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Finding family in the heart of Dearborn

Children participate in Easter StoryWalk.

Dearborn First UMC has reinvigorated its commitment to refugees and asylum seekers by creating a new Response Team ministry, which recently sponsored a family from Jordan. 

JAMES DEATON
Content Editor

This is the first story in a series highlighting the recipients of a 2021 Mustard Seed Migration Grant and the new ministries that were started. Congregations are encouraged to read these stories and find ways they can do similar justice advocacy work in their neighborhoods and communities. The deadline for this year is September 30, 2022, for those congregations interested in applying. For more information, refer to this earlier news story.

The city of Dearborn is home, and it’s where Kathy McCoy wants to invest her time and energy. When her previous church in Livonia dwindled in attendance and moved to another location, she chose not to follow and instead looked for another faith community close by.

McCoy had never been part of a United Methodist church before, so the history and habits were foreign, but she was drawn to Dearborn First UMC because of the people there.

She also had an affinity to Dearborn First because of a mutual desire to provide welcome and assistance to their immigrant neighbors, particularly refugees and asylum seekers adjusting to life in a new country.

Imagine how complicated life is for an immigrant arriving in the United States. Trauma management. Language support. Legal assistance. Buying groceries, getting a job, securing affordable housing, finding schooling for children, interpreting myriad cultural differences. It’s overwhelming, in other words. But Dearborn First has sought to be a place where individuals struggling to navigate these challenges can trust they will find help with no fear of judgment.

Dearborn First recently reinvigorated its commitment to refugees and asylum seekers by creating a Response Team ministry, partially funded by a Mustard Seed Migration Grant. With this new ministry and their first sponsorship—a family from Jordan—they hope to have found a niche in their neighborhood.

Going beyond Legal Assistance

Dearborn First has been a long-time justice advocate supporting immigrants in their community, given the fact that the city has one of the largest Arab American populations outside the Middle East. It’s partly why Dearborn First became the flagship Metro Detroit site for Justice for our Neighbors-Michigan (JFON-MI), a close bond they’ve fostered over 15 years.

JFON-MI primarily offers free or low-cost immigration legal services, with four offices sprinkled throughout Michigan. But there’s a lot more to settling into a home in a new country than ensuring the legal details are ironed out properly. Both JFON-MI and Dearborn First knew this, yet they continued to have people new to their community approach them for help.

In late 2020, Dearborn First began to reimagine how they might address these ongoing requests from their immigrant neighbors. There are several well-established social service agencies in Dearborn, so church members wondered what difference they could make. But they leaned into the relationship they had with JFON-MI and began to dream up something new.

Dearborn First hosts a monthly clinic for JFON-MI clients needing immigration legal assistance, and many of those individuals and families come with additional needs. So, the church created an idea for a community network of volunteers and resources that could help people get on their feet, whether it be food, housing, employment, transportation, or medical care.

Even though all the kinks weren’t worked out, yet, the Response Team of Dearborn UMC was born, and the timing felt perfect.

Putting It into Practice

In early 2021, Aya, an asylum seeker from Jordan, came to JFON-MI looking for help with finding a job, and JFON-MI encouraged her to contact Dearborn First. It was this faith community’s first chance to test out its new ministry.

Aya, her husband Hassan, and their two children Fatima and Ahmad* had come to the United States seeking asylum from a violent situation in Jordan. They already had hired an immigration attorney but needed assistance finding Aya stable employment to support their family.

Aya’s family had other needs, too. A Response Team communication went out to the congregation asking members to purchase specific items for the family. Kathy McCoy went online and bought something for the kids, and then she was asked directly to help again.

Ahmad, Aya and Hassan’s son, was about to turn 7, and the family wanted to celebrate. The church’s first impulse was to throw a party together, but instead they gave the family a gift card so he could choose his own birthday party decorations. And Kathy was more than happy to take Aya and Ahmad to go shopping.

