This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Refugees create a new home in Salem, with help from friends

Photo: Women from Albany (Oregon) Mennonite Church work on a comforter. The group supplied comforters and bedding to Ahmed and Fatumo and their children, a family from Somalia resettling in Salem, Oregon. Photo provided. 

In the summer of 2016, members of Salem (Oregon) Mennonite Church, like many in the United States, watched the developing news of refugees fleeing war-torn areas such as Syria and Somalia. Many refugees fled to Greece, then Europe.

Several people in the congregation wrote emails and made announcements on Sunday mornings about efforts in the city to help immigrants, writes Bonnie Heppner, a member of Salem Mennonite. They connected with one community organization, Salem Leadership Foundation, that identified six areas in which to focus the city’s energy and resources to support refugees: health, education, English classes, housing, transportation and employment.

Among those attending the monthly meetings of the foundation were people who were themselves immigrants, having come to Salem from Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan and Somalia.

Then in late October, a Congolese family—Lipanda Bwale and Adela Mukuninwa and their six children—arrived in Salem. Randall Toews, a member of the team from Salem Mennonite committed to helping immigrants, agreed to help set up a house for this family. Maribeth Kennel, another member of the team, helped the family buy food they would need for immediate meals.

Since the family had lived in a warmer climate, they were cold in the rainy Oregon weather. Heppner provided them with a down comforter and several thick blankets. “Later,” she writes, “several of us shopped at thrift stores, looking for wool coats, sweaters and thick sweatshirts.”

Bwale and Mukuninwa lived for many years in Mozambique, where they became proficient in Portuguese. Their native tongue in the Congo was Swahili and somewhere along the line they learned French. Sara Lind, a member of the team who knew some Portuguese from having lived in Brazil, helped bridge communication between the church and the family.

Florence Gingrich, another member of the team, knew some French, and she helped Mukuninwa get

Bonnie Heppner helps unload a bicycle for Bikes for Kids, an event held in Salem, Oregon, on April 29 where children receive free bikes along with helmets and bike safety instructions.

oriented to local shopping centers and stores. She says they had “a delightful time” shopping together and getting to know one another.

The couple brought many skills to their new experience; Bwale worked in education, Mukuninwa as a chef, and they learned the rudiments of English quickly.

When the team had no more than gotten this family settled, Heppner writes, they received news that the family was to be reassigned to another volunteer group.

Later, the Salem Mennonite group was assigned to help orient a newly arriving Somali family. Ahmed and Fatumo and their seven children arrived in Salem on Jan. 19. (Another child was due in early May.)

The Salem Mennonite team works alongside the local chapter of Catholic Charities to help with specified tasks to support Ahmed and Fatumo, and when special needs arise, a case manager from the organization contacts the team. They also networked with other Mennonite churches in the area who wanted to support resettled families.

Heppner says she met with people from Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Ore., who expressed interest in the volunteer process. Some of its members were oriented and did preliminary preparation, only to learn that smaller, more rural localities are deemed unsuitable for refugee resettlement, often lacking basic services that resettling families need.

Quilters from Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church supplied quilts for the family. The sewing group at Albany ties between 80 and 100 comforters each year, says congregation member Anita Lindberg, which they send to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). When they learned that Salem Mennonite was sponsoring a Somali family, the group decided to donate four comforters plus, through an organization called Love, INC (In the Name of Christ), plus bedding for four beds, says Lindberg.

Kennel organized outfitting the kitchen for the family and Gingrich helped her set it up.

Since the family is Muslim, Kennel searched for halal meat to stock the freezer in anticipation of the family’s arrival. A Muslim owner of a small business gave her a phone number for a butcher in Corvallis, about 45 minutes down the freeway from Salem. Kennel says she made a special trip with her husband to find goat meat and chicken, which she purchased for the family.

Gingrich and her husband served with MCC and lived overseas (in France in late 1960s and Bangladesh in mid-1980s). She says she realizes they are privileged simply by being born where they were. “There are so many horrible things going on and people are suffering tremendously,” she says. “It’s important to reach out to our neighbors.”

Lind, an English as a Second Language teacher and a retired nurse, got involved to help with health issues. She takes Fatumo to doctor’s appointments, which require a translator.

She notes that the family came to the United States after living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for over a year, so the adjustments they have had to make are huge. Some Somalis already living in Salem have befriended them and the local Islamic Center has been helpful, Lind says.

Once, Ahmed was asked how to label one of the women on Salem’s team when completing an information form. “Should we call her ‘friend,’?” the Somali translator asked. Ahmed said, “No, not friend; she is my sister.”

Lind notes that in the current U.S. environment of refusing to welcome refugees, this kind of walking alongside one another especially important. Welcoming people will do more to enhance our safety, she says, than refusing help.

She adds that Catholic Charities is fearful their refugee resettlement funding will be cut by the Trump administration. We need love in action, she says. “Love is the most powerful force in the world, as Jesus taught.”

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