by Laura Jervis, Dave Mammen and Nancy Muirhead
An estimated 5 million Syrians have fled their country since civil war erupted over five years ago. Here’s the story of six, and how one church was able to help them.
Mahmoud Abboud (at his request, we’re not using his real name), was a taxi driver in the Syrian city of Homs. After his house was destroyed, and Abboud witnessed the killing of many friends and neighbors, he was terrified for the lives of his wife and three young sons. So, in March of 2013, he paid smugglers to help his family relocate to Jordan. Here, three long years would pass while Abboud and his family were investigated and examined by refugee agencies associated with the United Nations, as well as by the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile, Andrew Stehlik, senior pastor at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City, forcefully challenged those of us sitting in the pews to join ecumenical efforts in aiding the worldwide problem of refugees. According to the U.N., a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Today, there are more than 60 million refugees worldwide.
Disturbed by the gravity of this global crisis, the congregation of Rutgers Presbyterian Church began donating money to organizations such as Church World Services (CWS), which helps arrange housing and support for displaced persons. When we learned from CWS that faith and community organizations can serve as co-sponsors that help a refugee family in the first few months after their arrival in the U.S., Rutgers agreed to assist the Abboud family.
What followed was a whirlwind of efforts by many dozens of people in the congregation. CWS arranged for a walk-up apartment in Jersey City, where the landlord (who lives downstairs) is Egyptian and speaks Arabic. This was an enormous help because none of the Abbouds spoke any English. Because this apartment was unfurnished, however, everything from furniture to bed linens needed to be found. Trying to imagine what would make them feel most at home, we made sure there was the Halal food they were accustomed to as Muslims, a few stuffed animal toys for the baby girl (born while the family was in Jordan) and soccer balls for the boys.
It was a cold, rainy night in March when the Abbouds arrived — after a long day of travel — from Jordan, but we gave them a warm welcome. Differences in language were a hindrance, yet their gratitude and relief upon entering the apartment was easy to translate — as was our congregation’s joy to have helped this long-beleaguered family find a new, safe home.
The first month was an intense period — both for the Abboud family and for Rutgers Presbyterian. Someone from the church was with them almost every day to accompany the family to a bewildering variety of offices to get social security cards, enroll in Medicaid, obtain food stamps and infant formula, and get medical exams and school vaccinations. A dedicated church member even began making twice-weekly visits to provide English lessons to the family. The Abbouds trusted us completely and would go wherever we asked, cautiously clutching a plastic bag full of their all-important identity papers.
Through it all, the three sons have kept their parents cheerful. Waiting in lines, they chatter away in Arabic, telling funny stories and making everyone laugh.
Without a doubt, there will be difficult times ahead for the Abbouds. But, they have food, shelter, clothing, school and — perhaps, most importantly — hope for the future.
As for the congregation at Rutgers Presbyterian, we are painfully aware our efforts are insignificant in light of a refugee crisis so vast, it’s estimated less than one percent of all refugees will be resettled in a new country. However, we also feel extremely blessed to have been given the opportunity and resources to help one family create a new reality, and we look forward to co-sponsoring another family soon.
Laura Jervis is parish associate, Dave Mammen is church administrator and Nancy Muirhead is a member of Rutgers Presbyterian Church.