Refugee Ministry at Gig Harbor UMC
*By Melissa Hinnen
May 26, 2009—Hanaa’s life has been full of challenges. When war broke out in Iraq, she and her family fled their home to live in Jordan. Her husband returned to Iraq to help US forces and was killed. When the US government began resettling Iraqi refugees, Hanaa, a widow with six children and a new grandchild, applied to settle near Seattle because a cousin lived in WA.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the congregation at Gig Harbor United Methodist church near Seattle, WA felt called to sponsor an Iraqi family after learning that two million Iraqi refugees had fled to Jordan, Syria and Turkey. They formed a committee and contacted a Church World Service (CWS) affiliate and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). In July they learned that Hanaa and her family would be coming to the Seattle area.
Preparations to Welcome the Stranger
The people in the congregation immediately began planning to host the family. Teams were created to find housing and furnishings, coordinate education needs with public schools and ESL classes at the Tacoma Community House, manage public and private transportation, navigate social service paperwork such as refugee benefits and health care, and most important, provide hospitality.
According to Rev. David Richardson, a retired pastor who coordinates the church’s sponsorship, “It wasn’t always easy. Searching for adequate affordable housing was especially difficult.” The church trustees offered to postpone the sale of the parsonage, a five-bedroom home, which they would rent to the family.
Everyone in the church helped get the house ready. The youth group worked on the yard, members with special skills tackled the plumbing and electrical problems, and others painted and cleaned. People donated clothing, furniture, linens, and a computer. Together Gig Harbor UMC created a warm home that had been touched by many prayerful, compassionate hands.
Strangers Become Friends
When Hanaa and her five children, ranging in age from 13 to 21 years old, arrived at the Seattle airport on December 11, they were greeted with smiles from a group of church members who introduced themselves and brought them to their new home.
Since then, the thirteen-year-old twins have learned English and are enjoying their new school. They are active in track and soccer and have made friends in middle school and the church’s youth group. One of the older children ran a half marathon and plays soccer. He is enrolled at Tacoma Community House where he is learning English and job skills. The family has befriended a young man who helps with translation when needed.
Hanaa was sad to report that her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild were not able to come with them to the US. She is hoping they will be granted approval soon and worries about them. She has also required extensive medical care since she arrived and her daughter has been staying home to care for her. People from the church drive her to doctor appointments and help her navigate the health care system.
Naomi Madsen, UMCOR refugee ministries executive says, “Refugee life is not easy. People leave their home country as a last resort and have often used up many resources in the process.” She continues, “The most important part of refugee ministry is the ministry of presence. For someone like Hanaa, who has been so strong in leading her family this far to safety, what is really needed right now is friendship and compassion as she struggles to take care of her own health.”
Richardson points out that the host congregation is also blessed by refugee ministry. He said, “This has been a transforming time for our congregation. We discovered that mission, hospitality, and generosity are contagious. As with Jesus and the multitudes, a few loaves of bread and fish show there is always enough for the faithful.”
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.
Saturday, June 20 is World Refugee Day. Please use the church bulletin insert and this story about Gig Harbor 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.
*Hinnen is a staff writer for UMCOR