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.