Christians and Jews alike love the story of Esther, her unlikely path to be queen of Persia at a time when King Ahasuerus ruled the known world, and her brave defense of her people when challenged by Mordecai. Not only do we love the story, but we take Mordecai’s wisdom to heart personally, and sometimes consider it to be our own: “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14b NIV)
What if I am called to this ministry/role/position/job/relationship… for such a time as this? I’ve thought that at various points in my life. Perhaps you have too. But what is the context of this story? What if it does actually apply to us today, but differently than we think?
If we reexamine the historical context, the Jews had been in exile, forcibly displaced migrants across borders (modern day stateless refugees and asylees). In the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, many returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and resume their national identity. But not all did. For many reasons, some remained displaced. Migration is arduous. Still today we see people trudging by foot for weeks in search of safety. Some are simply unable to make the journey and the known risks of staying are preferred over the unknown risks of running or even returning. Certainly the situation in Esther’s time was similar, if not worse.
So we find a sizeable population of immigrant Jews still in the land of Persia when Ahasuerus (Xerxes in some translations) is King. They are sojourners, temporary residents, foreigners or aliens without the rights of citizens. And Esther is introduced additionally as an orphan in the care of her older cousin Mordecai.
We know the story: The King is holding days and days of feast-filled celebrations and Queen Vashti refuses his request to come to the party. She is stripped of her title, and a search for a new queen is underway. Esther gets swept up in this and finally emerges as the ideal candidate. But Esther had a secret: she was not a citizen. “Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known.” (Esther 2:10) She was advised to keep her immigrant status hidden. This isn’t stated just once, but reinforced again after she is Queen (Esther 2:20).
The plot thickens, when Haman is promoted as the second highest authority in the land. Haman loved the title, prestige and attention this demanded. But when Mordecai would not bow down to him as had been commanded by the king (thereby breaking a law), Haman was infuriated. When he discovered Mordecai was an immigrant, this fueled his nationalistic pride and Haman devised a plan to not only punish Mordecai but all the Jewish immigrants inside the land. We see Haman lobbying for genocide, and the king doesn’t think twice about the horrific counsel. He entrusts the decisions to Haman, offering his ring (Esther 3).
Imagine the fear among the immigrant community as they heard rumors about what would happen, rumors about being asked their status, imagining the racial profiling that would have to take place to determine if a person was an immigrant Jew or looked like a Jew?
We find Mordecai sending word to Esther, telling her why there was so much fear and anguish, and he asks her to please speak up, to please reveal her identity as an immigrant and to plead with the King for her people. But her first response is fear, of being unwilling to take that risk because what might happen to her (Esther 4:11).
When Mordecai hears this, he urges her to reconsider:
Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? Esther 4:13-14 (ESV)
Esther listened. And she understood God had given her royal position and responsibility to act. So she gave instructions to pray and fast. She educated her inner circle of influence, her court, about the realities for the immigrant community, instructed them to pray and fast as well, and then she took steps to advocate on their behalf.
We know the rest of the story. The King heard her counsel and softened, sentenced Haman, but rather than changing the law, he allowed the immigrants to defend themselves when it came time to arresting them and exterminating them. She had served her immigrant community. And while we see no mention of God anywhere in this book, we know that citizens were so moved by the prayer, fasting and bravery of the immigrant Jews that “many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them.” (Esther 8:12b). She evangelized, making her God and her faith known.
Fast-forward to modern times, and as a Christian I believe I have a different type of royal position. I read Romans 8:15-17 and 1 John 3:1 and see myself as having unbelievable worth and identity as a child of God. But I also see great responsibility with that identity, as indicated in 1 John 3:16-18 and Proverbs 31:8-9. I must speak up and I must also put love in action.
When I look at the book of Esther I see too many parallels to today: I see refugees globally seeking refuge, running from oppression but bearing further suffering as they remain stateless while the world watches. I see fear among people in my community being racially profiled for the color of their skin and asked to reveal their immigrant status. I see politicians at every level listening to nationalistic, fear-filled counsel. I see a Christian and faith community not taking time to listen to vulnerable immigrants, not taking time to learn why they have fled for their lives and risked crossing borders in order to survive. I see us post things on social media like “take the doors or walls down at your house and see what that feels like,” as if anyone who shows compassion to the most vulnerable immigrants is uncaring about national security.
Simultaneously I see Jesus taking all the instruction of the Old Testament regarding welcoming, loving, caring for, and not oppressing the poor, widow, orphan and foreigner/sojourner, and bringing it into the light of Who He was revealing God to be.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:34-40
Jesus doesn’t qualify how anyone became hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison. He doesn’t elevate one position of brokenness and need over another. He is reminding us that as His children, we have royal position to collectively comfort all of these who are longing for His compassion and mercy. And He says we will meet Him when we love the least of these, we will actually serve Him in the process.
There is one other place that quickly comes to mind when I see someone knocking, and it is Jesus, just as pictured above in Matthew 25. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Just verses earlier he warns the church of being neither cold nor hot, but sitting on the fence of indifference.
I challenge my brothers and sisters of royal position to understand we cannot be lukewarm. We cannot sit in perceived comfort when God has called us to something different. There is a time to speak up – in our families, in our friendships, in our churches, in our government – and that time is now. Join us.
