‘Changing the World’ for Refugees in Jacksonville, Fla.
United Methodist Women members of Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., learned about refugees and resettlement as we helped lead our church in the denomination’s “Change the World” weekend. The action mobilized our congregation to go out into the community to share God’s love and build relationships with staff, volunteers and clients of local service organizations.
We reached out to a local organization helping refugees with resettlement. This effort was a risk for us since we had minimal experience working with refugees.
Our first step was to meet with the local refugee service organization to discuss how we could be a partner in resettlement. We identified projects for volunteers, resources to help us with this task and point people for various aspects of the work.
We learned that refugees in our community had many needs and determined we could help with quite a few of them, including:
- Setting up an apartment for an arriving refugee family.
- Helping a refugee comply with a gluten-free diet.
- Helping with resume writing and finding employment.
- Helping with shopping, particularly bargain shopping and learning about coupons, sales and thrift shops.
- Helping the families, particularly the children, become acclimated to a new country.
We recruited volunteers for these tasks from our local United Methodist Women group and congregation. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who committed to help either in person or by providing donations and supplies.
Together, we went on to teach the newcomers about money, coupons and things like clothing sizes. We helped organize a “Kid’s Outreach” complete with music and crafts on a Saturday at an apartment complex with refugee children. We joined in welcoming refugees arriving at local airports, visited with a grieving family and provided coins and laundry supplies.
“Things went really well. We actually had a lot more in common than I could have imagined,” said Heather Seymour, a Mandarin member and volunteer.
“We tried to work on the resumés for a while, but it turned out that the positions they are looking for didn’t really require resumes — grocery clerk, seamstress, babysitter. So I took them to the library, got them library cards, setup an e-mail account for them and showed them how to use it. We looked at a couple of job websites to see what types of jobs are out there right now. I gave them several job search terms to search under. They also checked out their first library books! I felt like I made two new friends!”
We helped refugee families get familiar with their new home.
“We had a nice visit with two young men,” said Tish Austin, a Mandarin member and volunteer. “Their English was limited, so we did our best with lot's of smiles and nods. … They were most attentive when we showed them how the oven and garbage disposal worked. We took a tour of the area with a stop at a thrift store. They proudly proclaimed their Christianity, and said they were going to a church nearby. We shared prayer and fellowship.”
The most labor-intensive task was the apartment setup for a refugee family. Our partner agency gave us written guidelines on how the apartment should be furnished and fully prepared for three days of living, which included a food supply according to the refugee’s culture. One volunteer shopped for the food supply. Women cleaned the two-bedroom apartment and furnished it down to the smallest detail — lamps, laundry supplies, bedding, child care items for a family of two adults and two small children from Burma. Men helped with the heavier furniture, including assembling a new family size table.
Our industrious activity brought the maintenance man from the apartment complex to our door to ask, “Just who is coming to live in the apartment?”
Volunteers met the family at the airport and brought them to their new home. One of our volunteers was totally amazed that the first thing the refugee family had to be taught was how to turn on running water. This brought home to us that there are still people in the world who do not have access to water in their home.
It was a joy to observe our family start their resettlement in their new home. Intuitively, we made friends, gave gifts, shared information, gave instruction where needed and prayed. Everyone found that smiles do wonders to overcome language barriers.
Every volunteer returned from our “Change the World” weekend satisfied with their experience and feeling that they had made a difference and shared God’s love.
The outreach has led to continued involvement and learning about the needs of refugees finding a new home in America. We now have volunteers on a regular basis who are friends with refugees helping with their adjustment to a new way of living.
Our United Methodist Women also provided support to our church’s youth mission project to work one week with refugee families from Burma living in an apartment complex within our city. They taught Bible stories, assembled a shed and playground equipment, taught games and English words to children and made friends.
Mandarin United Methodist Women also sponsored a continued learning event, “Welcoming the Stranger: A Transformational Ministry.” Refugees shared their stories and volunteers, including one of our youth, told their stories. We learned about the refugees’ country, why they became a refugee, about refugee camps and what it was like to arrive in America. Volunteers shared their experience. Both shared personal experiences with humor and gladness. We collected hygiene supplies and made hygiene welcome kits for arriving refugee families because we’ve learned that refugees often arrive with no suitcase or belongings.
Our church and local unit opened our hearts and found that we could be a friend to a refugee family. We learned that someone presumed to be very different could be more like you than you ever imagined. We learned that refugees, like us, are people with hopes and dreams for their life and family.
And without a doubt, we learned more about extending hospitality to our neighbors.
Nancy Rushton is president of United Methodist Women at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.