COVID-19 is proving to be a deep, dark season. It was March 16th when we closed our office and began working remotely. The virus hadn’t yet hit the Fox Valley area so although our team was preparing, we weren’t really sure for what. We began praying, as individuals and as a team, for the refugee and immigrant communities we serve.
At World Relief Fox Valley, we serve 10 different immigrant communities and several hundred individuals per year. They come to us from Congo, Burma, Iraq and South Sudan, just to name a few. While we don’t know every person’s specific story, we do know that all have persevered through unimaginable circumstances.
Many who have fled violence and poverty to come to the U.S. feel a sense of hope and opportunity when they arrive in the Fox Valley. No longer will their lives be measured by their ability to survive. Instead, opportunity has been restored, positioning many of them to thrive. Education, home ownership, business ownership — these new possibilities excite them, and they are eager to succeed and give back to the communities that have welcomed them.
While the immigrants we serve face many challenges in achieving these dreams, it didn’t take long for us to realize COVID-19 would only add to the complexity of their lives and delay their journeys forward. Though our newcomer friends have overcome insurmountable obstacles, this uncharted territory posed a unique set of challenges for them to navigate.
I remember thinking in those first days of the crisis, “It’s hard enough for Americans like me to wade through the ever-changing COVID-19 information. I can’t imagine trying to understand it in a new language and in a new home with new laws that I was still working to understand.”
With that in mind, in an effort to mitigate confusion and connect with those we serve, our team began reaching out to our clients shortly after we closed our office. We started with adults over 50, those who weren’t yet fluent in English and others we knew to be most at risk in these circumstances. We made phone calls and sent texts, asking people if anyone had gotten sick or if they needed anything. We also wanted to let them know how much we cared about them.
Initially, their responses were nonchalant and unaffected: “This text is to let you know that everybody in the (Burmese) community is doing well and staying safe,” one response read.
And so, we continued praying for their health and safety. Our prayers were answered with a resounding ‘yes’ for a while. But then we started hearing about refugees testing positive for COVID-19, families being quarantined and people being laid off. One of the first calls we received was from a group of people who all carpooled to the same worksite. They were all exposed to the virus and told to self- quarantine. We were able to ease some of their anxieties and offer a bit of hope by helping out with rent and groceries while they were quarantined.
That was just the beginning of the phone calls and requests for help we received. Our team moved quickly to support our clients in any way we could. We increased our outreach to ensure they were receiving accurate health information. We also began offering virtual services to help families navigate unemployment claims and understand stimulus check qualifications.
The work has been constant, a load that has weighed heavily on our team as we navigate our own uncertainties. Yet, in the midst of it all, I have been constantly reminded of God’s promise in Isaiah 45:3.
“I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.”
God has indeed gifted our team with treasures in this dark time. Our community of donors has given so generously, allowing us to provide financial assistance for those most affected by COVID-19. I’ve received so many messages from donors saying things like, “We wanted to share our stimulus money with organizations we support. Thanks so much for all you do.”
Messages like these give our team the fuel we need to continue this vital work.
Likewise, our volunteer community has been a treasure. They have donated masks, purchased and delivered groceries, coordinated video chats with clients to help them stay connected and visited nearly every market in Fox Valley in search of ugali, a favored staple of our Congolese population.
Then there is the community of local churches that have donated offerings, gift cards and prayers. The generosity has been astounding. “I have a question,” one church partner wrote to me. “How are some of the people you’re working with handling all this stay in place’ stuff? Do you have a need for gas and grocery cards? I think I can get you some if you can give me a rough idea of what the need is right now.”
And the most treasured of treasures? A community of refugees and immigrants who remind us of what resilience and perseverance look like. They remain faithful and, by their example, demonstrate to our staff, donors, volunteers and church partners that even in the midst of darkness and despair, there are treasures to be found.
“I was just telling God,” one person from the Hispanic community we work with told me, “I do not know what I am going to do, you need to help me.’ And just when I finished praying, I received your call!” Our refugee and immigrant communities have endured hardships before, and they have come out stronger on the other side. So we continue praying — for health and protection for everyone within our community, and that we would keep our eyes peeled for the treasures to be found even in the season of COVID-19.
Our family came into volunteering for World Relief quite softly and quietly and then crashing into it all at once. It's been an adventure that will hopefully last a lifetime.
A few years ago, World Relief made its presence known in our community around the time the world's eyes were being awakened to the refugee crisis in Syria, resulting in a mass exodus of families risking their lives to find refuge anywhere in the world that would take them. The images of this woke up our community in a call to action. I diligently signed my name on the line and stepped up as an enthusiastic volunteer, taking the volunteer training at World Relief and putting their ever-popular “you are welcome here” sign in my front yard. It was there that it became clear that I/we were in no way ready to meet what the organization needed from us. I was crestfallen for a time, putting my enthusiastically raised hand back in my pocket, waiting for the time when my then-young and very busy family might be better suited for the job.