Karen Spencer is the Church & Community Engagement Manager for World Relief Memphis. An immigrant, a student of the Bible, a world-traveler, a wife and mother, she connects the dots between the beautiful people she has met the world over and the Biblical call to love them. Contact Karen at email@example.com.
"If You Plant Early, You Harvest Early"
The first son of a large family, Dawood’s father raised him implementing the Afghan Proverb that "if you plant early, you harvest early." Dawood apprenticed in his father's trade and was entrusted early with responsibilities in his father's store. He married young, grew the family business, had children, went back to finish school, and started studying English. Following carefully laid plans, his life was on track: he was beginning to harvest early.
But new conflict and war came to Afghanistan. Dawood’s business suffered and the harvest was no longer abundant. In order to provide for his family, Dawood took a risky job translating for the Coalition Forces. His careful plans to study English proved beneficial, even though those years were fraught with uncertainty. As time went on, it became evident that his family’s safety was precarious. He learned his job with the Coalition Forces made them eligible to apply for resettlement in the United States, so once again, they began making plans. It took two years for all the paperwork, background checks, medical checks, and security clearances to be completed, but Dawood and his family were relieved to receive their visas to relocate to the USA, to Memphis.
Dawood knew before moving to the United States that America is the land of opportunity and that if he worked hard, they would make it. He remembers the night they arrived in June 2014; they were greeted by World Relief caseworkers, volunteers and new neighbors, all welcoming them. As modeled by his father, Dawood immediately began planting seeds to succeed in the United States. Step one was to support himself and his family financially. He started working full time in a warehouse loading trucks. Although he had skills to do so much more, he understood finding your first job in the United States is not easy and he was determined to do whatever required. Not long after he began working, Dawood had to have major surgery. Even though it was a setback, he sees it as a blessing that he was in the United States when he got sick and was able to receive medical care. Back home it would have gone untreated.
Once Dawood recovered, he began "planting" and working again. He found full-time employment at another warehouse and took on another part-time job. Soon he was able to progress to step two: buying a house. After living in America for only two and a half years, Dawood and his family began to harvest from their plans and hard work. “We have experienced a better life here compared to Afghanistan. For example, our kids are in schools, we own a house, we got our rights, we have vehicles, all positive things that have happened. I am living the American dream. I never thought I could become a homeowner in two years!”
Dawood is continually motivated by his family. “Every parent hopes for their children to get an education, go to college, get a good job. My dream is for them to go to college and get a major that lets them serve the United States and Afghanistan.” He is teaching them to plant early for their future and prays that war does not disrupt their harvest. Dawood has also decided to return to school to complete his bachelor's' degree. He knows education is important and is applying what he is teaching his children to himself.
Before arriving in the United States, Dawood was afraid that he would not be able to worship freely here, that it would be challenging to be an immigrant and begin a new life with his family. But resettling in the U.S. was a blessing they never imagined possible. With help from World Relief, intentional planning, planting and hard work, they have adjusted well to life in the U.S. and this new culture - including new freedoms - discovering a community filled with friendship and love. Their journey has been long. Things did not all go as planned, but he and his family are thriving in this new place. They have been able to worship freely and Dawood’s family never take their new freedom for granted. “Freedom is a gift of God for humans,” he reflects. And only four years after setting foot on American soil, his family is harvesting early.
Catherine Gross, World Relief Memphis
Photos by Emily Frazier Creative
June is Refugee Awareness Month and Immigrant Heritage Month. As we share stories about our newest residents in Memphis, help us welcome refugees and immigrants by joining us as an Advocate. Learn more at bit.ly/WRMAdv6.
“What is friendship to you?”
Tigi looks at me for a moment while she thinks about the answer. She seems anxious that she may not be able to express herself fully in English, but she finds the right words.
“Friendship means helping each other when it is good news or bad news. [It means] sharing with your friends, and helping them. Even when there is nothing else to do, you can pray for your friend.”
Tigi has lived in the U.S. for almost three years now. Her husband has a steady job, they have had a baby here, and she is eager to start working again herself. They are involved in a small church with other Africans in the city. Tigi and her family have been building a joyful, humble life for themselves here. It took many people to help them get to where they are today. One of these people is Tigi’s friend Joy.
“I loved Joy on the first day [that I met her].”
Joy didn’t know what exactly to expect the first time she met Tigi and her family. She’d had experience volunteering with foreign-born people, and she knew she loved being around people from other cultures, but being a part of a Good Neighbor team was a bigger commitment. After hearing about World Relief while at her church’s missions conference, Joy said that “the seed was planted. I knew God was calling me to reach the world in Memphis.” Joy was at the airport when Tigi and her family landed in the U.S.
“The first thing I remember about meeting Tigi and her husband is that their smiles were just contagious. I started going to their house once a week to practice English, and they just welcomed me and my family right into their home.”
Joy and Tigi’s relationship grew over time. Soon, they were doing more together than practicing English. Joy recounts some of the fun things they’ve done together: “One time, we took Tigi’s family out for smoothies, which they thought were too sweet. But we also introduced them to Chick-fil-A, which they like a lot!”
It took time for Joy and Tigi’s friendship to grow, though. In addition to the language barrier, they faced other challenges. Tigi remembers when they first arrived in America, before she began staying home with her daughter: “At first, I was working and pregnant, and Joy came to my house. I worked night and she worked in the day, so it was hard to see each other. But it got better when I stopped working. She always asked how I was and how the baby was.”
