UCC congregations offer hope and home to Iraqi refugees

UCC congregations offer hope and home to Iraqi refugees

November 22, 2010
Written by Gregg Brekke


Growing up in Iraq for Noura was great. After school, she would come home and eat lunch with her family. "I never put my hand in the food unless the whole family was there to eat together." She graduated university with a bachelor's degree and began working as a teacher. All that changed when she had to flee her native Iraq to start over in Jordan. She was 24.

Patty Buchan, co-chair of the refugee resettlement committee Congregational UCC in Brookfield, Conn., tells the story of meeting Noura for the first time. "Chris George of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services was going to meet us by the side of a road to drop off Noura and her brother," he says. "We saw the IRIS van, but no Iraqis. There was a woman, but she wasn't wearing a veil. So we were wondering, 'Where are the Iraqis?' We thought maybe they missed the plane."

"I remember their faces, just shocked, like 'Who are you?,' " says Noura.

"Then Chris drove off," Buchan continues, "and it was just us and the Iraqis. And I just wanted to hug you and hug you and hug you."

Noura turns to mush. "She really helped me. I remember the first day when I came, it was really strange, sad. Everything was changing in my life and I didn't know anybody here."

Now Noura works a part-time second job at the Gingerbread Schoolhouse. "When Noura said she did not have access to a car, I didn't know how this would work," recalls Georgianna Rescigno, director of the school. "Within a few minutes, I received a phone call from one of the women at Brookfield UCC assuring me that transportation would be no problem for Noura. I agreed to an interview." The rest is history.

At the 27th General Synod, the UCC's Executive Council called upon church members to support humanitarian relief efforts in the US and abroad.

"The UCC's 100,000 for Peace campaign was meant to raise 100,000 prayers, contacts in legislature and dollars," says Susan Sanders, Minister for Global Sharing of Resources and One Great Hour of Sharing Administrator for the UCC. "We ended up raising $200,000."

The money was sent as aid grants to UCC partners in Iraq, Jordan and Syria. It was spent on vocational training for refugees living outside of Iraq, and basic human needs like food and water for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) inside Iraq.

But church members didn't stop there. Amy Lynn, of Spring Glen (Conn.) UCC, says there was no trouble finding volunteers in her congregation to help resettle Iraqi refugees. "A lot of people politically feel like we've made a mess over there, and it was nice to clean up a little bit of it. Even people who don't feel we've made a mess understand there are people who need our help."
"The first full day in country [for a refugee] is a round of appointments," says Ken Ramsey, associate director for resettlement and integration at Church World Service (CWS). "Their first stop is the Social Security office to get ID cards. Next is applying for food stamps and medical care."

According to Sheila McGeehan, a CWS affiliate in Pennsylvania, the relationship between a congregation and a newly-arrived refugee usually begins before the meeting at the airport. "[A congregation will find] an apartment," explains McGeehan, "pay the rent, and furnish it."


And that's just the beginning. Jennifer Wurst, co-chair of the refugee resettlement committee at Brookfield UCC with Patty Buchan, describes various opportunities for church members to volunteer. "There's driving them to their various appointments," she says, listing some longer-term commitments. "Education. Employment. Finances. Health."

None of these chores are crossed off the list in one sitting. Showing a refugee how to use local public transportation, go through the mail and create a household budget are all things that take time. Every congregation finds a different way to sponsor a refugee, and each refugee's needs are different. Sometimes an individual arrives. Other times, it's a family with 3 kids and grandma. Some arrive with chronic medical conditions. And almost all the adults need jobs right away.

Georgianna Rescigno talks about how the school was recently awarded national accreditation by the National Association for Education of Young Children. "The minimum requirement is an associate's degree to teach in our school," explains Georgianna, "but Noura has her bachelor's, so her credentials were also brought to bear on our NAEYC accreditation."

Not all refugees are as fortunate as Noura to have a degree and skills that are transferable. "The family co-sponsored by my church came here with solid language skills, but the father's engineering training wasn't up to US standards," laments David Treul, a money management educator at Michigan State and member of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Michigan. "He had to go back [to Iraq] as an interpreter with a Marine unit."

If your congregation doesn't have a refugee resettlement ministry, some CWS local affiliates such as the one in Lancaster welcome individuals. Other organizations that work with individual volunteers include The International Rescue Committee, The US Committee for Refugees & Immigrants, and World Relief. Organizations like Upwardly Global help highly skilled immigrants, refugees and asylees reclaim their careers here in the United States. Their volunteers provide contacts, review resumes and even help refugees practice interviewing. There are so many ways for individuals to help. And with Iraqi refugees resettled in every state in the US, there's no shortage of need.

The urgency for refugees to find a job is a mounting problem. Money that comes from the US Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) is a mere eight-month allowance – compared to the 36-months Vietnamese refugees received at USRAP's inception in the 1970s.

The decision of how long to maintain the refugee-co-sponsor relationship is not an easy one. Each congregation does it differently. Grace Immanuel UCC in Kentucky has resettled 23 refugees in 10 years.

The Rev. Greg Baine says his congregation's initial concern was that they'd be adopting rather than sponsoring. "How to let go is a real big part of this. Kentucky Refugee Ministries - who Grace Immanuel has a co-sponsorship with - structures this into a very clear 90-day period. Then the relationship shifts gears from sponsorship to friendship."

"It's not an infinite obligation," says Amy Lynn. "One time [the mother of the family we co-sponsored] had a medical emergency. When she needs that network, we're the ones she calls."

David Treul, the money management educator, says he wouldn't trade his experience for anything. "We're not babysitting them, but it was certainly nice [for them] to have someone to call to say 'We're thinking of buying a house. How does that work here?' I was glad to be able to step in and help."

Jennifer Wurst of Brookfield UCC points out some short term volunteering options for church members, such as providing meals, giving refugees a tour of a supermarket during their first week, or donating furniture. "People have insane amounts of extra furniture, it turns out," adds a chuckling Baine.

After living in Connecticut for a year and a half, Noura now has a bigger vision. The Baghdad native wants to help other Iraqi refugees get resettled through the church. She's preparing a presentation for the UCC's Connecticut Conference.

"My experience, how I lived a really hard life when I left my country, and went to Jordan, and came to America – it makes your life not normal," Noura explains. "I don't want more people to have [the difficult experiences] I had. I am doing what I can do for them."

"People tell me it's a hard life in America" says Noura, "but I'm strong. I'm still young. It's nice to have help when you first come, for really it's like I'm just born. Life in America is very different from the Middle East. Language, banking, shopping, everything. I started under zero. Minus. But I thank God now I'm able to drive, I'm able to speak English, I hope well!" she giggles.

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