Over these past few years, our children grew and I survived a very long year battling stage 3 breast cancer. To say that I felt indebted to the community that gave and supported my family so much that year would be an understatement. To say that our desire to give back was stronger than ever...also an understatement. And that “you are welcome here” sign in our front yard stood there, in my opinion, meaningless...only to advertise that we are an open and loving family that welcomes any and all in to our community. It was a powerful and purposeful message with little ethos to back it up. It wasn’t long after that that it was brought to my attention, via the World Relief Facebook page, that our community was in need of “Friendship Partners.” There it stood like a lightning rod--a calling that now was our time. Forty-plus families from the Congo were being resettled in Appleton.
And that's where we crashed into it all at once! A week later, we were matched with a family whose size and energy could rival our own. On paper, the family is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although this family lived much of their lives in a refugee camp in Burundi, where three of their seven children were born.
This family changed our lives in one dinner. In one night, into our home walked the reality of the crisis happening in one of the most dangerous countries to live in. Eleven people, ranging in ages from 55 to only 1 year old, filled us to the brim. Only two of these people speak any English. Ten children--theirs and ours--played happily together, having no way to communicate with words. That experience alone was one of the most eye-opening moments, watching the children from worlds apart have no idea that they are/were in fact worlds apart. They had no idea...they laughed, they played and they forged friendships without words and broke down cultural barriers. In one night it was clear to us that we weren’t just making an impact on them. Even though it was our job to welcome them and to be ambassadors of our community, it was them who made an impact on us. It was their irresistible positivity, despite the lives they are coming from and the uphill battle they have simply assimilating in a community that couldn’t be more foreign (I mean snow, the end). It was their patience in tackling another new language (I say "another" because many of them are working on their third or even fifth) language. And most of all, it was their out pouring of love and gratitude. The opportunity to be a friendship partner is one of the best decisions our family has ever made. And I can rest a little easier knowing that the sign in our front yard now a has a smidge more meaning.
We call our new friends our “Congolese family," since every child in the family has a different last name (which made making those first appointments we took them to extremely confusing!). Our relationship has continued to strengthen, and the more English they learn and Kinyarwanda we learn, the more our conversations are a little less comically awkward. I look forward to the future, to holding the space as they grow into themselves...no longer as refugees, but as strong and confident Congolese Americans that stand as role models and lighthouses of hope for those they had to leave behind--their family and longtime friends, still waiting on hope and a prayer, to be welcomed into any safe and reliable country that will take them.
Lindsey and John
They arrived late on an evening at the end of March. A Good Neighbor Team from First Presbyterian Church in Neenah, WI welcomed them with nervous and excited happy smiles. Exhausted and overwhelmed, the family climbed up the stairs to their apartment, crawled into their beds, and slept restlessly. The next day began a journey of appointments, orientations, and overwhelming emotions. Some days felt like the warm breeze of a calm summer day; happy, relaxed, and reassuring. Other days felt like the sharp icy sleet of a Wisconsin winter; scary, overwhelming, and uncertain. One constant during those six months was a group of dedicated volunteers, diligently walking alongside them to encourage, teach, empower, and love them. Within this group was a dentist.
In the next six months, the family built friendships, practiced English, went to doctor appointments, went to Mosque, attended birthday parties, and spent hours in a local dentist office. That office was Mid Valley Dental (https://www.midvalleydental.com/) and the efforts were let by Dr. Wockenfus. Dr. Wockenfus has been a dentist for 23 years and has been working with this particular office for 22 years. He has built relationships resembling that of a family among his staff and they have grown together with a common heart for serving others. Beyond their everyday dental care for the community, the office gathers every year to determine where they would like to donate their times and services. When the Good Neighbor Team with First Presbyterian Church in Neenah asked to partner with the office, it felt like the right fit. Suddenly, they had an answer to the annual question of where to donate their time and services.
Mid Valley Dental originally planned to assist one of the family members in avoiding a dental emergency. However, after completing exams for each family member, the office decided to treat all of their dental needs free of charge. All of the family’s dental needs included everything from cleaning to wisdom tooth removal to placing crowns. It included hours upon hours of hard work and thousands of dollars donated to the care of a newly arrived family. When asked what the most challenging part of this experience has been for the office, they listed the language barrier. Dental work can be scary and painful, imagine not being able to fully communicate about your own dental procedures! Dr. Wockenfus seems to admire the family and noted the large amount of trust that this family had to place in him, his staff, and the Good Neighbor Team as a whole; as they spend hours in a new country, with people they barely know.
