Millions of Iraqis have been displaced by war. Many refugees have been living in camps in Syria and Jordan. In 2007, the U.S. State Department began resettling these Iraqi refugees, assigning them to private agencies that carry out the actual resettlement.
These agencies could not do their work without help from stateside churches and organizations.
Among these is Riverside’s Ascension Lutheran Church, which recently co-sponsored a family from Iraq. Ascension worked in partnership with Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries (IRIM).
Thanks to their efforts, a family of four is now living in a furnished apartment in Chicago. The congregation’s efforts don’t end there. On Jan. 24, from 5 to 8 p.m., the church is hosting its annual build-your-own taco benefit buffet with all proceeds going to the family, which endured three years in a Syrian refugee camp.
The teaming of Ascension and IRIM came about when church member, Ken Johnson, an IRIM board member, approached Pastor Roger Timm with the proposal. Timm brought it to the church council at their Dec. 9 meeting.
The council immediately agreed to a three-month commitment to furnish an apartment and offer financial assistance to a refugee family. The timing couldn’t have been better for asking the congregation’s support.
“We thought we’d trade on the Christmas spirit a little,” Timm said.
Heather Hopek, Ascension’s financial secretary, posted the list of items the family would need for a new home, which contained small-budget items like dental floss along with big-ticket items like furniture. The response from church members was overwhelming.
“In two weeks, we had enough towels and things to furnish an apartment,” Hopek said.
Donors brought new and used items to the church, while other members went to homes to pick up box springs and dressers.
On Jan. 1, Hopek received an e-mail notifying her that the apartment had to be ready for an Iraqi family by Jan. 13.
“It was the right-size family for our church,” Hopek said. “And they had two young daughters, which many of us can relate to.”
Among those who could identify with the family was Tracy Stanard, the secretary of Ascension’s church council. She has a 2-year old son and 4-year old daughter and welcomed the opportunity to give directly to a family in need. She was also impressed with IRIM’s efficiency.
“IRIM has it all together,” said Stanard. “They have relationships with landlords and suppliers. They assess skills and education. They help the refugees learn English and find jobs.”
On Jan. 10, Stanard and nine others, including Timm and the Hopeks, rented a U-Haul and brought the donations to an apartment on the North Side of Chicago.
“It was snowing and the apartment was on the third floor,” Stanard said recalling the difficulties they encountered. “But it was a very nice one-bedroom, with good closet space.”
On Jan. 13, Stanard was among the contingent from the church that met the Yahya family at O’Hare Airport. Her 4-year old daughter, Tess, presented Minat, 11, and Fatima, 7, with stuffed animals. Their father, Mahamed, and mother, Weam, have both earned their college degrees.
Both parents spoke a little English and voiced concern about Chicago’s cold weather. Fortunately, the church group had brought them winter coats. They later expressed their gratitude for finding safety in the U.S.
When they reached the apartment, the family was very pleased with their new home. Mahamed was especially grateful when they handed him the keys.
Now that family is settling in to their new surroundings, Ascension members are finding new ways to help them.
“People have even more things to give,” Stanard said, “Because we know their sizes and the ages of the children.”
So, if you’d like to help a family that has escaped a war-torn country, come to Ascension Lutheran Church on Jan. 24 for tacos. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 6-12.