For Joy, it has been hard at times to relate to Tigi and her experience: “One time, a few months into our relationship, Tigi was upset because she hadn’t gotten to talk to her mom in a long time, who isn’t in America. Before that, I didn’t realize how much she had truly left behind.”
But despite challenges in their unlikely friendship, Tigi and Joy and their families grew closer. They celebrated holidays together. Joy’s own mother was in the delivery room when Tigi delivered her child, which earned Joy’s mom the affectionate nickname “The Doctor” from Tigi and her husband Ibisa. Joy’s dad taught Ibisa how to drive. And the learning has been mutual, according to Joy. “I have learned a lot from them, especially about resilience, joy, and their love for the Lord.” When I asked her what her favorite thing about Joy is, Tigi said, “She likes all my food, which makes me feel loved.”
But the most inspiring part of Tigi and Joy’s story is what happened when Joy got married. In May 2017, Joy and Tigi had known each other for a year and a half, and Joy was deciding who she would invite to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. “I asked myself, ‘Who am I closest to? Which relationships in my life are flourishing?’ It wasn’t even a question, of course I had to ask Tigi!”
To ask Tigi to be in her wedding, Joy gave her a set of earrings shaped like little knots, with a card that said, “Will you help me tie the knot?” which Joy soon learned was an American idiom. “I had to explain what ‘tie the knot’ meant, but once Tigi understood what I was asking, she agreed and was very excited.”
It was Tigi’s first American wedding, and it did not disappoint: “It was very pretty, and I liked my dress. It was mostly the same as an Ethiopian wedding, but it was different because there was no dancing. That is okay, because sometimes there is too much dancing in Africa!”
When Joy first signed up to volunteer with World Relief, she wasn’t expecting to meet one of her future bridesmaids, and when Tigi was assigned to come to America with her family, she probably wasn’t expecting to be in an American wedding so soon. But their story is a testament to the amazing things that can happen when people are willing to get out of their comfort zone and come alongside the vulnerable.
Both Joy and Tigi had words of advice to anyone who might be hesitant to volunteer with refugees. Tigi said, “If it was me, meeting someone from a new place, and a new culture, I would be scared. Joy wasn’t. So don’t be scared. They [refugees] are the same as you. Maybe they have a different culture, language, or color, but that is a gift from God.”
Joy said, “I would say to them [someone fearful of volunteering] that God’s heart is for the nations. It is a mutual learning experience, but refugees are very gracious. They are friends. This whole thing has been a beautiful surprise, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Tigi is family now.”
By Noah Rinehart, Rhodes College Bonner Scholar Intern
In honor of Volunteer Appreciation Week we have been sharing a series of inspiring stories, capturing how are volunteers and immigrant friends together are #loveinaction. If you would like to learn more about volunteering with World Relief, email our Volunteer Coordinator firstname.lastname@example.org.
A New Name
“The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” Isaiah 62:2
As we enter Volunteer Appreciation Week, we are sharing inspiring stories of relationships between World Relief Memphis volunteers and our refugee and immigrant community. We're confident you'll agree with us, our volunteers are #LoveInAction!
When refugees first arrive at the airport, it is often after a long travel journey of several flights and multiple days. This would be enough to leave the average person weary. But for refugees, this is really the end of a much longer journey, that usually includes fleeing home at the point of death, waiting for years in an underfunded, overcrowded refugee camp, and then spending a minimum of eighteen months applying for resettlement to a Western nation like the United States. Bien Fait, one of our former clients at World Relief Memphis, remembers this feeling: “Our flight was two days, we were very tired, you know flying for two days, it was a very, very big issue, because we have taken five flights. All the people, my children, were tired. Myself, I was tired. My wife, was very tired. But when we reach the airport of Memphis, we say, ‘Thank you, God.’”
Finally arriving to the airport in their new city marks the end of long, arduous journey for refugee families, but the beginning of a new one to build a life in America. And that journey requires the help and commitment of people like Melissa Peeler.
Bien Fait remembers when he met Melissa for the first time: “We met with Melissa Peeler and Michael on August 24, 2016. She came there [the airport], she received us, she was introducing herself to us. She say, ‘I am Melissa Peeler, I will be your volunteer, to show you everything in America, until you will know about America. And I will never give up, I will be with you everyday, everytime. If you have some questions, if you need some help, call me.’” He also remembers being struck by such a strong statement from someone who he didn’t even know, telling us, “It was the first time to make friends with a white man, to know American people. When she was coming and saying, ‘I will be your volunteer, your friend,’ I was scared, thinking, ‘Why will this white man be my best friend, my volunteer? What is going on?’”
Melissa remembers that day in the airport, too, and how she felt meeting Bien Fait for the first time: “You know, I honestly do not remember saying those exact words to Bien Fait that night, but I absolutely remember thinking that to myself before I committed to being on a good neighbor team and ever knew his name. I knew this was going to be a pretty big ‘volunteer thing’ and I took it seriously...I think I was so overwhelmed seeing them walk off the plane so late that very first night, and was just overcome with the raw emotion of their circumstance and how young and unsure Josephine and Bien Fait and the kids were – and just wanting to say something reassuring to Bien Fait. My heart leaps at the thought that he remembers that I said something that translated to, ‘I was committed to him and his family’ that night.”