Dr. Wockenfus says that Mid Valley Dental receives joy from giving back, from helping and serving others. Though he knows the office has helped, he feels the office has equally benefited from the opportunity to meet and serve this family. The dental office doesn’t exhaust themselves donating their time and effort to make themselves feel better, or even to serve just one family in need. The way Mid Valley Dental sees it, they are using their passion and talents to give back to individuals in need with the belief that when one person gets back on their feet, they can turn around and help another in need. What a true testament to the idea that God has gifted us each with passions and talents to be used to love and serve His world. What a beautiful picture of Americans welcoming Immigrants. What an inspiring movement, serving others to empower them to serve others.
Thank you First Presbytarian Neenah, thank you Mid Valley Dental, and thank you Dr. Wockenfus!
Collaboration Breeds Hope
A year ago, I was brand new in my role as Christian Education Director at First United Methodist Church, Oshkosh WI.
In that capacity, imagine my delight as I serve two churches: one in the morning, which is primarily American families and one in the afternoon, which is primarily members who have a refugee or an immigrant story. So often, these families are not seen as blessings and are lumped together as a nameless burden to society.
A remarkable thing happened during the afternoon service on my first day. The children came running to meet me, full of smiles and laughter, open-armed hugs and a wide-eyed, accented greetings of "Hullo, Teachah". Before even knowing my name, they were ready to trust.
It wasn't but a few minutes and I realized we had very little language in common, as at least 3 languages were represented. Over the course of a few weeks, I began networking in hopes of finding a translator.
I reached out to the Oshkosh Public Schools and had the joyful discovery of collaborating with Dawn Shimura, who works with the ELL teachers, students and in the community.
As we partnered together, we soon started asking, "Who else works with the same families?"
World Relief was an obvious next call and we have had the delight to meet Kelsey Hulet Potter and Anastassia Christensen.
Each time we gathered, we could see something of great value was happening as our common mission was overlapping. And just like that, #TeamHope was born. I've had firsthand experience to see the dedication, expertise, diligence and devotion shown by these women to these families and our community. They are all making a difference!
Before long, Cherith International and NAMI gathered with us for Chakula, as the church family taught us to cook in the African ways. At another event, the Oshkosh Police Department has joined us and provided meaningful safety training and taught about crime prevention and told of the help available that's free of charge. At a third event, we met with others in the mental health fields, so that we are better equipped to serve well and pass on resources available throughout our state.
Another organization from Appleton, Breathe Free, joined in the fun this summer and provided a tent so that we could have shaded area to do weekly handwork and engage with the mamas and children outdoors. We have hosted weekly knitting parties in the winter and other artsy socialization gatherings in the families' neighborhood all summer.
If we say we want to be culturally sensitive and inclusive, these services provide real life assistance in the moment. Without collaboration on these kinds of joint initiatives, our growth will be stunted at best. We all grow in capacity when our community shares resources and demonstrates what it means to be healthy and strong.
With these growing relationships, the children and families see us working together for their good and the good of our community. This fosters trust and creates a safe environment to grow in character and learn without fear.
So what started as a search for an interpreter has turned into a discovery of genuine friendship, organizational collaboration and we're able to really provide help and care. I'm forever grateful.
So. Who else wants to join #TeamHope?
Kris Wood is a freelance writer and the Christian Education Director at First United Methodist Church, Oshkosh WI
More often than not lately, working in the refugee field can be exhausting and disheartening. Many of us find ourselves speechless and frankly, feeling pretty helpless. Even writing this I feel as though I am grasping for words that I cannot seem to find. Misinformation circles the social media channels and finds its way into the news feeds of many. Fear and unfamiliarity result in unwelcome attitudes and policies, in hurtful words and actions. Many of us find ourselves living in a country that we no longer recognize. This fear and lack of understanding seeps its way from our social media into our neighborhoods, our schools, our businesses, our voting boxes, and eventually, our policies.
If you sit through an orientation or a presentation that I (and many World Relief staff) give, I will likely tell you how many refugees have been admitted to the US annually, in past years. I began working with World Relief in 2013, at which time about 70,000 refugees were admitted to the US. In 2016, in response to the growing refugee crisis, President Obama increased the number of refugees to be admitted up to 85,000. Before leaving office, he increased the number is 100,000 refugees for 2017. Upon entering office, President Trump and his administration decreased the number down to 45,500 for 2017. However, it is unlikely we will even reach half of this number by the end of the fiscal year, which rolls around on September 30, 2018. And now? There is discussion of further reducing this number for 2019.
Large numbers can paralyze us, so let’s look at these numbers on a smaller, and more local level; my first year working with World Relief Fox Valley, we welcomed 88 individuals to the area. In 2015 and 2016, we welcomed around 130 newcomers. In 2016, when President Obama increased the numbers we were thrilled to welcome 209 individuals, including many families and children, to Appleton and Oshkosh. We felt the impact of President Trump’s decrease in 2017, with just 110 individuals arriving. As of today, our office will have had the opportunity to welcome just 40 individuals for the current fiscal year.