“Well, it turned out [Ahmad] had the same birthday as me,” Kathy recalls. “And I just jumped on that and was like, oh, he’s my birthday boy. I have to help this family.”

Fatima and Ahmad roasting marshmallows
Fatima and Ahmad roast halal marshmallows at an outdoor Christmas StoryWalk event, which also featured indoor crafts, treats, and a visit with Santa. A volunteer dressed as a shepherd, supervises. It was the first time Aya, their mother, had ever met Santa Claus. ~ photo courtesy Kirstin Karoub

Shopping for birthday party decorations gave Kathy the opportunity to meet this family from Jordan and little did she know it would become the first of many trips. Aya didn’t have a car available to her, so Kathy would offer to take her to various appointments. She was retired and didn’t mind helping out.

The relationship was slow in developing, for it was difficult for Aya to trust Kathy and others from Dearborn First. And rightfully so, for there were cultures to bridge, new languages to learn, and religious differences to discern since Aya’s family is Muslim. Aya also had to work through and overcome some bad experiences with other social service agencies.

On the other side, there were things members of Dearborn First had to learn about themselves in this new role. Kirstin Karoub, co-leader of the Response Team as well as Dearborn First’s Communications Director, was aware of the growing edges within their congregation as this ministry began to take shape.

“Some in our congregation didn’t understand the use of time and resources for people who would never join our church or reciprocate in the form of financial support, but this kind of ministry is not about that,” Kirstin admitted. “It’s about easing the burden, removing barriers, helping to restore hope and faith, and loving our neighbor as we are called to do.”

In time, friendships began to form as communities and cultures learned from one another. This was especially important as Aya and her family faced other life challenges.

Looking for Work, Seeking Justice

Aya first came to Dearborn First looking for assistance with finding employment. Her husband, Hassan, had been injured and was limited in the kinds of work he could do. Aya knew she had to get a job quickly, but there were hurdles in that she couldn’t read or write English.

Kirstin Karoub confessed that Aya’s case presented a lot of challenges as the Response Team began learning all the dimensions of care, whether it was related to matters of employment, medical care, or renter’s assistance. And the team felt like it was muddling through early on.

“It seemed like every time we would go down a road, something would get thrown up. . . . So, oh great, we’re getting Bridge Cards from the schools for the children because of COVID. Well, [Aya’s immigration] attorney says we shouldn’t take government assistance if we’re seeking asylum because we have to show we’re self-supporting. Now we can’t use those services, so let’s find something else. It was just one of those extra challenges where you think, okay we’ve got this settled, and then something else pops up.”

Kirstin helped Aya navigate some of the confusing employment hurdles by assisting with job applications and employment tax forms. When Aya brought the completed paperwork into her potential employer, she witnessed another woman who also did not read or write English being turned away because she had nobody who help her fill out the forms properly.

It broke Aya’s heart to see this woman in a similar predicament. As she told Kirstin this story, Aya said, “I was so sad for her because I remember being so afraid like that. Who could help me? And then you helped me, and I got this job. I thank God for you from the bottom of my heart, every day.”

Asylum seekers and refugees are often very vulnerable, falling prey to unscrupulous people for employment, rental property, or other arrangements. The Response Team saw that with Aya’s family, and they watched out for them to ensure they navigated these systems carefully.

For the Response Team, these basic matters of daily life are issues that are close to the heart of God. And they’re matters of justice that must be near the heart of every Christian disciple.

As the Lord commanded the Israelites, so the Lord wants for us: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34, CEB).

Living into Hospitality

Later in the summer of 2021, historic flooding throughout the southeastern part of Michigan caused catastrophic damage. The basement of the Dearborn rental home Aya and her family were living in at the time flooded and many belongings were damaged or destroyed.

Dearborn First’s Response Team sprung into action again on behalf of this family. Aya had never experienced a disaster like this before, so she needed help sorting through things as she tried to figure out what to do. Church members came alongside Aya and her family, guiding her on what must be thrown out and what can be salvaged with the proper cleaning products, plus what to do with water-damaged possessions that had been left by previous tenants.