Melissa’s promise was not in vain. She taught Bien Fait and his family many things. He humorously recalled the first time that Melissa showed him how to use a slow cooker: “She said, ‘Because you are in America, you should learn how to cook American food!’ She came with a pot, that had power for cooking, and she put all the stuff in this pot, and she said, ‘You have to wait one hour and twenty minutes, and then the food will be ready and you can eat it!’ We said, ‘What?! In Africa, we don’t cook like this! In Africa, we cook on the fire, and you put the pot over the fire, we need to see that something is boiling. How do you cook like this?’ and she said, ‘This is a good way to cook in America! People will leave the pot, and then go to church, and when they come back, they find that the food is already cooked, and eat it.’ I said, ‘Okay!’ She showed us, and we tried to get experience to cook this food.”
Melissa remembers those first few weeks being marked by difficulty: “In the very beginning, we were very much a needed helper – a driver, an appointment maker and taker, a school registrar and uniform finder, for what seemed like more than a few pretty intense weeks...but the more time we spent with each other, the more comfortable we got with each other and things naturally grew into a genuine fondness for each other.” Eventually, Bien Fait’s family was celebrating holidays with the Peelers. “Melissa’s was the first American home to visit. She invited us there. We went there with my whole family. The first day was for Thanksgiving Day. She said, ‘Please, I need all of you to come to my house! Thanksgiving Day we have to share together!’ So we went there, she provided some very, very, very sweet food, very good food, which we shared together with Michael and the children. After that, she said, ‘If anyone has something he wants to tell, because it is Thanksgiving Day, we have to say something, to say thank you to God, for what He did for you.’ It was our first time [to celebrate Thanksgiving]; in Africa we didn’t know about Thanksgiving...This was the first time, we found this in America. It’s good, it’s good!”
Bien Fait’s family has learned much about American culture from Melissa, but the Peelers have also learned a lot. “There are more small and medium things than I could ever say, but two of the most important things I've learned from the Mfaume's is Faithfulness and Resilience. If you had asked me two years ago if I really understood what those words meant and if I had those qualities I would have honestly told you I did! I felt very faithful and comfortable in my faith walk and had overcome enough difficulties at the time to say I had built up quite a resiliency. MY WORD...it's honestly laughable as I say that now, knowing the depths of the Faithfulness and Resiliency the Mfaume's have. The devout trust and faithfulness the Mfaume's have in God and his control in their lives is inspiring. I mean like big “I” Inspirational. They are grateful for every little blessing in their lives and talk about that openly and intentionally. They honestly put and continue to put their future in God's hands daily. The patriarch of the family, Patient, had endured a pretty gruesome war injury and lost an eye that caused him terrible headaches and shooting pains down his neck. I never knew how much it hurt him until I accompanied him to the surgery consultation about repairing it. With the help of a translator, I learned the story of the ambush and fleeing with his young family and all the difficulties and pain the eye injury had caused and continued to cause him. But I never knew Patient without a smile on his face; he was the gentlest husband and father and walked around enduring this horrific physical pain without whining about it or even mentioning it for six months. The day of his surgery, I realized that Patient didn't really understand how unlikely it was that any of the things one the waivers he signed (saying all the possible complications that could result, including death) might actually happen. Just as he was being rolled back to surgery he asked if he could take just a moment and pray! It was a long and beautiful prayer we had translated. He asked for blessings on all the doctors and nurses in the hospital, and he thanked everyone there and prayed for me and his family, and that God's will be done with his life--as in, if he didn't make it through the surgery, that I would keep helping his family and that God would take care of them. It was so incredibly moving! There was not a dry eye in pre-op that day at Regional One, I can tell you for sure. I promise it was the dearest prayer I have ever heard in my life! That's faithfulness and resilience all rolled into one story and that's one example of hundreds I've witnessed with refugees.”
Volunteers are crucial to the work that World Relief does. Bien Fait reflected on how differently things might have turned out without Melissa: “My life was very difficult without Melissa. When my wife was pregnant, she did a lot for us. Each appointment, she came and took my wife to these appointments. I work, so she was by herself here. If she had a problem, who was she going to call? I would call Melissa, she would come quickly and take care of her. Without Melissa, my life would be very difficult in America.”
Bien Fait was so moved by his relationship with Melissa and her family that he decided to name his newborn daughter Melissa, in honor of his first American friend. He told us, “Because of the mercy she showed to my family, I say, ‘I have to give your name to my little baby. When they went to the hospital for the ultrasound, they said she would bear a baby girl. The same day, I said her name would be Melissa. To show to her how much we love her. How much we say thank you for the things she has done for us. Some people in my family, they ask, ‘Why did you call your daughter Melissa? What does it mean?’ I would say, ‘I did this because a woman with this name did many things for me when I was new to America. It was a white woman who did everything for me. She helped me with everything. For keeping this name in my mind, I will name my little baby Melissa.’ They say, ‘Okay.’ Because they need to know the meaning, and where this name came from. It is not a family name. It is a new name.”
Melissa remembers how she felt when Bien Fait told her of his decision. “I could not believe it, and I immediately burst out into tears and said it was just too much! I have to say, it's the greatest, sweetest honor I've ever received in my life. My three daughters are completely jealous and think that I love Baby Melissa the most now. I have to say she is really beautiful and the happiest little baby you've ever been around!”
Melissa and Bien Fait’s story is not necessarily typical, but it is a testament to the life-changing possibilities that emerge when people are willing to get out of their comfort zone and love someone who is very different than themselves. We asked Melissa and Bien Fait what they might say to someone who is unsure about refugees in America.