Numbers aside, the simple fact is that our sisters in Christ are being persecuted and we are unable to welcome them. Our brothers in Christ long to be united with family members, while those family members wait, stuck in the current limbo that is refugee processing overseas these days. The refugee crisis continues, the number of people uprooted increases, safety for so many continues to deteriorate. If there was ever a time to advocate for our refugee neighbors, it is now. We must not turn our back on the world. We are all made in God’s image; Even the person who was born on soil different than mine, whose primary language is unfamiliar to my ears and whose home smells of spices I cannot remember ever using. Distance makes us feel detached, unfamiliarity makes us feel separate, but God has called us all His child, Jesus died on the cross for each and every one of us.
The Bible tells us that prayer is important. We know that our God is a God that answers unimaginable, seemingly impossible prayers. So even in a time where it seems that much is against us, we must continue to pray big prayers. But not only are we called to call out to Christ, we are called to be His hands and feet in this world. And sometimes, this means we are required to call out to our government on behalf of His people. Sometimes, being His hands and feet requires us to pick up the phone and speak truth, to advocate, to educate. God has called us to raise our voices on behalf of His people. Now is that time. Real people, HIS people, will be significantly impacted by what we do and say today, or by what we neglect to do and what we leave unsaid.
Let us lift up our voices to Him. But let us not forget to also lift up our voices to our government officials.
Please, join us in advocating on behalf of refugees, today.
The message we are spreading is a simple one: The US is ready, willing and able to welcome 75,000 refugees. At this time of unprecedented refugee need, with over 25 million refugees, the US should be leading and increasing, not reducing the number of refugees we welcome.
- Call the White House – 202-456-1111 with the message above
- Call congressional representatives with the same message
- Blast social media, or emails to your mailing lists to raise their voices to the WH, Congress, and on social media (hashtag suggestions: #Welcome75K #RefugeesWelcome #WithRefugees #WeWelcomeRefugees)
Hre Kio (7/7/1973-7/7/2018)
We love being a part of the lives of refugees here in the Fox Valley. As an office, it brings us great joy to welcome, get to know, and watch as many incredible and unique families and individuals arrive to America and rebuild their lives here. We are always impressed with the humor that we encounter, in awe of the resilience and determination we observe, and heartened by the love we witness. Each of us has learned truth, trust, belief and hope from the clients that we come to know. Hre Kio was no exception. As a staff, we are better people today than we were yesterday not because of the work that we do, but because of the people (like Hre) that we meet.
Hre Kio arrived to the Fox Valley as a refugee in October of 2014 after fleeing his home in Burma in 2007. He came to America as a Chin Burmese Christian refugee. This background made Hre an ethnic minority in Burma; he is one of thousands of refugees in history to flee due to violence and threats because of this identity. Hre was known for being quiet, kind, respectful and hardworking. In Wisconsin, Hre became part of a tight-knit community and helped welcome and befriend additional newcomers; some of them recount him accompanying them on unfamiliar bus trips to the store when they were new to the area. He had many friends from Burma in different parts of the state including the Fox Valley, Sheboygan and Milwaukee. While staff remember Hre’s quiet kindness, his community spoke of more; Hre was devoted to church, talented and passionate. He attended Zomi Trinity Baptist Church in Fond du Lac where he was given the new name of Hang Lam Pau. Hre Kio’s friends describe him as funny and hardworking and remember that he enjoyed time spent fishing and that he could play both the guitar and the drums.
Hre was diagnosed with Cancer in November of 2017 but even through the days after diagnosis he was remembered as a brave man; always saying he wouldn't let his illness kill him. Sadly, Hre Kio passed away on his 45th birthday. He leaves behind a mother, older brother, and younger sister as well as many beloved friends and community members. Though we are saddened at the loss of Hre Kio, we are thankful for the opportunity to have worked and laughed with him. We are thankful for his ability to impact the Fox Valley and the lives of his community members. Mostly we are thankful remembering that though we have lost him, He has gained an eternity with Christ.
Rest in peace, Hre.
On Sunday night I attended a compelling, informative and beautiful event at Bowl 91 in downtown Appleton. In celebration of World Refugee Day (June 20) World Relief Fox Valley hosted this sold out evening of great food and storytelling to help people in our community better understand what it means to be a refugee and to celebrate the beautiful partnership our community has supporting refugees and helping them to thrive here in America.
Yee Lee Vue of Bowl 91 went out of her way to serve up some of the best Asian food I’ve tasted in the Fox Valley. Vue, owner of Bowl 91, was very excited to partner with this special event. She also came as a refugee to the United States in 1991 and wants to do everything possible to help refugees feel welcomed in our community and to help them become self-sufficient.
