An Interview with a Refugee

For almost sixty years, thousands of refugees from all over the world have been resettled by hundreds of UCC churches participating in Refugee Ministries. The UCC Refugee Ministries has been reaching out to refugees helping them start anew and advocating for their safety and fair treatment.

Refugees are people who have fled their countries due to war and persecution. Most refugees prefer to return home, but it is often too dangerous because of ongoing conflict and unrest. Some languish in refugee camps for a decade or more. Others remain in neighboring countries. Some seek asylum in the U.S. on their own, taking great risks, facing the dangers and despair of detention or deportation.

There are more than 21 million refugees in the world today. Three-fourths of the world’s refugees are women and children. Another 44 million people are internally displaced within the borders of their own countries due to civil war or other conflicts. Less than one percent of refugees have the opportunity to resettle in North America, Australia or Europe.

Through UCC Refugee Ministries, this mass of suffering humanity becomes a name, a face, a person made known to ordinary church folk who have made an extraordinary commitment to help refugees begin a new life in the United States.

In 2007, we invited church folk to share their stories about refugee resettlement with us. We were delighted by the enthusiastic response to our request. In our preparation of the Refugee Journal: Telling the Story of UCC Refugee Ministries we received over 110 stories.

It is now our challenge and joy to find meaningful ways to share these stories as we uplift the rich legacy of UCC Churches faithful action in response to God’s call to “welcome the stranger” and love the sojourner. Listen as we share scripture and excerpts from their stories.

I. Pre-arrival

“Peace, peace to the far and the near, says the Lord and I will heal them.”
Isaiah 57:19

“There are millions of people who need our hospitality. A resettlement with us means a new life for refugees and a hope of achieving peace and stability in their lives.”
Ed Ballam, First Congregational Church, Haverhill, NH

“We came because for 4 years there was a war in our country. One day, I came home from work and our house was on fire. Semsudin was in a concentration camp for 6 months. We lived in Serb territory and were not safe. We moved to Croatia. In Croatia we contacted refugee ministry.”
Suvada Tahirovic, from Bosnia in CT.

“It began with a request one Sunday in the fall of 2002 for people to… help with refugee resettlement. I,[answered the] call and embarked on a journey. Our first task was to acquire, through donations, suitable household goods and furniture. It is a little daunting to attempt to ?decorate’ for someone you don’t know with donated goods. The prevailing thought was to make it seem like home. After several weeks of planning, sorting and moving we were amazed at what a lovely apartment had been assembled.
Edwina Gower, First Plymouth Congregational, Lincoln, NE.

2. Arrival

“The stranger has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler…”
Job 31:32

“What a powerful experience for those of us waiting on the other side with open arms and open hearts. The culture shock, stress, and confusion was evident in their tear-stained faces. They had endured so much, and carried the deep burden of not knowing whether their parents had survived. Those stressed faces now carry broad smiles.”
Sue Robert, East Congregational, UCC, Grand Rapids, MI.

“There were so many people waiting for us – like family – it was as if they knew us.”
Regina Conton from Sierra Leone resettled in CT

“(Naik) and Naseem were very sweet, however so emaciated that I felt like I was hugging skeletons with skin. Their eyes betrayed a sense of unspoken tragedy. Naik was very disoriented and had something wrong with her eye. However, when Naseem smiled it was like watching the sun come out after a rainstorm.”
Kate Carmell, St. Paul’s UCC, Seattle, WA.

3. Resettlement

“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing…”
Matthew 25:35-36

“Although refugee resettlement takes time and energy, it is a gratifying way for people to give. Those who resettle refugees form close relationships with each other, strengthening the church.”
Rev. David Kratz, Fauntleroy UCC, Seattle, WA.

“It was a joy, the first Sunday after their arrival, having our “family” attend our church to meet all of us who were working to make their beginning here in the U.S. a good experience.”
Cliff and Bobbie Burnett, First Congregational, Kent, CT.

“They slip ever so innocently into our very lives. We share clothing, furniture, hopes and dreams with them. We take them for shots, dental appointments, visits to the social security office, the local schools, we find them jobs – we share pictures that are then mailed back to their former homeland. We listen with love as they tell of leaving family and homes behind to begin the frightening venture of starting from square one in adopting a new home. They will be our friends for life.”
Rev. Alfred K. Schwerdt, Immanuel UCC, Shillington, PA

“We feel like birds freed from a cage.”
Semsudin Tahirovic, Bosnian resettled in CT

4. Long-term

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Hebrews 13:2

“Our lives have truly been blessed as we continue to learn about their Bosnian culture and their Muslim faith. Two different cultures and two different faiths, but we still have a lot in common!!! The world gets a whole lot smaller when you grow to know people from different walks of life. I thank God every day for bringing us the Tahirovic’s. We have learned so much from them and are grateful for their lasting friendship.”
Betsy Levesque, First Congregational, Kent, CT

“The families are dear to the hearts of sponsors and have taught us valuable lessons never to be forgotten. We are awed by the courage, creativity and determination shown by these once homeless people. Their ability to overcome anxiety and disappointment, the loss of homeland and culture, their sense of fun and joy in special moments speak to us of grace and challenge our faith.
Fran Stiles, Mountain Rise UCC, Rochester, NY

“In two years, this African family which arrived in our country with three duffel bags containing all their belongings, studied English, learned about a vastly different culture, took difficult jobs, learned to drive, bought cars, and their first house! The process comes full circle as the children now attend the same schools as my children and they have become true peers, not “sponsors” and “refugees.”
Rae Hunter-Pirtle, First Plymouth Congregational, Lincoln, NE.

Closing Scripture
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Ephesians 2:19

It is our hope and prayer that these powerful stories will stay with you. Please help us to interpret this work with refugees. We have some wonderful new resources to help you do that.

II. One way we invite you to help support and interpret Refugee Ministries, is to share:

The Refugee Journal: Telling the Story of UCC Refugee MInistries, and our new video In the Eyes of a Stranger which is under nine minutes. For youth we have The Uprooted Game. These are available upon request. The video will be available from conference resource centers in February. We encourage you to lift up refugees in connection with the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. Share a minute for mission, using these stories. Share them with Sunday School classes.

III. A Challenge we place before you:

Become an advocate for refugees. Join the UCC Take Action network. Send letters to your representatives about refugees. 

Locate a Church World Service affiliate in your area and make contact with them. Learn about refugee resettlement in your community.