Bief Fait said, “American people have to leave this idea [being fearful of refugees]. Because, if you need to live better in a new country, you have to meet with the people who live in this country. Because those people, they will teach you how they live in their country. If they leave you, you will be everyday afraid of the rules, afraid of the new laws, but we meet with American people, and they need to be our friends. Because they know how to teach people about culture, and rules, and the laws, and when they teach you, you will be able to live without being afraid of anything. They have to come to help the African families, because we need them. We need to be with them. If they leave us, they do wrong. If the people say, ‘We cannot meet with an African family,’ we have to pray for them. Because that is not Christian. When a Christian sees someone who needs help, he has to help, without seeing the color, without seeing where this person is coming from, because the Bible says we have to help each one, without thinking about the race or the color.”
Melissa responded as well, saying, “First and foremost, STAY INFORMED and understand the truth about the refugee crisis in the world, and arm yourself with actual facts to proactively share with others or if you hear or read misinformation! Get on e-mail lists and advocacy texts, and follow refugee agencies on social media to keep up with current events and know what and who to PRAY for. Go to a volunteer training at World Relief Memphis- even if you don't end up committing to a Good Neighbor team, there are lots of ways to donate money or goods or services that are greatly needed, as well. SHARE STORIES with others about what you know about refugees. It is almost impossible for even the most hardened folks to hate a maimed grandfather that fled his war-torn homeland and works from 3 in the afternoon until 11:00PM because no one else wants that shift and he just wants to feed his family and save enough money for his green card. There is SO much misinformation and misplaced distrust right now towards refugees. The truth and goodness of their stories deserve to be told, too!”
- By Noah Rinehart, Rhodes College, Bonner Scholar Intern
Photos by Emily Frazier Creative and Peeler family
As we approach Volunteer Appreciation Week in April, we are sharing inspiring stories of relationships between World Relief Memphis volunteers and our refugee and immigrant community. We’re confident you’ll agree with us, our volunteers are #LoveInAction!
If there was an award for most positively persistent volunteer, it might go to Julia Allen. At 92 years old, she is energetic, socially engaged, urgent about her desire to serve refugees in Memphis, and influentially persisted to see her plan to help them come to fruition.
Since the fall of 2017, Julia has volunteered with World Relief Memphis through organizing and leading a weekly English as a Second Language Class (ESL) for elderly refugees in her city. The class meets Wednesday afternoons and volunteer tutors are all fellow residents of her retirement community, Trezevant Manor. Julia was reminded about refugees in Memphis when someone from World Relief presented at her church. She recalled the joy she’d experienced in years past when she had volunteered with refugees, and she knew she wanted to help in some way again. She invited World Relief to speak at a luncheon at Trezevant Manor to ignite awareness in other residents as well; several expressed similar interest, but were curbed by lack of transportation to volunteer in World Relief’s traditional roles. “A lot of people in Trezevant want to be involved in service but have limited transportation,” Julia told us. But she was determined to help, wondering if somehow the refugees could come to Trezevant. “Karen from World Relief just made me care about the refugees. You know, when we talked, she said, ‘Maybe we can bring them here!’” An idea was born.
Julia and World Relief did find a way to bring refugees to Trezevant, and it has been a big success for both the residents of Trezevant and the refugee clients. Julia shared, “[One of] the really big things we’ve learned through this ESL class for these folks, [be]cause these are older folks...is they stay home. They’re the ones who babysit, they’re the ones who don’t know enough English to get out, so they stay home until their children can take them to the grocery, so they are housebound. So this is an outing, something they’re doing without their family. They’re coming together, and they love that.” World Relief staff can affirm this. Even after the very first class, one of the ESL students, content and smiling, said, “Today was a good day. I’m not alone.” Their new friends benefit from intentional, individual tutoring and the opportunity to practice English, often 2:1 volunteers to clients. “One of our men is 83, and he’s from Baghdad, and he can write a sentence! So he’s moving on big time, and we’re all excited about him! He’s our most enthusiastic…It’s just amazing at 83 to be so eager to learn...They all are so sweet, so appreciative.”
Julia spoke about other benefits she has seen. “I would like to think they are seeing some Americans who are friendly, warm, and helpful. They are excited to get out and see some of the world without somebody to lean on. They have become very friendly with each other. I think, and I hope, they feel that they’re making some progress.”
And the volunteers? “What we get out of it is immeasurable. It’s just a joy to live here and think that you’re doing something that is maybe beneficial to somebody else. You can get very isolated and self-centered here, and even happy, but not be contributing at all. And these people love what they’re doing.”
“Every time I visit the class at Trezevant, I feel it is a sacred space, I can’t really describe it any other way. These two groups of people together give me a glimpse of the Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven,” described Karissa Pletta, World Relief’s resettlement specialist responsible for Elders services.
Of course, the Elders’ ESL class hasn’t been without its challenges. Julia shared that she had to be selective about which residents to invite to volunteer with tutoring because of an experience with someone who vocalized not wanting to welcome refugees. “You know, when you’re only with people who are fearful, it’s really hard not to take on some of their fears,” Julia said. She also told us about her desire for this class to be more relational than transactional: “We don’t want it to be like, ‘We are the ones giving to you poor creatures!’ But instead, we are friends working together. And I think we’ve instilled that atmosphere.”