After a lovely meal of fish and vegan curries, spicy pork and tasty sweets, four refugees from the Appleton area shared their stories.
Dr. Pam came as a refugee from Laos in 1976. Her dad assisted the American government with food aid distribution during the Vietnam war. When the Vietcong took over Vietnam, Pam’s dad and her family became an enemy of the state. They were on a kill list. Terrified for their lives, they fled Laos. Pam’s dad escaped first and spent a harrowing time locked in a Thai hotel room waiting for his family to be tracked down and rescued. A scout found the family, and she escaped with her mom and little brothers, one who was only 4 months old. They hid by day and walked through the jungles at night, constantly fearing for their lives. Pam vividly recalls a man screaming at them to get in the boat quickly when they crossed the Mekong river into Thailand because Thai guards and Vietcong guards would shoot them on the spot if they were caught.
As Pam stressed, “Refugees don’t have a choice when they are fleeing for their lives. If they don’t come here — they will die. They come here because they have no other choice.”
Overnight, Pam went from a war-torn third world country into the most advanced country in the world. Settling first in Houston, Pam’s family soon moved to Wausau to be near cousins. In Wausau, Pam learned about cancer and racism and resilience. Her cousin went to Mayo Clinic to be treated for cancer and came back bald with his hair falling out. The family was terrified that he was being used in an experiment to test horrible chemicals. They learned to trust that the medical doctors were taking good care of them and did not want to harm them.
However, they also learned about hatred and racism in the United States. When they arrived in the United States, they had no clue about how unpopular the Vietnam War had been. Because people thought they were Vietnamese, some people spit at them when they went to the store. Though the worst act of hatred happened when Pam’s dad got his fingers chopped off from a machine at work — his coworkers had sabotaged the safety mechanism so he would deliberately be injured. Pam’s dad taught her that from every tragedy something good comes out of it. The family believed that there were good people in the United States and refused to be defeated or to give up on the goodness of people. As a result of her dad’s tragedy, the family started the Hmong Mutual Association in Wausau to help other refugees settle in America. She became an advocate.
Pam got married, earned her B.A., then went on to get her Masters and a PhD in business. She was the first person in Appleton to hold the role of Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, back in 1997, and now teaches as an adjunct professor and works in the business sector.
Jacqueline from the Democratic Republic of Congo was the next person to speak. Jacqueline grew up in a helpful, loving family with a mom and a dad who looked out for the food, education and daily needs of their children. But that all changed when war broke out in Congo, and her father was killed.
Her mother, accustomed to working only around the home, had to go to work to support the family. This was very difficult, but Jacqueline’’s biggest struggles happened as a young adult when the country had become engulfed in war and violence. Her family was also on a kill list. In one day both her husband, her oldest son and her brother were murdered.
Jacqueline knew she was next, so she gathered up her six young children and fled to neighboring Uganda for safety. She lived in Uganda for the next seven years, but she wasn’t safe. The Ugandans hated the Congolese and didn’t want them in their country. Once while she was staying with a Ugandan family, they decided to turn her in. Jacqueline was terrified. She had heard many stories about people who had been butchered at night by Ugandan people who hated the Congolese. It was a very confusing time of great emotional upheaval for Jacqueline and her children. She was truly alone, trying to raise little children in a hostile country without help of family and friends.
But she escaped and came as a refugee with her six children to America. Initially, she was afraid that Americans would hate her and try to hurt her like the the people in Uganda did. But she was warmly welcome here in the United States. She had nothing but positive words of thanks and praise for the United States government, the churches and individual people who helped her family settle in America.
Soupanya (Larry)'s family came as refugees from Laos in 1983. His parents came with two children and literally nothing else but the clothes on their backs. He was born five months after his parents arrived in America, making him the first US citizen in his family. He escaped the horrors of war and life in a refugee camp and never experienced what his family had to endure. However, he sees himself as a living representative of his family’s tenacity to survive. He is incredibly grateful for the many sacrifices his family went through to give him life, and he wants to do everything possible to make his family proud.
When the United States finally left Vietnam in 1973, they left behind a country that had been decimated by war -- With 2 million tons of bombs and 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, the region was the most bombed country in history per capita. They also left behind thousands of Hmong people who had faithfully served them during the war.
Larry’s dad was one of those people. He left his family, whom he never saw again, at the age of 10 to join the Royal Lao Army and later trained as a United States ranger at Fort Knox. When the United States left Laos in 1973 the Hmong people had to fend for themselves. The new communist government committed atrocities against the Hmong people that continues as a humanitarian crisis to this day.
Because Larry’s dad had fought against the communists, he was sent to a reeducation camp. Finally released in 1980 for good behavior, his two daughters didn’t recognize him when he was reunited with them. Larry’s dad, who never cried, sobbed all night. He was free, but he was not safe. The communists continued to persecute him. His wife insisted that they flee the country and seek a better, safer life. The family hired coyotes to help them swim across the Mekong river. To this day, Larry’s two sisters still suffer PTSD from the harrowing events of swimming the river under constant threat of death.
