by A. VICTORIA HUNTER
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When four Portland, Oregon, churches decided to sponsor a Somali refugee family, they prepared for the long haul. The family -- Amina Sheikh Wele, 29; her husband, Ali Mukhtar Abba Adde, 36; and their six children, ages 13 to three months -- arrived at Portland International Airport Nov. 22, 1996, with one suitcase.
Some church people, along with two Somalis who could interpret, were there to greet the family. Another group of church people were at the familys new home, which theyd furnished and stocked with food.
The family had traveled 24 hours. Their starting time zone was 12 hours ahead of Portlands. Theyd been interviewed extensively by immigration officials before their long trip, which took them from Kenya, where theyd been in a refugee camp, to Amsterdam in the Netherlands to the United States.
The family had walked for two-and-a-half months from Somalia to Bombasa, Kenya, where they lived in a tent with other uprooted people. Food and water were hard to find. Water was available only between 5 and 8 a.m. There was enough to drink but not enough to wash. Their 7 month-old baby died.
When theyd left Somalia, there were dead people all around them including Aminas father who had been shot in the head. Their house had been bombed.
The family took all they had. Ali Mukhtar Abba Adde had been a merchant and an accountant by trade. He is a Muslim who once had three wives and a comfortable three-story house. He told his U.S. hosts hed thought his life was over until he arrived here.
Preparing for change
Kim Roach, a United Methodist Women member at Trinity United Methodist Church in Portland, helped the family resettle. She explained what it took to be prepared for the familys arrival.
The first step was for the four churches, which have a combined membership of about 500, to come together.
"We called the collective of Lincoln Street, Sunnyside Centennary, Laurelwood and Trinity United Methodist churches the common-cup churches," Ms. Roach said. "We had outings together before taking on this commitment."
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, a Church World Service affiliate agency, asked the common-cup churches to sponsor the Somali family. Church World Service coordinates resettlements by working through denominations that are members of the National Council of Church in Christ in the USA, including The United Methodist Church.
United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is the United Methodist agency that works with Church World Service to provide funding for resettlements and to coordinate work with affiliate agencies, which provide local coordination required by the federal government in recent years. A portion of UMCORs resettlement funding comes from United Methodist Womens undesignated giving.
UMCOR and the local affiliate agencies resource churches in how to deal with the challenges of resettlement.
Jean Vann, a United Methodist Women member of Laurelwood United Methodist Church, explained some of those challenges, which the Portland churches faced in sponsoring a family:
"There are all kinds of ups and downs and things dont always go smoothly. We would meet weekly or every other week to find out what we needed. We also had to find out the customary food they would like.
"We had to have beds for them and people had to keep furniture until somebody could pick it up when the family came."
Volunteers from the churches were divided into groups, Ms. Vann said. People worked acquiring food, clothing, furniture and transportation. Others found schools with resources to welcome students from outside the United States and English-as-a-Second-Language classes. And others coordinated utility hookups including turning on gas, lights and telephone.
The volunteers called upon the expertise of one of the churches pastors, the Rev. Dan Simmons, who had worked in refugee camps for six years.
"I learned a lot from this family," Ms. Vann said. "Their names change with each generation. The children have their paternal grandfathers first name as their last name. Their middle name is their fathers first name. Their first name is given. The woman does not change her name when she marries.
"Their culture shares a communal plate, and they dont use silverware," Ms. Vann added. "Their food was new to us. Our food was new to them. They still wear Somali clothes. We communicated a lot with gestures. And when we showed them how to use the washing machine, they pointed and laughed and giggled. They watched the clothes dry."
Ms. Roach also noted lifestyle changes for the famly:
"It was confusing for them to purchase groceries for a week. They had purchased food daily in Somalia. They especially missed saffron and goat meat."
The familys adjustment has been good, Ms. Vann said.
"The children are in a newcomers class," she said. "Their father is in a refugee resettlement school learning English."
Ms. Roach spent a lot of time with Amina.
"It was incredibly difficult teaching Amina English," she said. "Women dont go to school where shes from. She wasnt familiar with written language. She picked up the alphabet fairly easily. I used a lot of pictures. Shes doing fairly well."
The family faces difficulties because they have no health insurance, Ms. Vann said.
"The father thought he had malaria," she said. "Instead they found his blood sugar was very high."