Their friendship was strengthened on a recent field trip to the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis. Aware of their nationally touring exhibit, African-Print Fashion Now, the volunteer tutors suggested the joint visit for a tour and tea. The museum provided guided visits to historic portions of the museum as well as fabulous docent-led focus on the fabric exhibit. The afternoon fostered continued community building.
When scheduling a time to meet with Julia outside of the ESL class, she said, “Well, you can’t come at 9, that’s my water aerobics class. Be here at 10!” In a few hours together, hardly a single person, resident or worker, passed us by without offering a “Hello, Miss Allen! Good morning, Miss Allen! How are you doing today, Miss Julia?” Clearly, Miss Julia is not your average 92 year old, and when we sat down to talk, she wasted no time getting to the point. She had a story to tell, and she was ready to tell it.
What inspired Miss Julia to go above and beyond in the way that she has for these refugees? In addition to being an active community member (“My children say, ‘Mother, you’re never in your room, we can’t ever get you on the telephone!’”), serving others has been a part of Miss Julia’s life for a long time. “I’ve done a lot of mission trips with my church. I thought I wanted to be a missionary until I met my husband. I’ve just always been drawn to serve in some way. When I was younger, I was very shy. When I was in college, it was during the war, they had a program at church asking volunteers to go into communities where they were short-handed, and they just didn’t have enough people to do things. So I went to Mobile, Alabama, that summer. That was the first time I really just reached out. I think it was a formative time for me because I got over being shy. And then, I just went from there, because I wasn’t happy if I wasn’t doing something that I felt was helping. But you know the receivers are yourself. I, too, was finding out that this means far more to me than it could possibly mean to a refugee. And that’s what brotherhood and service and all those things, that’s what that means.”
Once Miss Julia knew there was something she could do to help refugees integrate more successfully, her empathy moved her to action: “You start thinking about what would I do if I had to leave everything I own, even the members of my family, and leave, run away for safety, and go through the ordeal of the refugee camp, and wait, wait, wait? And then come to a place that is so entirely different from their experience, not knowing anybody, not knowing the language, running into all different ways of doing things. I just thought, what would I do if I had to go to Congo and learn Swahili?”
Miss Julia offered advice for anyone who is hesitant to get out of their comfort zone and come alongside refugees as they rebuild their lives in America: “We’re so aware of refugees in Memphis now in a way that we were not before. There is a desire to do what we can. I just have to believe that you’re gonna find some more people that would like to do this. And you have to have faith. Even [if you think], ‘I’ve never done this, and I don’t know if I can.’ You can! And the only way to find out if you can is if you do it.”
Miss Julia, thank you for inspiring us with your example. You model Love In Action.
By Noah Rinehart, Intern, World Relief Memphis
Photos by Emily J Frazier/Emily Frazier Creative for World Relief Memphis
Intern Stephen Sneed shares the powerful story of Marianna*, part of our #ThankGodForWomen series. We are grateful for her willingness to share, and hope that by telling it, we increase awareness of global hurdles that prevent many women and girls from living out the full potential God has placed within them. (*Names have been changed)
A native Filipino and wife of an Iraqi refugee, Marianna’s journey to Memphis is unique. Sacrificing her beloved childhood island home and dreams instead for steady employment that would financially provide for her parents and brothers, Marianna would work for many years before finding love and starting a family, only to be caught in the crosshairs of an immigration nightmare before finally finding happiness and freedom in the United States.
Originally from a small island and fishing community in the Philippines, Marianna is the fifth of eight children, but the only daughter. She recalls having a strong support system at home and speaks fondly of her parents and brothers as she describes early memories. She recalls her life in the Philippines as good, but very hard because of the lack of resources and job opportunities. Her mother was a street vendor, selling fish and crustaceans in order to buy the family’s food, which mainly consisted of rice. Her father, a farmer, struggled during many seasons of Marianna’s childhood when crops would refuse to grow.
Hard work, frugality, and education were valued by Marianna’s parents. Through careful savings over years of hard labor, they were able to send a couple of her older brothers to college. But by her high school graduation, no money was left, and she had to find a way to support herself and help her family. Opportunities as a domestic worker enticed her to contracts in Manila and eventually Cyprus. She would be responsible for cleaning, cooking, and acting as a full-time nanny for more prominent families.
Working and saving for four years in Manila followed by five years in Cyprus, the days were long yet her work ethic was unwavering. Upon each paycheck, Marianna would send the money she could spare back to her family. When informed of her younger brother’s college aspirations, she pushed aside hopes for her own education and continued to sacrificially send support. Due to her tireless efforts and his diligent studying, he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Extremely proud of him, Marianna is filled with gratitude when considering her role in helping him.
Away from her family and home for almost a decade, Marianna’s mother encouraged her to return home at the end of her contract. She enjoyed a restful reunion with her family for a couple of months before assessing the continued lack of employment opportunities at home, so she sought work abroad again. Through a connection with a relative in Lebanon, Marianna was granted documents for a domestic worker role similar to her jobs in Cyprus and Manila. She lived and worked with an employer family and transitioned well. However, at the end of her two year term, government regulations had changed: she could not renew her contract, nor had she earned enough money to return home.