Once across the border, the family spent the next 1.5 years in a Thai refugee camp. Life was filled with fear in the refugee camp because the Thai guards regularly beat and raped the refugees.
In 1983 the family came to the United States. A beautiful caring family and church in Oshkosh helped them settle in and helped them survive in America. His sisters were placed in lower grades in school and the family members were called chink and gook. In spite of the hardships, they thrived. Larry’s parents worked several blue collar jobs to make ends meet and make everything work for the family.
Larry’s oldest sister is a PhD Economist working for the Department of the Treasury, his other sister is a local entrepreneur/restaurateur in Appleton. All the children have college degrees and and doing well. Larry said. “This is what happens when you open your doors to refugees. Refugees are people who want a second chance at life. They are able to flourish when you give them a chance — They have experienced great tragedy but they are humans, just like we are -- and all they want is a chance at a better life.
The evening ended with a story from Heritier, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Heritier has been in the United States since 2015. He is married and he has a child, but both his wife and child remain in a refugee camp in Burundi. He has been waiting for over three years to be reunited with his family.
Congo is a beautiful, large country in Africa. Before the war life was somewhat easy and good. But in 1996, war broke out in Congo and then life became very difficult. Many people were being killed and people had to flee from Congo to other countries. Heritier and his family fled to a refugee camp in Burundi. He was just a little boy when he arrived at the refugee camp, but his family was forced to stay in the refugee camp for 15 years.
Life in a refugee camp can be very difficult. Heritier regularly saw people who died of hunger and disease. There was some opportunity for elementary education but a high school education and college were not available. The refugees, especially the young people, didn’t have a chance to move forward in life. People didn’t have enough to eat and they constantly had to think of creative solutions just to earn money to stay alive. Heritier’s family did this for 15 longs years.
Heritier believes that he is a living testimony of the goodness of God -- despite all that he went through and what he has seen with his own eyes -- he didn’t die. Life in a refugee camp goes on and people just wait -- never really knowing when they will be given permission to go to another country. Heritier fell in love, married but then was told he could leave. So after just three months of marriage, Heritier left his wife for America. It would have been too complicated and lengthened the process considerably to link his wife with his refugee file.
Though Heritier and his family went through cultural training for life in America while still in the refugee camp, they knew there were many challenges ahead of them. They were very frightened about coming to America. Life outside the camp is very different from life in the camp. In many ways, people had forgotten how to work. They had learned dependence because there was nothing really productive to do in the camp and no trades to learn so they were not used to working at a job.
Heritier’s family has worked hard since coming to America. They understand that this is their chance for a better life and they want to make it work. This is the only solution for their family to have a better future. They are very grateful to America, World Relief and the many individuals who have helped them tremendously since they arrived in America three years ago.
Heritier is proud that his family is making it and expressed his gratitude for all the help they received. He said, “This showed me that there are still people in the world who are kind and friendly.”
As each refugee shared stories, the theme of gratitude came up again and again. Admittedly, these are people who have experienced very harrowing things in their lives. They have suffered greatly and have lost friends and loved ones on their journey. But instead of bitterness, there is gratitude -- instead of defeat, there is an incredible will to not only survive, but to thrive. Again and again, each person thanked strangers -- who became friends -- for taking care of their family and showing them love and kindness. They thanked the United States government for welcoming them to resettle and start over in America. They thanked churches and family and individuals and teachers and city officials for supporting them and giving them a second chance. They thanked World Relief Fox Valley for welcoming them and connecting them and helping them settle and find jobs.
In the end, it’s important that we understand that refugees are people just like us -- people with hopes and dreams for their future. They are just like other people, but they no longer have their own homeland where they can see these dreams come true.
Heritier summed up the hopeful tone of the evening when he called everyone to action to advocate on behalf of refugees, “Now that we are welcomed in America — we can do great things — we can contribute to the society. We still have friends and family suffering in the camps. They don’t have people who can raise their voice. But we can do something and raise our voices.”
Guest blog written by Nadine H. Mohline -- friend of World Relief Fox Valley
On the day that we sit down to talk it has been almost four years since Martin has seen his wife and daughter.
When he left them, he was under the impression that they would be reunited within six months to one year. He quickly discovered that was not true.
As June 17th is Father’s Day, I wanted to celebrate a father with refugee background, so naturally, I also ask Martin about his own father. Martin was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to two loving parents. He explains to me that after soldiers murdered Tutsis in Rwanda, they came to the DRC and did the same; this is how Martin became an orphan at a young age. His parents were murdered in the conflict when Martin was a child, but luckily neighbors and family friends came alongside him and cared for him.
