All Saints Western Springs Welcomes Refugees As Children of God

Mohammed and his family with Spelman and volunteers from All Saints on moving day

Resettling refugees may be a contentious issue on the campaign trail, but to Nancy Schneider of All Saints Episcopal Church in Western Springs, it is simply an opportunity to welcome a stranger as a child of God.

Earlier this year, Schneider, a lifelong member of the congregation who also serves as its sexton, joined fellow parishioners and the Rev. Kate Spelman, All Saints’ rector, in welcoming a family of Syrian refugees through a partnership with Exodus World Service in Bloomingdale.

“You just look at this dear sweet family, and you just think that we’re all God’s children and they were born in a time and a place where they needed help. It’s just an important thing to do,” Schneider says.

The first step, says Spelman, was assembling a “Welcome to America! Pack.” Using a list provided by Exodus, the All Saints congregation collected sheets, towels, dishes and other basic items for a small apartment. “Imagine having to purchase all the supplies for your first apartment in one go with no help from family or friends. It’s expensive, it’s confusing, you’re not sure what you need. Now imagine having to do that in a country where you don’t speak the language or fully understand the currency. Giving a Welcome to America! pack provides refugees with what they need for their new home, and also removes one more source of stress in their lives,” she says.

After the pack was ready, Exodus matched All Saints with a Syrian family of five. Mohammed*, his wife, and their three children arrived in Chicago in late June after a 20-hour journey from Jordan. Although they initially lived in motel rooms because housing for refugee families is scarce, after five weeks they moved into an apartment in Rogers Park and the congregation delivered its supplies. But that was just the beginning of the relationship.

When refugees arrive in this country, refugee resettlement agencies under contract with the federal government provide housing, vaccinations, and job training, says Spelman. But with 10,000 Syrian refugees arriving in the United States this year, the people who work for the agencies are “wildly overworked” and have little time to provide any other assistance, she says. Congregations that partner with Exodus fill that gap by promising to visit refugee families once a week for three months and help them set up utility accounts, explore the public library, locate shops that sell familiar foods, and get children settled in school.

The first challenge for Mohammed and his family turned out to be the cost of living in Chicago. By using Facebook to connect with other Syrian refugee families in the region, he soon realized that the family could rent a two-bedroom apartment in the southwestern suburb of Worth for less than a one-bedroom apartment in the city.

So Spelman rented a UHaul and the congregation moved the family to its new home.

“Mohammad and I drove in the truck, and a friend brought a car and drove Mom and the kids,” she says. “They moved to an apartment complex with lots of little kids, so when we arrived in the parking lot, they swarmed the truck and helped carry everything inside.”

In addition to being more affordable, the new apartment complex is home to other Arabic speakers and located near a mosque. Mohammed has gotten a job as a dishwasher in a nearby Arab restaurant, and he and his wife now feel comfortable letting their two older children, ages 8 and 11, go outside to play. Once the utility bills can be transferred to the family’s name, providing proof of residency, the older children will be enrolled in public school.

Establishing the routines of daily life in this country marks an important step for the family, which was targeted by the Assad regime and survived the destruction of their family homes. Mohammed described to Spelman the day he and his family were arrested and forced up against a wall to be executed by a Syrian soldier. At the last minute, he says, a sniper killed the solider and the family escaped. Their third child was born during the four years they spent in Jordan, first in a refugee camp and then, when the conditions in the camp threatened the health of the children, with 25 other refugees living in a five-bedroom house.

Though alarming rhetoric regarding refugees is a staple of this presidential campaign, Sue Horgan, outreach and education coordinator at Exodus, says that “refugees have been vetted five times before they ever reach our soil.” That includes background checks, medical and security screenings, and fingerprinting by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Department of Homeland Security. For Syrian refugees, Time Magazine reports, the process is even more rigorous, with checks by the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the Department of Defense.

“They’re safer than you and I are,” Horgan says. “To my knowledge, we have never had one terrorist enter the country though refugee resettlement.”

Spelman says that although some people in Western Springs were initially unsure about welcoming refugees, the congregation has been enthusiastically involved in the new ministry, especially after Horgan visited to explain refugee resettlement.

When she visits a congregation, Horgan says, she tells Christians that welcoming refugees is “being the hands and feet of Christ.”

“Their journey continues to be long,” she says, “but by welcoming them to our community and providing basic necessities to help ease their transition after a long journey of persecution, we can help them feel a sense of calm and hope that things might be better here. Just knowing that we want them here is so important.”

Schneider, who is eagerly awaiting the chance to greet a second refugee family, agrees.

“We’re just thrilled that they’re here now and they’re safe,” she says. “These people are innocent and need help, and if we can provide it, it’s all good.”

If your congregation is interested in learning more about how to welcome refugees, please email Sue Horgan at Exodus World Service or call her at 630-234-5350.

* To protect the privacy of the family, who still have relatives in danger in Syria, we are using only the father’s first name.