Episcopal Migration Ministries: Offering hope and help to the most vulnerable

Two years ago, Episcopal Journal marked the 75th anniversary of Episcopal Migration Ministries by highlighting stories of former refugees now resettled in the United States, finding new hope and building productive lives. The Journal again offers several of these stories, along with new profiles.

a syrian kitchen

For Abdullatif Dalati, hospitality runs in the family. When he was a child, his father owned a restaurant in Syria, their home country. Dalati later took over ownership, eventually owning four restaurants in Aleppo and Alrka.

In 2014, Dalati, his wife Fatima and their six children fled Syria for Turkey. They applied for refugee status with the United Nations and requested resettlement through the U.S. State Department.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries, an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries, welcomed them to Louisville. Members of the Muslim Community Center joined with the affiliate to co-sponsor a team to support the family.

Before the Dalatis arrived, the team gathered furnishings and household items for their home, including lots of kitchenware for the former restaurant owner. In Kentucky, to find the ingredients they need for their traditional Syrian recipes, the family sometimes visits multiple grocery stores.

People are encouraging Dalati to open a Syrian restaurant in Louisville. “This is one of my goals,” Dalati said. “I need to be financially stable first.”

He has begun his first job in the United States, working full time at Ingram Micro, an electronics company. His third-shift hours allow him to help his family of eight.

Meanwhile, Dalati invites new friends to his home to share a meal. He cooked for more than 30 at a Syrian community gathering and prepared food for another event at the Westport Road Islamic Center. “Eastern food, Western food… I can prepare this! It is a victory for me, seeing how happy people are with the food,” Dalati said.

learning language

When Ghilain Masudi arrived in Lexington, Ky., in July 2015 with his family as Congolese refugees after living in Burundi, he faced an extra hurdle in adjusting to life in the United States: He is deaf.

With only some literacy in French and Swahili sign language, he found communicating with anyone outside his family very difficult. After working with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries, Masudi and his family decided he should attend Kentucky School for the Deaf  in Danville, about 60 miles from Lexington. He enrolled in September 2015 and now lives in Danville at school during the week, coming home to Lexington on weekends and holidays to be with his family.

Melissa Cantrell, the director of special education at the school, has watched Masudi’s transformation. “His language [skills have] already exploded,” she said. “His personality is coming out more … He was quiet and reserved at first.”

The school created a program to meet one of his special needs — acquiring American Sign Language (ASL). For the first few weeks, Masudi had one-on-one instruction on the basics of English and ASL. He started full-time classes in November 2015.

As the school’s first refugee student, Masudi has thrived. “I hear nothing but great things. He seems really happy,” said Cantrell.

Now that he has communication skills in English, French, and Swahili, Masudi’s teachers hope that he will be able to graduate. On a recent visit to the refugee ministries office, he used his developing ASL skills.

“I go to school at [Kentucky School for the Deaf], learning English, playing with and laughing with other deaf students all together,” he signed. “I play basketball. Playing and talking makes me smile.”

a special gift

After living in a refugee camp for 23 years, Singla moved to the United States from Nepal at age 61 to start a new life with her family.

Not long after her arrival, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Since then, she’s endured chemotherapy treatments, doctor appointments, hospital visits, mountains of paperwork and the loss of her hair.

But Singla is not alone on her journey. She has her family – and a new skill.

Singla cannot read or write in her native Nepali. After being deprived of education previously, however, Singla has learned to write her name in English. Now she can sign medical forms needed for her cancer treatments.

Singla also has a beautiful, hand-knit hat that she wears with pride to cover the loss of her hair. These two seemingly small things are tokens of another gift that Singla received when she came to the United States.

Singla was matched with a volunteer English as a Second Language tutor through the English at Home Program with New American Pathways, an Atlanta affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries.

Each week, tutors Carol Hamilton and Cheryl McIntosh came to Singla’s home to work with her and her daughter-in-law, Sukmati, on their English. In the months before Singla’s diagnosis, Carol helped Singla learn the English alphabet, how to introduce herself and how to write her name.

