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Michigan United Methodists offer hope to refugees

Shortly after arriving in the United States in 2005, Fadwa (center) and her daughter, Zahraa, enjoy a day at a park in Wyoming, Mich., with Liz Montcastle (left) and Kathy Carruthers. UMNS photos courtesy of Wesley Park United Methodist Church.

A UMNS Report
By Melissa Hinnen*
May 27, 2008

Wesley Park United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Mich., is walking in the footsteps of Jesus as they “welcome the stranger” by co-sponsoring families that arrive in the United States as refugees.

In 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, Amir was forced to leave Iraq and relocate to Lebanon, where he met his wife, Fadwa. After their daughter, Zahraa, was born, they applied for refugee status, hoping to raise their child in a place where she would be safe.

Fahed and his new friend, Zoë, enjoy his birthday party May 11 at Wesley Park United Methodist Church.

Three years ago, Kathy Carruthers, a member of Wesley Park, received a call from PARA, a Church World Service affiliate, asking if she would lead her church in sponsoring Amir’s family.

“I wanted to say no so badly,” Carruthers recalls. “I just could not imagine taking on that kind of responsibility or time commitment. I am so happy I agreed, though. Helping this family has been such a blessing to me. It helps me understand what it means to be Christ with skin on.”

World Refugee Day will be observed June 20. The United Methodist Committee on Relief works with the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program on refugee resettlement.

In Michigan, PARA provided the necessary case management, and with only a couple of weeks to prepare, Carruthers enlisted the help of the entire church, which responded by furnishing a home with everything the family needed. Perhaps more importantly, the community also befriended the family members, making them feel welcome and secure.

With guidance and support from many individuals, combined with hard work and perseverance, Amir and Fadwa have made a true home in what was once a strange land. Fadwa earned a master’s degree while in Lebanon and is now working in Michigan. She is fluent in Arabic, English and French. Amir is pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering. He learned English while attending Baghdad University.

They had their second daughter, Sara, in January, and Fadwa’s parents have recently joined them from Lebanon. They have maintained strong bonds with the friends at Wesley Park who first welcomed them to the United States.

Continuing a tradition

Wesley Park continues to respond to sojourners. Currently, the church is making a home for Saif and Safaa and their 2-year-old son, Fahed. After war broke out in Iraq, Saif and his family relocated to Syria for two years before moving to Grand Rapids in April through PARA.

In preparation for the family’s arrival, Nancy Spalenka, missions chairperson at Wesley Park, organized volunteers to receive and embrace their guests. PARA found an apartment that had been recently vacated with furniture left behind. The church provided gifts of kitchenware, linens and other necessities.

Shortly after their arrival, Saif and Safaa contemplated moving to Arizona where they had a cousin. After experiencing the compassion of their new friends and speaking to Amir and Fadwa, they chose to stay in the Grand Rapids area.

A volunteer from the church supplements Saif and Safaa’s English classes with private tutoring. Another volunteer shows the family how to navigate the transportation system, while someone else helps with understanding the financial system, bill paying and grocery shopping. The couple will enroll in job training classes and, after three months, look for work.

In honor of Fahed’s second birthday, the church community celebrated with a party and birthday cake. He was delighted by the attention and captured the hearts of those around him.

“It has been wonderful to make international friends,” says Spalenka, who is known as “Grandma Nancy” to another of the Iraqi families with whom she stays connected. “It’s a pleasure to help when needed, to introduce them to sites of interest in the area and partake in home-cooked meals from around the world. More than that, it is satisfying to know that even though we can’t solve all of a family’s problems, we can offer a comfortable home and help people resettle safely.”

Iraqi refugee resettlement

After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, many Iraqi civilians who had helped the United States were forced to flee. In recent years, millions of Iraqis have left, seeking asylum from the escalating violence in their home country, according to Naomi Madsen, UMCOR’s staff executive for refugee ministries.

“While the United States has agreed to resettle thousands of Iraqi refugees, the process often moves slowly,” Madsen explains. “Having people like those in the Wesley Park community who are willing to co-sponsor a family in need is a true blessing.”

Participating congregations and affiliate agencies provide services to help refugees adapt to a new home, a new society and a new community of supporters and friends. The Immigration and Refugee Program of CWS resettles about 8,000 refugees and entrants in the United States each year and helps meet the needs of people in prolonged refugee situations and refugees returning home.

United Methodists can use observe World Refugee Day by considering a co-sponsorship ministry or supporting the program financially through New Hope to Newcomers, UMCOR Advance No. 901779. Checks can be dropped in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY. 10087-9068. Write the Advance number and name on the memo line of the check. Credit-card donations are accepted online at www.givetomission.org or by phone at (800) 554-8583.

A bulletin insert for World Refugee Day can be downloaded at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/getconnected/resources/cbi/

*Hinnen is the staff writer for UMCOR communications.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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