Connecticut church helps resettle Iraqi family

Connecticut church helps resettle Iraqi family

May 31, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Hisham Ahmed Kadhim, his wife Mayssa Lelo and their 2-year-old son Mohammed relax in their suburban New Haven home, made completely ready for them by volunteers from Spring Glen UCC in Hamden, Conn. W. Evan Golder photo.
Little notice, big welcome

Two weeks.

That's all the time Iraqi refugees Hisham Ahmed Kadhim and his wife, Maysaa Lelo, both in their 20s, had to prepare for a life-changing move with their 2-year-old son from Amman, Jordan, to a new life in the United States.

Two weeks. That's all the time Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, Conn., had to find a host group to help resettle this Iraqi refugee family.

Two weeks. That's all the time the informal refugee resettlement committee at Spring Glen UCC in Hamden, Conn., had to locate a vacant apartment near a bus line, come up with the first month's rent and security deposit, and completely furnish this new home by the time the refugee family stepped off the plane. Two weeks was all anyone had.

But as the airport limo sped east from the Newark, N.J., airport to Connecticut, church volunteers were collecting their buckets and brooms and heading out the door of the upstairs apartment. Waiting inside were pictures on the walls, food in the fridge, furniture in each room, and a warm, home-cooked Arabic meal prepared by another recent refugee family.
Two weeks was all it took.

No way to stay

Back in Baghdad, Hisham Ahmed Kadhim and his pregnant wife lived with his extended family. Despite his Master's degree in chemical engineering and his training in water purification, professional jobs were scarce in war-torn Iraq, so he worked for his father in his veterinary supply business.

Another problem was that they were Sunni Muslims in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood. Gunmen stopped him on the street. His cousin and his uncle were killed. The family home was confiscated.

"Even today," he says, "I do not know who lives in it."

But they did know they couldn't stay in Iraq, so shortly after their son was born in early 2006, they fled to Jordan. Since Iraqi refugees have no legal status in Jordan, they knew they couldn't stay there either, so they applied with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to emigrate to a third country.

After rigorous screening to determine that they were neither a public health risk nor a national security danger, the three of them were granted refugee status.

Two weeks later, they were on a plane to Newark and their new life in suburban New Haven, Conn.

Feel right at home

In New Haven, responsibility for helping the Kadhim family resettle had landed with Chris George, an Arabic-speaking former Peace Corps volunteer in Oman, who has visited refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East.

"Our goal is to help refugees feel at home in a new, strange land," he says. "They are highly motivated survivors, tough, resourceful people who really want to contribute and stand on their own two feet."

On average, IRIS resettles between 100 and 200 refugees per year - and with few resources. The agency receives $850 per refugee from the federal government, half for administrative costs and half for the family's expenses.

"Refugees are invited to come to this country," George explains, "but they don't get a free ride. They even pay their own air fare to get here - and they take out loans to repay these fares and build good credit at the same time."

One of IRIS's goals is to raise money from other sources and to get volunteer help. The UCC assists with funds from the annual One Great Hour of Sharing offering and local churches assist with volunteers and with donations of furniture and other household items.

When he received the Kadhim family's folder, George thought immediately of Spring Glen UCC. Twice he had been invited to speak at the church. If any group could get their act together in only two weeks, he thought, this was it.

Smart, restrained approach

"They are smart!" George says of the Spring Glen UCC committee.

"When refugees arrive," he says, "they need everything. They need clothing from the moment they get off the bus. They need food, they need housing, they need their kids enrolled in school, they need arrangements for health care, they need jobs and they need to learn English."

Too many times, George explains, the needs seem so great that the resettlement committee wants to do everything for the refugee family and solve every problem immediately.

Not this group, he says. "They're taking a smart and restrained approach to refugee resettlement. They know how to delegate tasks and spread out responsibilities and they know how to say no when they need to."

In the 1970s this church helped to resettle a Cambodian family, but with mixed results. Whenever the thought of helping an Iraqi family would come up, too many people remembered how frustrating it had been, says Nancy Beals, who chairs the benevolence committee, so the suggestion never gathered much support.

This time was different, she explains, for two reasons. First, two women, Amy Lynn and Ellen Schowalter, agreed to co-chair an informal resettlement committee. Both had time, energy and ability - and no history with the Cambodian experience. Second, IRIS was present as a resource.

Following Chris George's second appearance at the church, more than 30 persons signed up to help. Lynn phoned everyone on the list and catalogued their interests and available time. Then, using a resource book provided by IRIS, she typed out a list of items and tasks needed and distributed the list.

People volunteered as they could - and everyone was ready when George phoned that a family was coming in two weeks.
"We really had to scramble," says Lynn.

On Sunday, they had only three days left and still didn't have an apartment. Then Schowalter found one and signed the lease and Lynn made the deposit with her own funds. They got the keys at 5 p.m. on Tuesday and the family was due on Wednesday evening.

"Those last two days were so much fun!" says Lynn.

Watching church happen

The pastor, the Rev. Andrew Nagy-Benson, was away at a conference when all of this broke.

"This was a pastor's dream," he says. "It was generated by the people of the church and carried out by the people of the church. I was receiving e-mails hourly as Amy was trying to keep me in the loop. I felt as though I was watching church happen from 1,000 miles away."

Once the Iraqi family arrived, the activities continued.

Nancy Beals taught Kadhim how to work the bus system. Ellen Schowalter took him to Sears to buy clothes for his employment interviews. Amy Lynn posted a monthly sign-up schedule. Different persons took them to the supermarket, the aquarium, the natural science museum, to job interviews, to an Arabic restaurant, to the mosque on Fridays, and to English classes.
Why did they bother?

"We made such a mess out of that country that if we could do anything that would help even the score —like lighting even one little candle - it would help make a brighter world," says Schowalter.

"For years we have heard our pastors preach that this kind of thing is what Jesus calls us to do," says Bernadette Welsh, "to be open to others, to welcome the stranger. My grandparents came off the boat at Ellis Island. It's not so far removed from us."

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. 

Learn More @

Learn how your congregation can help resettle a refugee family by contacting Mary Kuenning Gross, the UCC's executive for refugee and immigration ministries, at 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland OH 44115-1100; phone 216/736-3212; e-mail

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