Editor’s note: As part of FMS’ 2017 Advent blog series, missioner Janice Smullen shares her experiences welcoming refugee families with open doors.
When the churches in my area first met with Catholic Charities to hear specifics about the Refugee Resettlement program and to decide if we wanted to participate, Catholic Charities brought a man from Africa who had been in the US for about a year through their support. One person in our group asked him, “What is the biggest difference you see between the U S and your home?” I thought that he would say traffic, or indoor malls.
He quietly stated, “In my country, people were trying to kill me. In the United States, everyone is nice to me.”
In 2001, the Catholic Church I attended partnered with an Episcopal Church and with Catholic Charities of Virginia to resettle an incoming refugee family. There were about fifteen parishioners present at the first organizational meeting, and we needed to choose a chairperson. I definitely felt the Holy Spirit pushing my arm into the air, where it became really noticeable because no one else had raised theirs. I didn’t have any idea how many doors were going to open up for all of us through this experience.
The family’s arrival became somewhat delayed due to September 11, but we continued to gather donations of household goods and to search for housing in anticipation of their arrival. In the early days of 2002, we welcomed the family: mother, father, an 8-year-old son, and a 10-year-old daughter, all arriving from Serbia. The family became part of our group of volunteers that cleaned up the two story, Victorian era house that was to be their home, and they were a little bewildered to learn that they would be the only family living in it. To them, the house felt large enough for several families, and I became a little more aware of the sizes of homes in my neighborhood and the number of people each home held—usually a small number. I also began to wonder about how many unnecessary doors were in my house. They were quite comfortable doing a large part of their “living” in the small area of kitchen and living room.
Volunteers from the churches spent many hours getting the children settled in school; tutoring all of the family in English; helping them to find work; driving them, as needed, to doctor or dental appointments, to the social security office, and to the Catholic Charities office for check-ins; teaching the mother and father to drive; helping them grocery shop and taking them to nearby cultural attractions. I remember when I would get frustrated with various delays or setbacks, the father would always say, “No problem, Janice. I speak English!” I admired his adaptability and wondered if I would be so patient if I were sent to live in a different country. I was proud that our group was really good at opening doors to opportunities and our car doors for transportation and the doors of our hearts to do the best that we could to help this family succeed.
Now, years later, the mother and father still hold the same jobs they took when they arrived in the U.S.. They have sent both children to college and they budget their money well enough to occasionally travel back to Serbia. On one occasion, I was able to accompany them to Serbia to celebrate their daughter’s wedding and then await the arrival of her husband into the United States after 14 months of paperwork between the two countries. I witnessed the backlog of papers that some of the personnel had and I witnessed the diligence and patience of the family requesting reunification. The doors between the two countries were carefully monitored and opened at the correct times.
I spent some time traveling on my own in Serbia and Croatia before I met up with the family to prepare for the wedding. My journey found me to be the recipient of open doors there! On the days I traveled alone, I knew that I could look for a young person for language assistance since they usually knew English. One day, when I needed directions to a ticket office, I asked two men, maybe aged 20-25, if they knew where it was. One immediately jumped up and said, “We will show you!” The other one was not quite so sure!
We then proceeded to walk in the general direction that he believed to be correct. Along the way he would ask locals on the street if they knew where it was. Some would answer him, and some would ignore him. At one point, he turned to me and apologized because “some Serbs are like that.” I could assure him that it was the same in the United States. Some doors are opened, and some stayed closed.
After we found the office and bought the tickets, I offered to buy them a beer as a thank-you. Neither of them had a job, but they were going to be interviewed at the local factory the following week. However, they did not sound optimistic. With my American optimism I asked them “Well, if you could have any job that you liked, what would it be?” “Oh, Miss, no one in Serbia has a job that he likes,” the young man replied. How many doors had been closed in his face, I wondered? How long would he keep persisting?
I am grateful that this experience was good preparation for me to go on mission. It all opened the doors of my heart and mind to the new experience of learning about new cultures and finding that we have much in common. In the Christmas season, when we wish for Peace on Earth, I am able to see that Peace does, as the hymn says, “begin with me.” I am grateful for the support of the original group that worked together to welcome this family and grateful to know that the Holy Spirit is always available for strength!
Reflection question: What doors in your life have you opened recently and what doors are you keeping closed?