A fellow Filipino woman compassionately provide Marianna with work at a Lebanese nail salon. This woman was more than just an employer to her, but a friend who fostered community: someone she considered to be family. During this new-found season of stability, Marianna met a man named Abdul* through the connection of a mutual friend. He was an Iraqi refugee who had fled Saddam Hussein’s army and escaped by foot to Syria. There he was granted refugee status with the UNHCR (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees) and temporarily resettled in Lebanon. What began as a slow friendship, visiting once a week for two years, allowed them to truly get to know one another and lead into their biggest adventure either had ever been a part of: marriage.
With love in her eyes, Marianna joyfully described her wedding day. She smiled as she spoke of her husband and what a good man he was. However, because they were both so far from home on their big day, Marianna and Abdul were the only ones in attendance. Rainy and cold that afternoon, Marianna nevertheless saw it as a blessing and she still dreams of her walk down the aisle in her white dress.
In 2015, two years after she married Abdul, Marianna gave birth to their son, David*. But tears welled up in Marianna’s eyes as she pressed forward in our conversation to describe a series of events full of trial and great difficulty.
During the years Marianna worked at the nail salon, the Lebanese government required differing detailed worker permits and documentation dependent upon the type of immigrant or refugee employment. Marianna’s status and documentation as the wife of a refugee was what she thought she needed in order to continue working in the salon. However, only five months after David was born, men from Lebanon’s Immigration Services arrived at the nail salon and informed her that her permit was not valid. Arrested and taken to jail, Marianna’s infant son was left behind in his crib at the shop.
She recounted her imprisonment through tears. Small and overcrowded, it offered no sunlight or fresh air due to its location under a bridge. Many of her fellow inmates were guilty of serious offenses. Marianna struggled to understand why she had been taken there. She desperately needed to be with her baby and above all, feared the possibility of being deported to the Philippines without her son and husband. She cried and prayed to God to reunite her with her family.
After 15 days, a representative from the UNHCR negotiated her release. Her prayers were answered: she was joyfully reunited with her family and returned to work with the proper paperwork. But soon Marianna learned that her father had fallen ill back in the Philippines. She needed her passport in order to visit him, but it had been confiscated when she was arrested! Marianna was advised that in order to retrieve her passport she would have to sign for it in person. Complying, she nervously returned, but instead of receiving her passport, prison authorities detained her again, this time with no reason or explanation. She suffered in prison another 15 days before the UNHCR could intervene. Tragically, her father passed away while she was detained and she missed his funeral. She felt as though her whole world had been flipped upside down. Relieved to be with her son and husband, she realized Lebanon was no longer the safe haven needed to raise a child and build a future. Abdul and Marianna urgently pursued permanent refugee resettlement.
In January 2017, Marianna, Abdul and David received the joyful news that they were finally granted permanent resettlement to the United States. World Relief Memphis greeted them with love and support for their early months of transition to their new home and new culture. During that same time, we paired them with a Good Neighbor Team, a small group of caring volunteers to walk alongside them in friendship and support. Together with World Relief, their Volunteers, and such a welcoming city, they are happy, healthy, and finally moving forward as a family.
Some milestones to celebrate in their first year in Memphis include Abdul’s job at a Memphis factory. He takes a few minutes of his lunch break to FaceTime with Marianna and David. Marianna passed her driver’s test after practicing daily with a new local Filipino friend. David is happy, healthy, and hungry to learn. English is spoken in their home, and he has learned his ABCs, counting to ten, and is quick to tell you what sound a horse makes. Seeing Marianna with David as he sleepily walks around their apartment in his Sponge Bob pajamas, it is incredibly touching to observe how devoted and caring a mother she is after having served so many other families as a nanny, and sending her money back to the Philippines to help her family survive. Now home with her own son, she provides David with encouragement and the deepest love. American flags and red, white and blue decorations grace their hospitable first American apartment, where tasty recipes are shared and delicious food is served to visitors. Marianna, content after so many years of hardship and fear, beams with joy. Now that she, Abdul, and David are settled in the U.S., they are happy…and they are free.
- by Stephen Sneed
After reading Marianna's story, can you identify the global giants she had to overcome? Some common obstacles for women and girls around the world include gender inequality, access to education, employment opportunities, and harmful belief systems - resulting in social, emotional, physical, and spiritual poverty.
Additionally, 22.5 million people have official refugee status due to persecution and conflict like Abdul. Less than 1% are approved for permanent resettlement in the U.S. and other countries.
Be part of welcoming them - and transforming communities at home and around the world. If you would like to learn more about Good Neighbor Teams or other ways to come alongside our refugee and immigrant community, please visit www.worldreliefmemphis.org/volunteer-opportunities
World Relief Memphis welcomed 390 guests Friday, November 10th, at our 5th annual benefit, A Night to Stand With the Nations. We were greatly encouraged by all who attended and participated as we celebrated hope-filled stories of social, economic and spiritual transformation in Memphis.
Emily Frazier's professional step into humanitarian photography was launched with our new photo exhibit, Images of Inspiration and Integration. (For information on how to host this World Relief exhibit as part of an awareness and action partnership with us, please contact Karen Spencer at email@example.com.)
The attentive crowd also experienced the first screening of Valley of the Children, our newest documentary short film in partnership with Pigeon Roost Collaborative. It will release more broadly online the week after Thanksgiving. Watch for more information soon!
We appreciate our speakers and the inspirational messages through music and testimonies.
Inspired, encouraged and hopeful for the future, we now join hearts and hands in prayer and in action as we step forward in faith toward our mission and vision in 2018 and beyond.
