Atlanta resettlement ministry: A party at Christmas, year-round friendship

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the response to the global refugee crisis by The Episcopal Church and its ecumenical and interfaith partners. Other articles in the series are available here.

[Episcopal News Service] It may be the first Christmas party ever for about 40 children of refugee families – and the excitement is mounting for Atlanta’s All Saints Church volunteer Steve Heckler, eager to present a 6-year-old Congolese boy with a toy car kit.

“He wanted toy cars. I found a neat kit where you get all these parts and you can make several different cars at once and swap them around,” and Heckler said he’ll stick around throughout the year to help assemble them if need be.

The Dec. 19 party is a yearly event organized by the refugee resettlement ministry of All Saints Church, which partners with New American Pathways, the Episcopal Migration Ministries affiliate in Atlanta.

“We collect several thousand dollars worth of food cards and Wal-Mart cards, and do probably about 500 gifts for three different organizations,” said Louisa Merchant, director of the refugee resettlement ministry at All Saints.

Leapin’ Lizards and transforming relationships
Heckler told the Episcopal News Service recently that he probably gets as big a kick out of participating in the All Saints Christmas Party as the kids themselves.

“It’s really wonderful; we’re going to take them to Leapin’ Lizards – it’s one of these bounce house places. We set a $40 limit per child and we usually know what the child’s asked for. Volunteers in the church get the gift, wrap it up and include a personal note.”

The gifts aren’t given until the end of the party. First, there’s pizza, and fun. It’s such a big deal that he’s bringing his own daughters, aged 8 and 10, who also have befriended the family with whom he volunteers.

“I’ve been most involved with an Afghan mom and her daughters. The mom came knowing a fair amount of English because of work she had done in Afghanistan.

“She had flown from Kabul, overnighted in Dubai, flew to New York and overnighted there, and finally came to Atlanta, where they were greeted by volunteers and driven to an apartment we’d furnished nicely for them,” he recalled.

“She said she was so scared and so worried until she walked in and saw how beautifully the apartment had been set up. She said she knew then that the people really cared about them and that made the difference.”

More than two decades of successful resettlements
For more than 20 years, the church’s refugee resettlement ministry has helped to co-sponsor families from Bosnia, Vietnam, Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Burma, and Bhutan, according to director Louisa Merchant.

Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli, 32, recalls what All Saints’ tutoring and other ministries meant for him and his family after their arrival in the United States, via Germany, two weeks after Sept. 11 in 2001.

“We are Syrian refugees, we are Kurdish. My dad had to leave the country in 1996 because of political oppression,” he told ENS. “Initially, we went to Germany, but they never gave us permanent residency so I wasn’t able to go to college there.”

He was 17; the family resettled in Atlanta, and “within the first week, members of All Saints showed up to welcome us.”

An All Saints volunteer tutored them in English for an entire year. Another, an 80-year-old, showed him how to apply for college. His father became ill shortly after their arrival; his mother couldn’t find work and his brother was too young to work so Kelli got a dishwashing job.

After he and his brother shared their struggles, anonymous church members paid the family’s rent for six months, helped them get a car, and paid the brothers to mow their lawns and babysit their kids.

Now, Kelli, who became a citizen in 2006, is in training to be a cardiologist and his brother is training to be a surgeon. Kelli volunteers at a free clinic a few blocks from the family’s first home, and was recently awarded a four-year cardiology fellowship at Emory University, and featured in an Associated Press article that appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere.

“All of it is possible because of the initiative of All Saints to help us get into American society. It’s all the more humbling, because we are not Christian. We are Muslim,” he said.

“All Saints is the prime example of investing in peoples’ future. They believed in my family and helped us out as human beings, regardless of religious background. They made a crucial investment in my family and made us feel like we were a part of this country from day one. That is the most important thing for every refugee and immigrant.”

Living the Gospel: Assisting refugees ‘a good place to start’
On Dec. 20, the congregation will meet the newest family – two parents and three boys, ages 9, 2 and 9 months – who arrived in mid-October from Burma.

The congregation helps furnish and stock an apartment with food, drives families to doctor and other appointments, helps them learn English and provides other assistance for the initial three-month adjustment period but, “we tend to hold onto our relationship with families” beyond that, Merchant said.

Merchant said that engaging this ministry “is living out the very fundamental tenets of the Gospel, living out the direction of Christ.

“All poor people are discriminated against and all poor people face structural oppression in a variety of ways and experience isolation in a variety of ways, but the refugee community has the added difference of language and cultural barriers, plus trauma due to being survivors of war,” Merchant said.

“Anybody who has to deal with bureaucratic systems suffers oppression. When you add to it the sheer enormity of the communication and comprehension obstacles, plus the fact that you and your children have lost everything you had and all your connections to family and friends, because of wars that we often have some responsibility for in the United States … if you’re a church that believes in fighting and struggling to end the causes of war, then working with refugees is a very good place to start.”

Heckler said his involvement as a tutor transformed his life from a focus “on personal achievement and earning money … from climbing, climbing, and never feeling like anything was enough – to now feeling my life is filled to overflowing.”

Witnessing change sparks personal transformation. “You’re able to do things to help and to see the impact of that. Somebody successfully got a driver’s license. A girl who came to the U.S. with only a second-grade math level, tests at two grade levels above where she had been.

“She had been abused … told she was stupid and made to sit in a corner. She was a member of an ethnic minority and belittled because of that, but when she realized she could do it, could do math … to see that, it meant far more than anything I ever bought.”

Before his volunteer experiences, Heckler said he worried about things like “a dent in the car, an unexpected bill, a stain on a piece of clothing.”

But now, “those things melt away. What you also realize is, you’ve been fortunate to live a life where you feel like you’ve seen God’s love at work in your life. You realize that the biggest thing God wants all of us to do is to share that love with other people.”

Christmas is an especially meaningful time to consider getting involved, he added. “As we think about new beginnings and the arrival of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus for us, it seems such a small thing to show our appreciation by sacrificing some of our time to help others.”

The Rev. Geoffrey Hoare, All Saints’ rector, said that while the Christmas party engages the parish and offers opportunities “to give in a way that is specific and meaningful … the goal of the ministry is really connection and friendship, based on what the refugees need more than anything else. We seek to offer – in addition to the standard resettlement things – friendship.”

He hopes the party will help to raise awareness of the plight of refugees. “Being strangers in a strange land resonates very much for me and for people here and I’m sure one can connect that with the holy family going off to Egypt,” he said.

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

Resources for education and response

  • The most recent updates from Episcopal Relief & Development about its response to the refugee crisis, as well as ways to donate, are available here.
  • Episcopal Migration Ministries, the refugee resettlement service of The Episcopal Church, works with local resettlement partners, congregations, and individual volunteers, to welcome refugees to the United States from the world’s most war-torn places.

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