OUR MINISTRY TO REFUGEES: We are being changed ourselves

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By Juliet Liu

She gestures at her stomach, making a bulging motion with her hands. Then she looks up and points at my belly. “You?” she asks. Embarrassed, I pat my stomach . . . a few inches larger than I’d like it to be.

What is she asking? Is she pointing out the extra pounds I’m carrying from the holidays? I know some cultures don’t have the same stigma against extra weight that Americans do, but still . . . isn’t it kind of rude to call attention to my belly?

The “conversation” continues like this for a while. She seems embarrassed that I cannot understand what she is saying. I feel flustered as well. She points again at my stomach and then turns to our children playing together on the floor of the apartment. They’ve gotten out the UNO cards—excellent practice for learning colors and numbers together in English. Gesturing to them, and then again to my stomach, she asks again, “You? More?”

Oh, that’s what she is asking! “More children?” I say to her. She nods her head. Whew, I think. “Who knows?” I reply. I gesture up toward Heaven with my hands open. It is a physical motion we have used over the past few months to communicate something along the lines of, “If God wills it.”

I ask her the same question, “You? Would you like to have more children?” She smiles, shrugs her shoulders, and makes the same gesture toward Heaven in reply.

Bridging the Divide

Short, broken phrases and charade-like conversations—these have been the bulk of our exchanges over the past 12 months. It is a setting that has been fraught with miscommunication and misunderstandings like the example above. We reach for one another, grasping for words, motioning with our hands . . . simply to communicate what I can normally say in just a few short phrases.

Language, culture, religion: these three things stand between us like a giant chasm. What kind of fools would attempt to bridge this divide?

And yet I would not trade these past 12 months for anything in the world.

One year ago in December, my church community welcomed a Syrian Muslim refugee family to Chicago: two grandparents, a mom and dad, and their four children. (I cannot share their names, as they still worry about threats to their safety from their country of origin).

I still remember the day they arrived. They were tired from the long airplane ride, and they were frightened—eyes darting around at their new surroundings. Winter in Chicago is not a welcoming environment. The wind and the cold were fierce those first months. But we had done our best to prepare their new apartment, making it as warm and welcoming as we were able.

For two months before their arrival, we had gathered items like beds, pots and pans, shower curtains, dishes, and tables to fill their new home. We partnered with a local resettlement agency in Chicago that walked us through the process and helped us raise $16,000 for the family—money that would help cover expenses like rent, food, clothes, and medicine for their first year in the United States.

Even before the family arrived, we faced disappointing challenges. The date of their landing kept being pushed back by the U.S. State Department. In November 2015, the governor of Illinois and other governors around the United States declared that their states would no longer accept Syrian refugees out of the fear they could be terrorists. Our hearts fell.

When we received notice in December that our family would indeed be coming, we celebrated. We had only a few days to clean and set up the apartment with all of the items we had gathered. My children drew welcome signs with colorful hearts and smiley faces. A friend who reads and writes Arabic helped us to write welcoming words in their own language.

The Real Work

But the real work began after that first meeting. During the first few weeks, members of our church team visited the family daily. We accompanied them to grocery stores, taught them how to use public transit, and sought out secondhand stores to find winter clothing for everyone. We addressed issues with their landlord, like heat that would not turn on, a broken stove, and bedbugs.

Many refugees face emotional and psychological trauma because of their experiences, but they are expected to start their lives over in an unfamiliar land without missing a beat. Mountains of legal papers need to be filled out. Medical issues—some which have been building up for many years—need to be addressed, and this involves countless hours in waiting rooms. English language classes are required every day of the week. Children need to be enrolled in school and homework must be completed, despite obvious obstacles with language differences.

It may take years for the family we are helping truly to feel at home. We are learning that being friends to our family does not mean fixing all of their problems. It does mean being with them in all of the difficulties they face and grieving with them when they miss home. We are learning to give help when they ask for it, but mostly, to support them as they solve problems for themselves.

The biggest surprise to me over these past 12 months has been how blessed I have been in this process. When our church decided to minister to these refugees, I believed we would be the ones doing all of the blessing and they would be the ones receiving it. I was wrong.

Through it all, we are being changed ourselves. Our team has often felt unprepared and ill-equipped to support a family whose language we do not speak, and whose culture and religion are unfamiliar. Understanding one another is hard.

I remember, early on, a member of our church team blurting out, “I just don’t think I’m very good at this! Maybe I shouldn’t be doing it!”

“Nobody is good at this!” I smiled. “We will do it anyway, with God’s help.”

Forward by Faith

We have had to walk forward with a level of faith that has perhaps never been required of us before, trusting God to work in spite of our inabilities and inadequacy. The problems this refugee family faces are much larger than our single church community can tackle. We are learning reliance on God for things that are much too big for us to handle alone.

More than that, befriending this family has meant confronting things in my own heart of which I was unaware. I have found myself in places I would not usually go, like a supermarket where most people speak Arabic.

If you had asked me a year ago if I held prejudice in my heart against Muslims, I would have flatly answered, “No!” And yet I found early on that there was a tightening in my stomach and a quickening of my pulse whenever I found myself surrounded by women whose heads were covered with hijabs.

Having entered into a friendship with people that some in this nation see as “enemies,” I have discovered a community that had been invisible to me. Now when I am out, I see people and faces I was once accustomed to ignoring or treating with suspicion.

I have been blessed by the warmth and friendship of this family. Each time I visit, women greet me with kisses on the cheek and a warm shake of the hand. Sweet tea and coffee are offered in bounteous quantities. Our children play together happily. Food is often heaped in front of me. I am humbled by their generosity, knowing they offer it even though they have very little.

Jesus is not just helping my Syrian friends through this relationship—he is helping me too. In this past year, strangers the world says should be enemies have become friends. I have welcomed them into my life, and I have received their hospitality and been humbled by it.

Though the journey has been difficult, we are experiencing Christ in the midst of it. And Christ’s kingdom is being built as we seek to be obedient to our King.

Juliet Liu serves as pastor with Life on the Vine Church, Long Grove, Illinois, and as an adjunct professor with Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois.

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