad, or money, or food, but my uncle helped us a lot.
When I was a kid I didn’t know anyone like me who didn’t have a father. Why just me? I cried and told everyone I needed my father.
In the mornings when I walked to school, I didn’t know if someone was going to take me away from my family or if a car would shoot at me, but I walked with my friends so we were not scared. People told my uncle, “Don’t worry, we are not going to kill Mohammed.” I was there, and I saw what he said. My mom was scared and worried about me. Her face it was yellow.
When my father died, a school was hard for me. After school, I got in fights with other people. I know you will say, “WHY?” I fought because they said bad words to me, so this made me fight.
I’m never going to say my friends are bad or all the people there are bad. I like Iraq very much, and the people, my friends, they are really good. If just one or two people are bad, that doesn’t mean all the country is bad. I like my uncle, and I care about my family. I need them around me. I don’t want anyone to hurt. I need to take them to a safe place.
One day my grandfather told my family about IOM (International Office for Migration). When he told us about that, we didn’t think it was real.
When we came to the U.S., it was snowing when I got out of the airplane. It was great, but the first day I couldn’t go out. I was scared about going to the school. I didn’t speak English. My sister wanted to go back to Iraq. She cried all the time.
But now I like this time. It is really good. I like my friends, and I speak English. It is hard to buy a car, though. My mom got work, and we need go step by step. We got better when my mom got her license. Thank God for this good year. Maybe we will get better and better every year.
When I came here I needed to do what my father needs me to. I told him I would be a pilot someday. I have to do this, and I need to go back to Iraq and tell him I’m a pilot. This was his dream, and all my family knows this. The last thing I need to say is thanks to all people for helping me.