Carolyn is a young mother of two small children who attends St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston. She is a part of their “Three Strands” Sunday school class there – a group comprised of parents with young children. Last year, this class became refugee co-sponsors for IM.
“As a parent, I want to teach my children to think outwardly,” said Carolyn. “A few of us in Three Strands were talking one day, and this topic came up. How do we get our kids to think of others? To get involved with service? And we realized that it starts with us. Around that time our minister, Dr. Pace, mentioned co-sponsoring a refugee family during his announcements at church, and the opportunity sounded like a great project. We could be involved in helping another family with children…people just like us, really.”
Taking the First Steps
So Carolyn and her friends from Three Strands spearheaded the project. They met with Lizeth Zavala, IM’s Community Outreach Coordinator, who walked them through the process. Co-sponsorship simply means that a group will partner with IM in the refugee resettlement process for one particular family. Each co-sponsorship opportunity is unique, and participants can choose and customize their level of involvement. IM works to coordinate the aid provided and steps in whenever needed. “We could be as involved as we wanted,” explained Carolyn. “We told them what our comfort level was and how much we could help. They did the rest.”
Three Strands decided to get started right away. They requested a family with children, and began with a housewarming “shower” at St. Luke’s to collect items needed for the family’s new home. “We used a Signup Genius to communicate which items were needed,” said Carolyn. Congregants brought donations to the shower and stayed to enjoy a piece of cake and some punch.
Next, Carolyn and friends were assigned the family, a mother (Zeba) and her two daughters (Mahnaz, 10, and Samia, 8). The family was fleeing Afghanistan via India. A date was set for their arrival in Houston.
After this, the group put together the family’s new apartment. They spent a day moving in furniture and beds, even a piece of artwork made for the family at the housewarming shower. Then, they made a grocery run to stock the family’s pantry and fridge. Everything was ready.
Meeting the Family
Next came the airport pickup. “We had made a sign at the shower to say ‘Welcome’ in Dari with notes of encouragement around it,” remembered Carolyn. “This was the first thing she saw when she arrived. It was very emotional for us all. She told us through her tears how much it meant for her to see a welcome sign here in her own language.” The group then returned to the apartment with caseworkers from IM. “We showed them how to work all the gadgets in their new place – the stove and things,” said Carolyn. “The little girls had been very quiet up until this point, but then they saw their beds. They were so excited! They started running around the apartment and put their little shoes at the end of their beds just so. They were so proud of their new room.”
All in all, Carolyn feels that she learned so much through this experience. “Zeba is only 27 years old. I’m 29. Thinking about being in her shoes is incredible and terrifying. Her courage is amazing – the capacity of people is amazing,” she reflects. “Here in the US, we have so much. I don’t need for anything – so we can and should pass it forward. The whole experience was eye-opening, and I realized that it’s easier to get out of your comfort zone and serve than you think.”
Perhaps most unique about co-sponsorship is its capacity to encourage relationship building between the person being served and those helping out. “Every sort of outreach is great,” says Carolyn. “But we especially loved this because it’s about building relationships with the family.”
Also involved in the project was Erica, who works at St. Luke’s and helped coordinate much of the co-sponsorship. She can vouch for the relational aspect of this type of service. “Zeba and I have gotten to be good friends, and our daughters love to play together. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company beyond bringing them the things they need,” says Erica.
How You Can Help
About co-sponsorship, Erica had a lot to say. “The idea of coming along and helping a family can be overwhelming – these are refugees and they are starting with absolutely nothing. They have no idea how to navigate this country. But IM has held our hand completely throughout the process – we were truly partners. If there was something we couldn’t do or didn’t know how to handle, IM would always step in. It’s a big deal and a commitment, sure, but with IM you have a lot of help and that was a big comfort throughout the process.”
When asked if this was an experience she would recommend to other church, corporate, or social groups, Erica says, “The need is so vast. When you think about it, St. Luke’s sponsors two families – Zeba’s and one other. Yet there are hundreds of families that IM resettles every year. I would say this: You might not think you can do much, but any degree to which one can get involved with helping is needed.”
Do you have a religious, work, or social group interested in co-sponsorship? IM’s Department of Refugee Services would love to talk with you about opportunities for you to get involved with welcoming our newest Houston neighbors. Click here to email Lizeth Zavala with your questions, here to learn more about our Refugee Services Department, or here to donate. We can’t wait to serve our Houston community together with you!
The Three Strands group has published a blog on their experiences. Read more here.