Befriending the Bewildered
Practical Ways to Serve Refugees
By Marti Wade
We asked Sylvia, a Pioneer who works with refugees in the US, what life is like for the women. “Back in the Middle East, they have a social network,” she responds. “Their sisters, mothers, and friends all live close. Here they are isolated in apartments where they don’t know anyone, just sitting indoors just being depressed! Relationships are huge in addressing that.”
Pretty much everyone struggles with depression, Sylvia explains. “Homesickness is some of it. We know what that’s like from living overseas ourselves. But it’s multiplied way out, when you think about it, for refugees. I mean, when we were overseas we had people praying for us and excited about what we were doing, and felt God wanted us to go, and in the back of our minds, we knew we could always quit and come home. But it was still really hard!”
Her refugee friends have none of those advantages. “They don’t want to come here! They lose family, and a lot of them are mid-career and lose that. They are dealing with a lot of trauma. They are worried about people back there but have no home to go back to. Here it is raining all the time and they are in a little apartment and don’t even know their neighbors.”
As a result, “If I just go and spend a couple of hours with a woman, even with a language barrier… a couple hours drinking tea, that’s the social moment she really needed. Small thing, you think. But it can be really big to someone.”
She also finds that many of her friends are bewildered by a lot of things in America. Just having someone they can ask “What does this mean?” can be a huge comfort. She recommends trying to walk alongside people and asking questions about what’s going on in their life and what they are facing right now. “As they get to know and trust you, make yourself available,” she adds. Even after years in the country, when many may be well settled in and thriving, they still have questions and may need a helping hand or listening ear.
Sylvia’s husband John comes alongside men and others them friendship and help. “Relationships with men may mean helping them buy a car and get established,” he says. “Their lives have been upended; you’re helping them land on their feet.”
John has noticed that the men he works with also tend to be more social than American men. “They like to do things in groups, in groups of guys. Some of them like to go fishing. I don’t fish, but I’m trying to connect guys in my church who fish with refugee men who want to fish. I started taking guys bowling. They really like that. In the spring we do a lot of outings with families to show them how beautiful their new home is!”
Some service opportunities are seasonal. “Starting in January I do taxes,” says John. “I probably did 13 people’s taxes this year. Mostly their taxes are pretty simple and they qualify for the free version of the tax software. You just sit next to them and help them understand the questions and file.”
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