GREENVILLE, S.C. (BP)–Kurdish refugees seeking a fresh start in the United States are finding an abundance of aid and support from many Southern Baptist churches who have made a commitment to be their sponsors. In the process, they are being introduced to Jesus Christ by testimony and example.
In South Carolina, for instance, seven churches are sponsoring 10 Kurdish families and several single men. Most of the churches are sponsoring one family each, helping the family adjust to their new culture.
The churches provided minimal housing for at least the first 30 days and have assisted with necessary medical care, transportation and paperwork that accompanies applying for Medicaid, Social Security cards and food stamps. With a goal of the Kurdish families becoming self-sufficient, church members also familiarized refugees with the area, helped them find employment, accompanied them to the bank and the grocery store and enrolled the children in school.
In addition to providing for basic needs of the refugees, Augusta Road Baptist Church, Greenville, held ESL (English as a Second Language) classes in their building for all the Kurdish refugees in the area; First Baptist Church, Taylors, held classes five days a week during the summer for six Kurdish children in order to prepare them for school in the fall; and Fork Shoals Baptist Church, Pelzer, sponsored four families.
The North American Mission Board helps coordinate refugee resettlement — including the families in South Carolina — through one of several national agencies that have contracted with the federal government to oversee the resettlement. In addition to the South Carolina families, NAMB also follows up on Kurdish refugees sponsored by five churches in Georgia and Texas and hundreds of other refugees from other parts of the world. A number of other Southern Baptist churches also sponsor Kurdish refugees coordinated through other nonprofit resettlement agencies that do not work directly with NAMB.
Donoso Escobar, immigration ministries specialist for NAMB, said refugee resettlement is an important part of the board’s evangelistic imperative. From January through August of this year, his office has helped find sponsors for 412 refugees of many nationalities. They come to the United States — as future citizens — at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives, he said.
“My question is, what type of influences are these vulnerable people going to receive?” Escobar said. “Wouldn’t it be best to receive the influence of a Christian-minded individual of faith, and God’s church. … And then they see the love of Christ. That’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Escobar noted history has shown the value of ministry to refugees. “From refugee resettlements that we did very heavily in the ’70s and in the early ’80s, you can see hundreds and hundreds of ethnic congregations,” he said. “… And now these churches are sponsoring themselves people who can come here and listen to the message in their own language.”
Jill Johnson, the area coordinator for Lutheran Family Services, the resettlement agency affiliate in the Carolinas, praised the level of commitment from the Baptist churches. “When we look for churches to sponsor refugees, we don’t expect all of this. … These churches have gone well beyond the call of duty in helping these Kurdish families begin life anew.”
The agency provided participants from the seven Baptist churches with training and assistance for their new roles as refugee sponsors. Additionally, the agency — with the help of NAMB — was responsible for linking the Kurdish families with their respective churches and for following up on their progress.
In all cases, the Kurds first came to America with few possessions, other than the clothes on their backs. Originally from northern Iraq, they had to flee their homeland because of their involvement with American organizations which were working in Iraq. Death threats from Saddam Hussein’s forces led to their transfer to Guam, where they stayed in refugee camps. They were only able to leave Guam after being connected with American sponsors.
Living arrangements vary for each Kurdish family, but most reside in apartments, trailers or missionary homes. Some of the Baptist churches also have donated automobiles for the families’ use.
Carroll LeGrand of Augusta Road Baptist Church said, “We have obligated ourselves to help them as much as we can without allowing them to become so accustomed to our help that they won’t work themselves.” Most of the Kurds long to support themselves independently, he said.
Yaseen Aziz, a refugee sponsored by Washington Baptist Church, Pelzer, said, “We are starting from nothing. That makes it difficult. We don’t know the customs, the language, how to get things … . Everything is difficult. Everything has changed. … It takes a long time, but step by step you get somewhere.”
Jamal Saleem, a refugee sponsored by First Baptist, Taylors, voiced gratitude for all that the congregation has done for him and his family. “The church is very, very nice,” he said. “I will be forever grateful.”
Although the Kurdish refugees are the ones receiving the assistance, many of the sponsors themselves said they also have benefited from the experience. Nell Huff, a member of Washington Baptist Church who has played a large part in helping the Aziz family, said, “I think they’ve probably been more of a blessing to us than we’ve been to them.”
Lois Creekmore of Cedar Shoals Baptist Church, Belton, said, “It’s been a blessing. I’ve learned to deny self — and you have to deny self, since everything has to be done for them.”
Cathy Daniels, who is involved with the sponsorship of refugees by Brushy Creek Baptist Church, Taylors, said, “I wouldn’t give anything for this experience. … I feel like God led me toward this.”
Despite their Muslim background, a few of the refugee families have chosen to attend some of the worship services or programs held at their sponsoring churches. In all cases, refugees have been exposed to Christ and his gospel through relationships with their sponsors.
“I really believe that God has brought them here to hear the truth about Jesus,” Suzanne Barton of Taylors First Baptist said of the family her church is sponsoring. “… You never know — they may be the ones to reach other Kurds with the gospel.”