Connecticut church helps refugees ‘dream again'
Written by Susan Townsley
April 2001

Nestor Nana, imprisoned several times for speaking out against the Cameroon government, fled to the United States four years ago. Susan Townsley photo.
"If you ever have the opportunity to meet refugees as they get off the plane, take it," Steven Ayers advises. He has done so several times as a member of First Congregational UCC of Stamford, Conn. "At first their faces have a look of fear and shock, but it turns to a smile when they are greeted by name and welcomed."

Nestor Nana was on the other side of that experience four years ago. As a student organizer in Cameroon, Nana had been imprisoned several times for speaking out against the government.

"When I first arrived in the United States, I knew, in theory, that I would be free and safe, but in practice I had no idea where I was, and whether I could trust people," says Nana.

As Nana departed the plane he saw two people holding up a sign with his name, who then greeted him smiles and reassurances. That night a church couple slept on the living room sofa so that Nana could have the master bedroom. "That really impressed me," he says.

For Ayers and others in the church, meeting the plane was just the beginning of a relationship. When Ayers greeted the Matic family from Vietnam in 1975, little did he know that, over the years, he would be at family graduations, marriages and baptisms.

"It is remarkable to see people who have gone from having their lives destroyed to having lives remade here," says Ayers. "It reminds me that most of us have relatives who got off a boat and looked in shock at this strange new land."

Kathy Moldave is the granddaughter of the first refugee family that the Stamford church sponsored. The family fled Vienna following Kristallnacht in 1938 and, after a time in London, made it to New York City in 1940.

First Church of Stamford helped them settle in the Stamford area. Moldave's grandfather, trained in the law of Imperial Prussia, eventually retired from the Finance Department of Stamford Hospital; her grandmother helped support the family by selling jewelry she macramed from silver threads to Brooks Brothers and Blooming-dales. The family established life-long connections to the church, her grandfather serving several terms on the Music committee.

This February, First Church Stamford invited the seven refugee families they have sponsored and their relatives to a Sunday worship and celebration.

In planning for the event, a deacon of the church cautioned that the event should focus not so much on what the church had done for the refugees, but on the mutual blessings that have come from sponsoring them.

As the Rev. Gary Brown, Senior Pastor, proclaimed that Sunday, "Refugees come bearing gifts," whether those be concrete skills or "the inspiring example of those who have wrestled optimism from the jaws of tragedy."

Another church member affirmed: "My life would have been different if I hadn't witnessed the remarkable ceremonies where some of you received your U.S. citizenship."

Moldave enjoyed speaking with the other refugee families at the lunch following the service. One common concern is how "American" the children of refugees become.

Moldave assured more recent refugee families that "the immigrant story will always be there. It certainly has had an effect on who I am."

At the lunch, Nana reflected on the need to listen to the gifts and skills that refugees bring to their new homeland.

"I was disheartened to begin my life here with a cleaning job, but with some basic skills, refugees are able to be self-sufficient quickly," he said. Nana and his wife, who immigrated a year after Nana, are both working and earning degrees in library science. Nana hopes to take a degree in information technology as well.

When Nana fled Cameroon, he was looking for a place he could be free, express himself and plan for the future. With a wide, warm smile, Nana attests to the blessing of his new life. "I have begun to dream again," he says.

The Rev. Susan Townsley leads workshops, does consulting and sometimes writes free-lance articles.