Other problems facing the family are social, Ms. Roach said. "There is prejudice," she said. "And it is very cold. But they had television, video and radio in Somalia. The family attends Muslim services regularly."
Why would a congregation take on such a task? Helping a family through all these challenges is a big job.
"Their life was endangered through no fault of their own," Ms. Roach said. "I would want someone to help me if my life were endangered. They endured religious persecution and violation of their human rights. Our day-to-day trials are nothing compared to what they have had to deal with.
"If they went back, they would die. If they had stayed, they would have died. It is important to respect other peoples rights to be who they are. You cant expect everybody to be like you. We are all Gods children."
Bosnia to Austin, Texas
The Mahmutagic family from Bosnia, who arrived in Austin, Texas, in November 1997, is doing fine, said Margie Ratcliff, United Methodist Women member at Crestview United Methodist Church in Austin. The church sponsored the family.
"They are a success story," she said. "They are appreciative and hardworking."
The family of four includes parents, Sefik and Ivanka Mahmutagic, and two teenage sons, Harris, 16, and Damir, 11. All are studying English.
"Theyre trying to learn English all the time," Ms. Ratcliff said. "They watch Sesame Street and other television shows.
"Damir seems to have adjusted to his fifth-grade class and the school system. Harris plays soccer and has an after-school job at a grocery store."
The Rev. Pamela Hilpatrick, pastor of Crestview United Methodist Church, is chair of Southwest Texas Conferences refugee committee. The church had the help of the Austin Travis County Refugee Service, a Church World Service affiliate agency. Especially helpful was Dita Dowdy, a caseworker who could translate for the family.
"The family had to be in temporary housing for two weeks," Ms. Ratcliff said. "They helped move furniture into their permanent apartment."
The congregation provided furniture, kitchen items, and a washing machine and dryer.
"There was a big chart at the church," Ms. Ratcliff said. "People brought donations, and the United Methodist Men rented a truck. A lot of people worked together. It took time, money, furniture and goods to make this a success."
Church members got bus passes so the family could ride the city buses. They donated bikes and helmets for the boys. The youth group donated food for the Mahmutagics first Thanksgiving.
Ms. Dowdy helped Mr. Mahmutagic get a job working with refugees. He helps them get documents like Social-Security cards. Ms. Mahmutagic began work as a hotel housekeeper in February.
"We were a little dubious when Church World Service approached us about sponsoring a family," Ms. Ratcliff said. "But the Mahmutagics had to get out of the country."
The apartment complex in which the family lives is home to people from many countries who are related to the University of Texas or who work with Austin-based high-tech businesses.
Iraq to Reynoldsburg, Ohio
When Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, was asked to sponsor a refugee family, Maria and Hector Rodriguez volunteered to coordinate the resettlement of the Hawramani family from Iraq. They could empathize with the familys plight. In 1963, the Rodriguez as refugees from Cuba were sponsored for resettlement by Bexley United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio.
"Wed gone through that experience ourselves so we said yes when asked," Ms. Rodriguez said. "Coming here, we were scared. We couldnt speak English. We had two little children and no money. It was a new country. So many people helped us make the transition. We have friends from 30 years ago."
In the case of the Hawramani family, the 1,000-member congregation committed to pay three months rent. Other donations were also made.
The Hawramani family includes mother and father, Chro and Haris; girls ages four and six; and a boy, almost a year old. They arrived in Columbus, Ohio, which is about 15 miles from Reynoldsburg.
It was approximately three months from the invitation to sponsor a refugee family until the announcement they were arriving. The congregation had just a few days once they learned the familys actual arrival date.
"We had three days to prepare for their arrival," Ms. Rodriguez said. "During Sundays three services, our former pastor, the Rev. William Lyle, announced the Hawramanis were coming Tuesday," Ms. Rodriguez remembered. "After each service, people were asked what they could donate. In three or four hours, we got everything needed for the apartment. When they arrived Tuesday, everything was ready."
In fact, there were more donations than needed. People gave clothes, furniture and other items that the congregation shared with other immigrant families who didnt have sponsors.
"My husband and I are living through the Hawramanis," Ms. Rodriguez said. "It reminds me of what happened to us a long time ago. Being able to be here with the children is wonderful. Lots of families have to send their kids first and arent reunited for years."
A.Victoria Hunter is senior writer for Response.