As the cleanup lingered through the fall, Aya and her family made the wise decision to secure a different place to live. It was a bitterly cold winter day when members of Dearborn First rented a truck and helped them move into a new neighborhood.

Supporting this family as they build a home where they feel confident, safe, and valued was a key goal of the Response Team.

Members of Dearborn First help family move
Volunteers from Dearborn First UMC rented a truck and helped Aya and her family move into more secure housing following a devastating flood. Hassan, her husband, was injured shortly after arriving in the United States and cannot take on physical labor or work on his feet for extended periods of time. ~ photo courtesy Kirstin Karoub

A couple of weeks later, Aya and Hassan invited Kirstin Karoub and her husband, Kathy McCoy and her husband, and their pastor David Nellist and his wife, Glenys, to their new home to share a Jordanian meal. Kathy remembers that experience fondly and how there was a mutual respect, an honoring of cultural differences: “Now the house was ready, looking beautiful. Then we had this evening to just sit back, relax, and talk. The kids were off doing something else. It was a real nice adult conversation, learning a little bit about the different cultures. They were explaining stuff to us, we were explaining stuff to them.”

Kirstin found tremendous value in this exchange: “As a congregation, we have gained new friendships with our family from Jordan and have learned much about their customs and way of life. Seeing our own culture through a different lens is enlightening as well.”

Getting to know your neighbors in such intimate ways can break down unhealthy stereotypes and build up relationships based on understanding, not fear. This is incredibly important in a city like Dearborn which has a large and growing Muslim community.

Finding Unexpected Surprises

Out of all the members on Dearborn First’s Response Team ministry, Kathy McCoy has gotten to know Aya best. Trusted bonds have been knit over many car rides and conversations. It’s a short-term need that has evolved into a long-haul promise.

Aya became pregnant with her third child earlier this year and Kathy took her to her first ultrasound appointment. Aya even let her come in the room during the procedure, which thrilled Kathy.

As they were heading back home, Aya was talking about how much she missed her mother who is back in Jordan. Aya felt lonely, separated from her family, and now faced the birth of a child in a place that still feels foreign to her.

Capturing the moment, Kathy said to Aya, “If you want, I’ll be your ‘American mom.’” Aya paused and then replied, “Really, you’d do that? Will you be there for the birth of my child?” Kathy said of course and then went on to reassure Aya that she didn’t want to take Hassan’s place. Aya insisted that Kathy be there for the birth, that her husband would stay with their two children.

Kathy is so proud of this and can’t wait to be there for Aya when the baby is born.

More recently, Kathy received even bigger news. Aya was asking Kathy how American names work, specifically how they are chosen. In Arabic culture, it’s quite different. Aya then told her that she and Hassan have decided to give the baby, for they already know it’s a girl, the middle name Kathryn, which is Kathy’s given name. Kathy was blown away by this ultimate honor.

As part of her commitment to this family, Kathy has started teaching Aya English, for Kathy has ESL training. It’s a justice matter. It’s a matter of hospitality and care. “I’m going to help her,” said Kathy. “I told her it’s real important for you to be able to read your child’s birth certificate.”

In the meantime, Dearborn First is preparing a baby shower for Aya in September. The faith community has embraced this family from Jordan and welcomed them as neighbors.

Kathy considers the Response Team a healthy way to engage the neighborhood and get to know her immigrant neighbors better. And it’s been a wonderful experience so far.

“I feel like I’m more blessed than [Aya] is. I’m just honored to be part of this birth. [Aya] is so generous. So much we have in common in our faith. She prays more than I do. She reads her Qur’an very faithfully. Her faith is strong, and it encourages me to see that. God’s love is so open. Some see it as missionary work. This is just something that I’m doing. Just accept them for who they are.”

*The names of the Jordanian family members have been changed to protect their identity.

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