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Welcoming the stranger

From Aleppo to Birmingham … a congregation aids in resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Michigan Area Communications

In  October, 2015, Bishop Deborah Kiesey’s message to Michigan United Methodists was about the flood of refugees fleeing the violence and devastation of war in Syria and Iraq.  In response to the various calls to restrict the admission of refugees into the USA, Bishop Kiesey wrote, “The refugees waiting to enter the USA are overwhelmingly women and children.  As Christians we are called to welcome the stranger and to pay special attention to widows, orphans and foreigners.”  In the season of Advent she reminded us that following his birth, Jesus and his parents also fled from violence in Bethlehem and became refugees in Egypt.  She invited the congregations of the Michigan Area to become involved in the resettlement of Syrian refugees.  One of the churches to accept the challenge was First United Methodist Church of Birmingham.

Frank Driscoll and a small handful of Birmingham United Methodists attended the orientation meeting at Newburg UMC in Livonia under the leadership of conference staff person Paul Perez. They came home with a passion and a calling to serve the needs of arriving Syrian refuges through Samaritas, formerly known as Lutheran Social Services.  They anticipated they would need to raise approximately $25,000 to assist with housing for 6 months, the purchase a used car, insurance and basic needs like food and clothing.

As it turned out, it has cost much less.  First, a Birmingham family offered their “mother-in-law” apartment as a temporary home.  Second, over 40 volunteers offered to provide transportation for the refugee families and others agreed to assist with food and personal needs. By January 2016, they were ready, but because of delays in immigration, their first family did not arrive until May.

As Bishop Deb anticipated, the first family was a mother in her late 20’s and her six-year-old son.  They had fled the total devastation of their hometown of Aleppo to a refugee camp in Turkey before arriving in Michigan. Even though they spoke no English, the relationship started out well.  However, it soon became obvious that the emotional stress of experiences in the refugee camp and the transition had taken a toll on the young son.  Samaratis determined he would have a better chance of succeeding in school if he was in a community with other Syrian and Arabic-speaking children, so the family moved to a neighborhood which better suited their needs. The Birmingham team has continued to be very involved in their lives, providing transportation, childcare and mentoring about the American schools.

“It’s an amazing journey and it is the true American story in this nation of immigrants.”

The second family to arrive in Birmingham included a mother, father and two sons, ages 16 and 18. They were originally from Damascus where the father ran a children’s store selling clothes and toys. They had evacuated their home five years ago and had been resettled in Jordan before gaining entrance to the USA.  Although they came with no English language skills, the sons are attending high school in Birmingham and taking ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.  Their proficiency is improving to the point that the 18-year-old has a part-time job. The parents are also in ESL classes and the father and older son are taking driving lessons.  In a very short time, they are learning about life in America and striving to establish themselves in their new nation.

Frank Driscoll says, “The ultimate goal in resettling a refugee family is self-sufficiency. This family will continue to need Birmingham First’s support for a few more months, but by next summer they should be making their way in America under their own power. It’s an amazing journey and it is the true American story in this nation of immigrants.”

With about 1,400 persons resettled here since 2011, Michigan has become the state with the second largest number of Syrian refugees.  Only California ranks higher with 1,500.  In Michigan, most of these families have settled in Troy, Dearborn, Clinton Township and Grand Rapids. Even so, that number seems small in the light of the overwhelming need with literally millions of refugees fleeing their homelands.

With about 1,400 persons resettled here since 2011, Michigan has become the state with the second largest number of Syrian refugees.

Recently Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to admit a total of 110,000 refugees from around the world in 2017 with a priority on Guatemala and Nicaragua, the most violent countries in our hemisphere. Michigan has become a likely destination for refugees from the Middle East because of the well-established Arab-American communities and the infrastructure which can help refugees relocate successfully. Therefore, the urgent need for churches in Michigan to assist with this ministry will continue to grow.  Working with agencies like Samaritas and SARN (Syrian American Rescue Network), United Methodist congregations can play a crucial role in this ministry of compassion and hospitality.

Paul Perez, the Detroit Conference Director of Mission and Justice Engagement has been working closely with churches wishing to participate in resettling refugees.  He says there is always a need for volunteers who will assist with driving families to classes, appointments and shopping.  Any church, even small churches, can participate and make a difference in the life of one family. Anyone interested in more information can contact Paul at or 810/233-5500.  Frank Driscoll says, “I hope this will be a call to action for many United Methodists in responding to this urgent need.”

According to Rich Teets, one of the learnings for the Birmingham congregation has been the tradition of Syrian hospitality.  He says whenever a driver takes a member of the family to an appointment or shopping, when they return the family insists on welcoming them into their home, serving tea or offering a meal.  Rich said, “If you think you can just drop them off at home, you’re in for a surprise.”  In that same spirit, we Christians are called to offer a welcome to the stranger and the foreigner in the name of Jesus Christ and caring for the widow and orphan in the footsteps of the early church.