The tutors became close friends of the family, and McIntosh knit the hat for Singla. “The teachers are like family,” Singla said.

to follow a dream

In Somalia, said Sowdo, “people don’t want women to be journalists. They think we should just sit home, get married and have a bunch of kids.” Sowdo’s love of soccer led her to dream of being a radio sports reporter. She got a job calling games on a sports radio show (she was the only woman doing such work there) and interviewing players. “I loved it. But some people didn’t. I got threats. People don’t want women to speak. In Somalia, people will try to kill you for speaking out,” she said. After two of her colleagues were killed in a car bombing, Sowdo decided she had to leave. Resettled in Columbus, Ohio, she received help from EMM affiliate Community Refugee & Immigration Services. “To be a journalist in America, you need a resumé, so I have to start at the bottom again and work my way back up. It can be difficult, but that is why I am here, to work hard and make a place for myself. I couldn’t do it without the people I’ve met.”

feeling safe

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003. After troops were withdrawn several years later, Iraqis such as Abdulwahab Alabid, who worked for a U.S. government contractor, received death threats. “Nobody wants to flee his country,” Wahab said. “When you feel danger, it’s like your house is burning. You leave your house from a window or from the door.” Wahab believed he had to get his family to safety. They were resettled in Chattanooga, Tenn., with the help of EMM affiliate Bridge Refugee Services. Through the Bridge office, Wahab found a job in an Amazon.com fulfillment center and his family worked to fix up a house. “My daughter wants to be an engineer. My [older] son is doing a GED [high school equivalency diploma] and wants to go to university. My little son has picked up the language [English] very fast. It’s great to remind people that the American dream is still alive. It’s just how far you want to reach for it,” Wahab said.

a new start

After war between ethnic factions in the former Yugoslavia broke out in 1991, teenager Sergio Plecas fled with his mother from refugee camp to refugee camp. “My family lost everything. Being homeless for so many years, I was starting to lose hope. I literally didn’t belong anywhere,” he said. After four years, he and his mother received permission to emigrate to the United States, where they settled in Chattanooga, Tenn., and received help from EMM affiliate Bridge Refugee Services. Since Plecas had training as a videographer, Marina Peshterianu of Bridge accompanied him to job interviews at local television stations. He found work as a creative director at WTCI, the local PBS affiliate, where a documentary he filmed on wild mustang horses won an Emmy award. “His work is second to none,” said WTCI president Paul Grove. In 2008, Plecas became a U.S. citizen. He married, and he and his wife had a baby boy. “He received his birth certificate. He belongs [somewhere] from the start,” said Plecas.   n

making a friend

When Sharmake Muse, whose family left Somalia due to civil war, arrived in Minneapolis, he saw something new. “I’ve never seen snow. I saw every place is white,” he said.

Not only did he need a winter coat, he needed a friend. EMM’s affiliate agency, the Minnesota Council of Churches, partners newly arriving refugees with interested members of the community who provide welcome and friendship to the newcomers.

Linda O’Malley, a member of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in neighboring St. Paul, noted that Muse left Somalia as a child and was growing up in refugee camps in Kenya when his family was resettled in the United States.

She showed Muse “how to navigate this culture, go to the post office, navigate the bus schedule, how to take books out of the library.”

Muse wants to become a doctor and now works in a nurse-assistant program. “I feel Minneapolis is my home. I don’t feel like a foreigner,” he said.

O’Malley said she has “grown personally with helping through refugee resettlement.”

teaching others

After leaving Rwanda, site of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s, Benjamin Rutikanga was resettled in Boise, Idaho — a community very different from central Africa.

“I saw the town was different, the people are different. When a refugee comes, he comes with nothing. He needs someone to help him,” said Rutikanga.

Boise, a city of about 215,000, made a commitment to welcoming refugees. With the involvement of EMM affiliate partner Agency for New Americans, it developed a community strategic plan. It included a program that helps refugees integrate with the community by teaching them how to drive.

Doug Pottenger owns the All About Safe Driving school. He had never worked with a refugee before, but he discovered that Rutikanga was bicycling to work even in winter. He taught Rutikanga to drive, then hired him to teach other newcomers. “It’s something I love, because it is helping people from step to step,” said Rutikanga.

“Benjamin has taught me a lot,” Pottenger said. “He’s taught me how to love and how to care and how to just be a good person.”