One late night in January, a crowd gathered at the Memphis airport with Ahmednur, a Somali refugee breathlessly awaiting reunification with his wife and children. Ahmednur had been forcibly displaced from his homeland as a child in 1991, spending the next 24 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia, where he eventually met and married his wife, a fellow Somali refugee. After a lifetime of waiting, Ahmednur received the incredible news of his approval for resettlement in the United States. The joy quickly turned to anxiety, however, because his wife (and therefore their children) had been registered as a separate case long before they met. He would have to go without them. The indefinite separation overwhelmed them, especially considering his wife was pregnant with their fourth child.
Shortly after his 2015 arrival in Memphis, Ahmednur learned from his World Relief case worker that our office also provided immigration legal services. He quickly sought assistance and we were able to file for family reunification, ensuring that his wife and children would eventually be resettled in Memphis. Fast forward to this cold night in January 2017, our airport group celebrated with warm hugs, tender tears, incessant chatter and laughter as we welcomed Ahmednur's family, launching their transition from seeking refuge to refuge found.
Little did we know that only a week later, their home country would be among those banned from entry to the US, a moratorium would be placed on refugees (including reunification), and 60,000 refugee arrivals would be slashed from the resettlement quota, making the line for families like Ahmednur's despairingly long. Even the newest Executive Order sadly lends additional discouragement by restarting the 120 day moratorium.
Memphis Welcomes Refugees
For nearly 40 years World Relief USA has welcomed people fleeing violence and persecution, most of whom are women and children. This is a critical time for refugees and we are witnesses to the greatest displacement of people the world has known.
Since our Memphis office opened in 2012, we have seen with joy hundreds of lives transformed, from refugee families like Ahmednur's reunited, to children attending school for the first time. Your gift will serve refugees who have recently come to the U.S.—helping them adjust to life in Memphis—and preserve our office's services and expertise until the refugee admissions flow increases again.
World Relief Memphis and the refugees we serve need your help
Please consider a Monthly or one-time gift of support to the following funds:
MEMPHIS GENERAL FUND: help us serve existing clients and prepare for future clients as we remove barriers to their self-sufficiency (such as rent, utilities, transportation), navigate cultural orientation, coordinate volunteers, oversee various eligibilities and service enrollments, connect employers with eager employees, educate-equip-empower churches and the community to be more welcoming to the vulnerable. GOAL: $48,000 ($18,000 will be matched by a grant 2:1)
IMMIGRATION LEGAL SERVICES: help us offer a variety of low-cost immigration services to refugees, asylees, and other immigrants. Our office is a recognized organization by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and our services are provided by a BIA Accredited Representative. GOAL: $50,000
Now more than ever your financial support is crucial to stand with the vulnerable in Memphis. Together let's lend hope for refuge found. Give online at bit.ly/SupportWRMemphis or by mailing your gift to World Relief Memphis, 3340 Poplar Ave Suite 222, Memphis, TN 38111.
I was typing an e-mail when he sat down beside me for the first time. He looked about 7 or 8 years old. He had large, dark eyes and a smile that somehow seemed both timid and unbound. Unimpressed that I would waste a computer screen on e-mail, he pulled out a paper spinner and proceeded to play and giggle. As opposed to the adult clients, he seemed unconscious of his limited English. In fact, my new friend was determined to have a conversation with me and the other intern.
We asked him where he was from. Asia. We asked him how long he had been in the United States. Eight months. We asked him who taught him to make the paper spinner—was it his dad? No. His dad had died. He laughed awkwardly, looked down, and continued playing.
Only later did I discover that his father had been assassinated. Men from an opposition political party wanted to destroy the father’s political influence and take his land. In the end, they attempted to kill the boy, too. Fleeing for their lives, he and his mother have sought asylum in the United States. Each time that I see him, I learn something new that complicates the simple image of a boy laughing and playing with a paper spinner.
After ten weeks of interning with World Relief, I have come to appreciate the stories that lie protected just beyond an introductory smile. Syrian refugees invite us into their homes and offer us food and coffee. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I drive a pair of Congolese brothers to work, and they talk about their favorite American music. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I take a young Nepali to buy a new car battery. He smiles. He laughs. He talks. All is well. Everyone seems so normal until they offer you a glimpse of their story. Then, you hear that their village had been bombed. Their mother and sisters had been raped. He had spent his entire life in the limbo of a refugee camp. All is not well.
This summer has taught me the discomfort of moving beyond initial smiles and polite conversations. (Such movement must be by invitation only—never by force or presumption.) To do so means relinquishing easy stereotypes and reductive explanations. It requires living in ambiguity. It involves grieving. It promises pain.
By all means, thank God for the smiles and the laughter, but do not misinterpret moments of joy and rest for a world of justice and righteousness. We must draw near to the oppressed and marginalized and to the wounded and scarred. We must crucify our comfort.* Then, we just might move beyond niceties and enter with our neighbors into the grave of grief. Only then can we rise with Christ. Only then will we understand resurrection.
-Mary Ellen Poe, 2016 Summer Intern
* I am speaking here to myself and to others who lead comfortable lives, to those who have the privilege of distance from poverty, abuse, exploitation, and other forms of social harm. This statement should never be used against those who are already oppressed for the purpose of reinforcing unhealthy systems of power. Those who already live in constant grief understand the implications of resurrection.