The Church and Refugees: Better Together

The waiting room of the Health Department is crowded as Rajaa, Sarah, and I make our way to the back of the building. We’re lucky we have an appointment today. Mondays are always busy. We find the correct room and are greeted by the smiling nurses, who are instantly taken with Sarah’s bright eyes and chubby baby cheeks.

“Come in, come in. We’ve been waiting for you,” the nurse says, motioning to two chairs in the corner of the cramped office.

baby hand holdFor the next hour, I alternate between taking thorough notes and distracting the baby when she starts to get restless in Rajaa’s arms. My long gold necklace doubles as a baby toy in a pinch. Rajaa listens intently to the translator’s voice on the speakerphone as she explains the nurse’s instructions.

When we finally get up to leave, Rajaa thanks the nurses for their help and exchanges hugs and cheek kisses with the women. I know the look on their faces well. They’ve only known Rajaa and Sarah for an hour, but they’re already smitten.

Rajaa and her family moved to our town three months ago from Jordan. Three years ago they fled from Syria, refugees of a war that still rages today. The war the family fled from has displaced more than 6 million people, creating a crisis that continues to grab international headlines.

As images of desperation flashed across our television screens and Facebook feeds last year, our church felt God calling us to welcome a Syrian refugee family to Gainesville. We couldn’t end the war, but we could help them make a new home here.

This summer we began a partnership with World Relief in Atlanta, a faith-based non-profit that works with churches to resettle refugees. When they asked us if we could help resettle a Syrian family of five with two weeks’ notice, we took a deep breath, sent up a few prayers, and said yes.

We didn’t have an apartment, furnishings, or a clue what we were doing, but God didn’t need experts. God needed people willing to say yes. Now, as Rajaa and I laugh on our way back to the car, I can’t imagine a universe where we said no.

Resettlement is slow, hard work for everyone involved. Refugees’ lives may no longer be in danger when they set foot on U.S. soil, but they still have challenges ahead of them. They have to find affordable housing and food. They need jobs and transportation to get to those jobs. If they have kids, they have to get them signed up for school. They get sick and need to go to the doctor. Refugees have the same needs as everyone else, but they have to meet them while learning a new language and how to navigate a different culture.

When our church said yes to this Syrian family, we weren’t just making a financial commitment. We made a time commitment. We said yes to doctor’s visits and English as a Second Language lessons. We said yes to teaching the family how to navigate the American school system. We said yes to job applications and finding affordable housing.

Most importantly, we said yes to God’s call to deep love for our neighbor. That love extends beyond any help we offer them into genuine, two-way friendship. We’ve shared meals around each other’s tables. We’ve gone to parks and on boat rides together. Our kids play together. We share stories about family and home.

None of us could have anticipated how quickly Rajaa and her family would become like members of our own family. On paper, an Arabic-speaking, Syrian Muslim refugee family doesn’t have much in common with a group of English-speaking American Baptists. The more time we spend with this family, the less insurmountable these differences seem. Instead of fearing what makes us different, we learn from each other. We’re teaching them how to navigate American culture, and they’re teaching us about hospitality. We’re teaching them English, and they’re teaching us about hope and courage. We’re teaching each other that life’s challenges are better faced together than alone.

Rajaa finishes buckling the baby into her car seat, and I back the car slowly out of our parking space. “Doctor good? Rajaa happy?” I ask, glancing in my rearview mirror.

“Yes, thank you,” Rajaa says with a smile. “Everything good.”

“Good,” I say as pull out onto the highway. We don’t know what challenges the rest of the day or even tomorrow will bring, but we know that whatever waits for us around the corner, we’ll figure it out together.

rachel-freeny_smRachel Freeny is a recent graduate of McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. She has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from Samford University. Currently, she serves as the Lilly Pastoral Resident at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Georgia and the Vice President of Communications for Baptist Women in Ministry of Georgia.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email