Across Landsby Judith Santiago*
February 25, 2008—Moe Aung, his wife Naw and their three children fled their home in Myanmar (Burma) and sought shelter in a Thailand refugee camp where they remained for five years. They fled the government’s persecution of the Karen people—the Aungs’ ethnicity. Bracing against the cold weather and carrying one bag of their personal belongings, the Aung family arrived in Kentucky in September 2007. They appeared worn from the long trip to the US and from the life they recently fled. The Aungs did not speak English, but warm greetings by Wenda Webster Fischer from Christ Church United Methodist spoke volumes—soothing the hardship of their long journey. The welcome embrace was the language that would unite them.
Sharing the many advantages and liberties that the US has to offer refugee families settling here can also bring rewards to a sponsoring church. Lives are enriched, hearts are expanded and ministry abilities are strengthened as day-to-day challenges are overcome in making newcomers feel welcome. But more importantly, refugees are receiving the freedom of choice that most of us take for granted each day.
Fischer, refugee support team leader of the Refugee Ministry at Christ Church United Methodist in Louisville, Ken., says, “I didn’t feel called to train them (refugees), to live as I lived, but to expose them to as many experiences as possible and give them options.” Providing a refugee family with choices for everyday life is important as it is helping them achieve a level of self sufficiency early in the resettlement process.
When the Kentucky Refugee Ministry (Louisville), an affiliate of Church World Service, secured Christ Church UM as co-sponsor of the Aung family—they provided the necessary case management work and hands-on support needed to properly resettle the Aungs. This support empowered Christ Church Refugee Ministry to embrace the challenges ahead and step into the very lives of their far-off neighbors. The resettlement of the Aung family was one of those experiences.
Across Language Barriers
Translators can be a lifeline during the resettlement process. They bridge the communications and cultural gap between the church sponsors and refugee families. But with the large number of non-English speaking Karen being resettled in the US—translators were in short. The lack of communication with families can hamper ministry efforts. According to Fischer, the help that can be offered to non-English speaking refugees is cut in half without translators. Opening bank accounts, setting up health care or registering children in school can be accomplished in about three months. But without a translator to clearly explain all of the options and benefits involved—these matters can take a great deal longer to resolve. It also creates additional challenges for church sponsors and their ability to teach newcomers basic life skills.
Despite the lack of available translators, the Refugee Ministry pressed beyond their limits to help the Aung family settle in. They provided the much-needed transportation, assisted in obtaining legal documentation, helped furnish their apartment, collected clothing, and more.
“Many [in Christ Church] have had their world view broadened and their personal abilities stretched as they have reached across language barriers, comfort levels, and shared resources,” said Dr. Bonnie MacDonald, minister for Outreach and Justice, Christ Church United Methodist.
Challenges like these fueled Fischer’s understanding of where her priorities should be in helping our neighbors. She says, “I don’t have a lot of money to donate, but I do have time and I realize that how I spend that time is what matters.” Fischer includes the refugee families in her day. She helps them learn how to do laundry, takes them sight-seeing, and occasionally drops by their home for a visit. The offers of help and the giving of her time and heart is the continued embrace felt by the Aungs. It has also proven fruitful for the Refugee Ministry. Today, both of the Aung parents are participating in a work training program and the mother and eldest son are rapidly grasping the English language. The baby, who is now in daycare, has begun to speak a few English words.
About Church World Service
UMCOR has been working with Church World Service to welcome refugees into safer home environments. Participating congregations and affiliate agencies provide services locally helping refugees adapt to a new home, a new society and a new community of supporters and friends. The Immigration and Refugee Program of CWS resettles about 8,000 refugees and entrants in the United States each year, and also helps meet the needs of people in prolonged refugee situations and refugees returning home.
How You Can Help
Consider sponsoring refugees and help them build a hope and a future for themselves as they embrace a new life experience here in the US. Refugees like the Aung family need our guidance, friendship, and a sense of belonging from a sponsoring congregation. You can help refugees feel welcome by giving to: New Hope to Newcomers, UMCOR Advance #901779.
*Santiago is the Program Coordinator for UMCOR Communications