When Martin’s neighbors fled to the refugee camps in Rwanda they took him with them and continued to care for him. It was here that he met the little girl who would one day be his wife. Martin and Sifa grew up as neighbors in the camp from 1997 until 2014. Martin smiles when recounting growing up near Sifa and how their friendship matured. Eventually they married and had a daughter, Inglide Manzi Igiwiye. Laughter fills the room and his eyes sparkle as he describes the naming process of their daughter. Martin explained to me that Inglide’s family name, “Igiwye” was given by neighbors and friends in the camp. After she was born everyone came together, met Inglide, and chose a family name for her. They then celebrated as a community; he describes it as a kind of birthday party. I feel Martin’s happiness when he recounts this party and the love and community surrounding his daughter.
But six months into Inglide’s life, Martin had to leave. He had the opportunity to resettle as a refugee in Appleton, Wisconsin. Martin and Sifa had both registered with the UNHCR while in the camp, but prior to getting married, and that meant they were on separate cases. When they got married they were notified that attempting to join their cases together would be very difficult and take a very long time, slowing their resettlement process. They opted to continue as separate cases. This also meant that if one of their cases was processed first they would be separated, as one would head to America ahead of the other. That person happened to be Martin. The day he left his wife and six-month old daughter will be a day he never forgets.
As a child, Martin missed the presence of his father and now he only wishes he could be there for his daughter so that she doesn't have that same experience. He also worries about their life in the camp, a lack of long term education, and a lack of quality basic needs such as food, healthcare and housing. He prays for their arrival here so that he can help them begin a new chapter. Though they speak on the phone around three times per week, he said Inglide cries every time they hang up, asking when she will be able to see him again. As I finish writing this, it is May. This month marks four years since Martin last held his daughter. In contrast to the quiet sadness that hung like a raincloud as he described their separation, pure happiness takes over when I ask Martin what his daughter likes to do for fun. Martin laughs as he tells me that her favorite thing to do is ride her bike; last year when he asked her what she wanted for her birthday she asked for a bike. He was happy to oblige! Inglide attends school in the refugee camp but Martin said it’s difficult to measure the talent of students in these classrooms due to lack of resources for teachers and pupils. Inglide is currently learning French, which means that when she arrives in America and begins classes here she will be trilingual! Pride for his daughter underlines every word.
His pain is evident, but he is convinced that as people hear his story, they will come to see the real lives affected by family separation. Martin knows many other refugees in the Fox Valley, and in America as a whole, who have been separated from their loved ones overseas and are waiting to reunite with them either through the AOR process or immigration paperwork. He knows that he isn’t the only one in this position, and he believes that telling his story will help bring life to a very real problem. Martin is not only a refugee, but he is a father, husband, and human. He has experienced real heartache, overcome great difficulty, and worked hard to get where he is. Martin has had to live through many experiences that most of us will never even be able to imagine, but he is strong and determined.
This Father’s Day, I want to celebrate Martin. But I also want to celebrate all of the other fathers with refugee background; men who have worked hard and left everything they know behind to build a better life for their children. They are strong, loving, and dedicated.
Today and every day, let us celebrate and honor them, let us pray for them, and let us advocate for them. Much like Martin, I believe that stories are powerful. I believe that his story is powerful and that it can impact us. It can teach us that the newspaper articles, and social media posts, the statistics and reports, are more than those things; because they represent real people.
My client and friend Daniel and I had been waiting for this moment for over two years. We worked hard for this moment, we envisioned this moment, we talked about this moment, we prayed about this moment, and most of all we hoped for this moment. Some days this moment seemed closer than others, and some days this moment seemed very far away. Then the moment happened.
I met Daniel in February of 2016 and little did each of us know the extent of the process we were embarking on. As a newly accredited representative, I was cautiously attempting my first I-130 relative petition and Daniel simply wanted his pregnant wife here. Over the course of the next two years, we met or spoke with each other nearly 50 times, completed roughly 100 pages of paperwork and supporting documentation, went through the ups and downs of the case being approved, the government requesting information, interviews, more information being requested, and the granting of a visa.
I will never forget being at the airport the night with Daniel. Surrounded by family and friends, with tears running down his face, Daniel was reunited with his wife and was able to hold his one year old daughter for the first time. Seeing the pure joy that Daniel had in finally embracing his wife again and meeting his daughter, made every effort worth this moment.
