Radical Hospitality Offers Hope to Newcomers
By Melissa Hinnen*
Wesley Park United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Mich., is walking in the footsteps of Jesus as they “welcome the stranger” by co-sponsoring families who come to the United States as refugees.
In 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, Amir was forced to leave Iraq and relocate to Lebanon where he met his wife, Fadwa. After their daughter, Zahraa, was born, they applied for refugee status, hoping to raise their child in a place where she would be safe.
Three years ago, Kathy Carruthers, a member of Wesley Park, received a call from PARA, a Church World Service (CWS) affiliate, asking if she would lead her church in sponsoring Amir’s family. “I wanted to say no so badly,” Carruthers recalls, “I just could not imagine taking on that kind of responsibility or time commitment.” She continues, “I am so happy I agreed, though. Helping this family has been such a blessing to me. It helps me understand what it means to be Christ with skin on.”
PARA provided the necessary case management and with only a couple of weeks to prepare, Carruthers enlisted the help of the entire church who responded graciously by furnishing a home with everything the family needed. Perhaps more importantly, the community also befriended the family, making them feel welcome and secure.
With the guidance and support from many individuals, combined with hard work and perseverance, Amir and Fadwa have made a true home in what was once a strange land. Fadwa earned an MA while in Lebanon and is now a histo technician in Mich. She is fluent in Arabic, English and French. Amir is pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering. He learned English while attending Baghdad University. They had their second daughter, Sara, in January and Fadwa’s parents have recently joined them from Lebanon. They have maintained strong bonds with their friends at Wesley Park who first welcomed them to the United States.
Continuing a Tradition
Wesley Park UMC continues to respond to sojourners. Currently, they are making a home for Saif and Safaa and their two-year-old son, Fahed. After war broke out in Iraq, Saif and his family relocated to Syria for 2 years before coming to Grand Rapids in April through PARA.
In preparation for the family’s arrival, Nancy Spalenka, who is Missions chairperson at Wesley Park, organized volunteers to receive and embrace their guests. PARA found an apartment that had been recently vacated with furniture left behind. The church provided gifts of kitchenware, linens and other necessities.
Shortly after their arrival, Saif and Safaa contemplated moving to Arizona where they had a cousin. After experiencing the genuine compassion of their new friends and speaking to Amir and Fadwa who remain in the community, they chose to stay in the Grand Rapids area.
A volunteer from the church supplements Saif and Safaa’s English classes with private tutoring. Another person helps the family navigate the transportation system; while someone else helps with understanding the financial system, bill paying and grocery shopping. The couple will enroll in job training classes and after three months, will look for work.
In honor of Fahed’s second birthday, the church community came together to celebrate with a party and birthday cake. He was delighted by the attention and captured the hearts of those around him. “It has been wonderful to make international friends,” says Spalenka who is known as “Grandma Nancy” to another of the Iraqi families with whom she stays connected. “It’s a pleasure to help when needed, to introduce them to sites of interest in the area and partake in home cooked meals from around the world. More than that, it is satisfying to know that even though we can’t solve all of a family’s problems, we can offer a comfortable home and help people resettle safely.”
Iraqi Refugee Resettlement
After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, many of the Iraq civilians who had helped the US were forced to flee. In recent years, millions of Iraqis have left, seeking asylum from the escalating violence in their home country. “While the United States has agreed to resettle thousands of Iraqi refugees, the process often moves slowly. Having people like those in the Wesley Park community who are willing to co-sponsor a family in need is a true blessing,” said Naomi Madsen, executive for UMCOR’s refugee ministries.
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 need our guidance, friendship, and a sense of belonging from a sponsoring congregation.
Friday, June 20 is World Refugee Day. Please use the church bulletin insert and this story about Wesley Park to share the good word about how United Methodists are making a difference in the lives of so many families. In honor of this day, please consider starting a co-sponsorship ministry in your church or supporting this effort through giving to: New Hope to Newcomers, UMCOR Advance #901779.
* Melissa Hinnen is the staff writer for UMCOR communications