“But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16 NIV)
*The name Daniel has been used for confidentiality*
Story written by ILS staff Phil Stoffel
The Buechel Story – How a Stone Quarry in rural Wisconsin is building a solid foundation for newcomers
A little over four years ago, in the fall of 2013, a Buechel Stone hired their first refugee employee. Buechel Stone Corp. is a quarry in Chilton, WI that strives to provide quality and dependable experiences in the natural stone industry. Little did any of us know that this experience would develop into a highly valued partnership between a refugee resettlement agency and a stone quarry in Wisconsin. I don’t think anyone involved anticipated the impact this initial hire would grow to have on refugees, Buechel staff, and World Relief as a whole, but we are here today reflecting on those very things. In the years since that first year Buechel began employing refugees they have held tax seminars with WRFV staff to educate their employees, collected Christmas donations annually to help welcome newcomers, and constantly strove to insure their refugee employees felt comfortable, heard and respected.
We connected with April Dowland, Vice President of Human Resources and Operations, who was one of World Relief’s very first contacts in the beginning stages of this partnership. April has been with Buechel for around five years now, our office was first introduced to her when she was an HR manager. April has gained a lot of insight since 2013, she reminds us that even receiving cultural orientation and explanation can’t prepare someone from being dropped into a whole new country to build a life. She believes that part of her role is to really help their refugee employees navigate the gap she has seen between explanation and true understanding. Employment is so much more than working your shift and going home, Dowland points out that work is actually weaved into many aspects of life (such as insurance, taxes, retirement savings, etc.) and that without understanding these things it’s really quite challenging to get involved in many of the larger aspects of life here. She feels that the experience of helping refugees navigate these things has really brought her so much closer to many of the individuals she works with.
For employers, hiring refugees can come with a lot of challenges and hesitancies. There are language barriers, sometimes a lack of experience in their particular job field, and cultural differences, to name a few. But there are many positives and growth opportunities as well; hardworking eligible employees, increased staff diversity, and opportunities to bridge cultural gaps, to name a few. April remembers the company being initially nervous about incorporating new language into their culture and wanting their training and communication to remain consistent but feels the Buechel Team has grown together in this process. Dowland expressed, “It is important for Buechel Stone to employ refugees because we have seen the effects it has had on our culture. Our company is growing and we are always looking for people with good work ethic. With our company culture becoming more diverse, it has brought in new ideas and challenged our status quo. Through this we have become a stronger, better Buechel Stone.”
It's easy to see how passionate April is both in Buechel Stone as a company and in embracing diversity and inviting others to be a part of the team. In addition to the company’s growth and learning experiences, April herself has had memorable experiences and we were thrilled when she shared some of those with us! April described interactions between a Burmese speaking employee newer to the company and a long term employee who spoke Spanish. One day a newer refugee employee (speaks Burmese) came up to my office upset that a long term employee (speaks Spanish) didn’t have a locker in the men’s locker room. I was confused because everyone that wants a locker can have one. I explained this to the newer refugee employee and proceeded to assign a locker to the long term employee. Later that day the newer employee came up and explained that the long term employee just didn’t want a locker. The best part of that story was how they had a conversation and got to know each other through their common limited amount of English. They remained close for a long time after this. It always warmed my heart to seeing them talking. The other great part of this story is that they worked together and the long term employee trained the new refugee in various parts production. It just goes to show that language isn’t a barrier to employment. This is the kind of story that makes us laugh and leaves us smiling. Though, April also has had the opportunity to discuss workplace safety with their employees and has learned a lot about the difference in safety that some of her employees have faced back home. These experiences have made a difference both on Buechel Stone as a company, on April herself, and on many of the other employees.
There are many contributing factors to Buechel’s success, for one, April described some similarities between the culture of the surrounding area, and the one that many refugees come from. Buechel Stone’s manufacturing plant is in rural Wisconsin in a section called, the Holyland. In the Holyland, villages each have a church, a bar and a supper club. She describes the people living in these areas as individuals with a strong work ethic and high family values, with a focus on religion. Many refugees share those values so they have seen an easy blend in many senses. But April also believes the company has a culture of welcoming and a positive approach to this as well. “I am so proud of our team because we work together and never let barriers become an issue. Our culture is so unique and yet we don’t see it. We accept people for who they are and move on. So a refugee isn’t a refugee but is “Jason.” Everyone is unique and put together we make the Buechel Team.”.
We have several wonderful employer partnerships, companies interested in hiring refugees new to the area and helping them achieve self-sufficiency. What we have found in working with these companies, like Buechel, is that they have the opportunity to be (and often are) so much more than an employer. Companies work hard to develop relationships, provide educational opportunities for newly arrived refugees, learn about different cultures, and become mentors to many of the individuals who were once strangers.
Is your company looking to hire? April lists the following as advice for other companies considering hiring refugees:
- I think it is important for your team to be ready for communication challenges.Have some strategies prepared on how you would proceed when you encounter those.
- You need to be flexible in your training program.Similar to any other employee, you need to have options on how people can learn various topics.
- Be ready to listen
- Try to put yourself in their shoes, how would you feel?
We would love to talk to you about employing refugees! Please contact us at: 920-231-3600 for more information.