Heartbreak reflected in the eyes of each family member in the room.
They had evacuated from Afghanistan several weeks before to be housed at a military base, then shuffled to temporary hotel housing. They now huddled together in an Airbnb, awaiting permanent housing.
Through a translator, our cultural mentoring team learned about their family.
Nargis and Ali were married 20 days before the Taliban retook Kabul. Because Ali had worked for the U.S. military, the couple thought it best to flee.
Nargis, his wife, is a beautiful Hazara woman (a Persian-speaking ethnic group from central Afghanistan). Only 20 years old, she is expecting a baby in the spring. Tears came quickly to her eyes as she shared that she had to leave all her family behind in Kabul—her parents and her three siblings, all of whom would typically help her raise a child in a rich, supportive community. Nargis did not even possess a single photo of her wedding or her family. The Taliban had crushed her mobile phone while she and Ali waited at the airport to leave Afghanistan.
As her story passed across the Google translate box on their phone screens, several of the women on our cultural mentoring team wept with Nargis. She arrived speaking no English but is diligently meeting with us to practice all she is learning. Nargis is winsome. Bright. Grieving, but resilient.
Today, Nargis’ story is repeated through countless variations across thousands fleeing all they have known and loved. As Christ-followers, we carry the opportunity to walk with our new friends, weep and later rejoice with them, and offer a hand along their journey.
When “home” is no longer an option
Did you know one in every seven people living in the U.S. is foreign-born? In Canada, as of 2019, just under eight million immigrants possessed permanent residence—roughly 21.5% of the total population. These internationals include refugees, asylees, and undocumented people who arrive with higher needs.
No one in these categories leaves home because home is a safe place.
At the same time, unique opportunities present themselves for us as Christ followers—like they did for the Good Samaritan—to come alongside resettled families in this challenging journey that can at times rob them. The world is on the move, and we get to love and share the gospel with our new neighbors.
Acts 17 speaks of God determining where each person should live “so that people would seek him. And perhaps they would reach out for him and find him” (verse 27, NIrV). He is sovereign over immigrants’ lives.
Enormous challenges and particular needs await all of them in their host nation—and there, equally significant opportunities for us to come alongside. Understanding the stages of an immigrant’s experience—what they need and when they need it—becomes important to loving them and sharing the gospel in meaningful, vivid, and timely ways.
God continues to migrate people groups in His great story. While we’re picking up a bag of apples down the street, we might be able to form a friendship with someone born in Myanmar, or glean a piece of parenting advice from Senegal over a steaming cup of tea, or lift a box for a pregnant mother reeling from leaving her own mother in Afghanistan. We move deeper into God’s own heart, who rescued us when we were foreigners and aliens, bringing us close (Exodus 22:21, Ephesians 2:19).
Why I need refugees
My journey engaging with refugees began 10 years ago when my daughter began working with a refugee resettlement agency. I visited her employment class for newly arrived refugees. The room was filled with men and women in mismatched winter clothes and the smells of exotic spices and cooking oils reminiscent of my trips to Nepal and Thailand. My heart went out to my daughter’s new friends and the challenges they faced navigating a complex, alien land.
As refugee and border crises unfold, the world has come to us.
Later watching the news, I felt overwhelmed watching endless lines of Syrian refugees attempting to cross borders and sleeping in tents at bus stations. In 2016, I could hold back no longer. I hosted a fundraiser for my birthday through my daughter’s agency to anonymously help settle a Syrian refugee family in their new home.
I didn’t expect my heart to be captured by this family—Hala, Yusef, their children—but it was. Hala speaks multiple languages, passionately loves her family, and was gut-level honest about their journey from Syria through Turkey to the U.S. Yusef had been a barber in Syria and, though eager to provide for his family in their new city, was overcome by the prospect of learning English. The children’s serious eyes told a story of cumulative trauma, a longing to trust, and a white-knuckled hope for the future.
Though we now live in different states, the family and I stay in touch on Facebook. I have been so encouraged to watch them find their way, build deep relationships with several local host-culture families, and help other Syrians in their city.
I am convinced an incredible exchange happens as relationships are built between newcomers and ourselves.
Yes, it’s energizing to come alongside them in vital ways. But we are also changed as we hear their stories, experience their hospitality, and witness their resilience. I now think differently about the refugee journey.
I am also more aware of the nuances of crosscultural friendships—and how my cultural values can prevent my friends’ freedom to be themselves. When I enter my Afghan friend’s apartment, I more readily notice that she and her friend are sitting on the floor, and, rather than choosing the comfort of the couch, I join them there. We are women together with our tea and conversation.
Three stages of an immigrant’s experience
Through love, will we engage with our new neighbors?
Transition to life in a new country follows a path of varying lengths. Each person, family, and culture differs. Each person will proceed through this transition at a different pace.
Arrival stage: 0-3 months
In the arrival stage, a refugee or asylee arrives and begins to set up their new lives in their new city and home. Refugees are typically met at the airport of their new city.
One resettlement staffer shared:
I have sweet memories of arriving at the airport and greeting tired, anxious, relieved refugees to my city. Some of these people I am still friends with. Some people came with just the clothes on their back; others, those that were lucky, shoved every valuable item that made them think of home and their history into one or two tiny bags.
My friend Hala recalls her own arrival:
My husband and I were afraid and worried, especially since we didn’t know where to go and didn’t know anyone. When we landed at the airport, we were looking at people with fear and I just wanted to cry, I felt ashamed. I was asking myself, Is there really someone waiting for us?
But the feeling of anxiety and fear disappeared as soon as I saw someone waving at us.
After arrival, a refugee family is ideally brought to their home, which has been furnished by a refugee resettlement agency. A meal and food staples are provided.
One volunteer remembers her friend’s arrival:
My Iraqi refugee friend still talks about walking into their apartment 12 years ago. When they arrived at their apartment, she told me they “walked inside and my daughter just started crying. It was bare. There wasn’t even enough furniture to live. We were depressed. For days we cried and we asked my husband to go back to Iraq, even though we knew we couldn’t go back.”
New arrivals need touches of welcome, something beautiful, something that makes it feel like home.
Ahmed relayed his experience using the bus system on a snowy day four days after they arrived. He, his wife, and their young son headed out for what was to be a 9-minute trip. Eight hours later, they found their way home.
They had taken the wrong route, trekked through the snow without proper clothing, and asked for directions—but no one helped them.
This was so traumatic that once home, Ahmed cried, taboo for Middle Eastern men. He longed to return to his country.
What practical help can we offer in the arrival stage?
Our communities can counter fears like Hala’s or experiences like Ahmed’s in so many practical ways. Often resettlement agencies have volunteers who help newly arrived families.
Newcomers need help:
- Understanding the workings of their new residence, including how to use kitchen appliances, heating, smoke alarms, an in-sink disposal, and trash pickup. (One family, used to washing dishes by hand, had never heard of an electronic dishwasher. Ever practical, they used their dishwasher as a shoe rack.)
- Comprehending and completing the mountains of needed paperwork.
- Utilizing local transportation systems.
- Making appointments, setting up English classes, and paying bills.
- Finding the closest resources such as stores, phone shops, and the library.
- Obtaining employment, which quickly becomes crucial.
But more important than all of this, new arrivals need genuine friendship. It’s important they know they are not alone.
A co-worker shared about her refugee friend’s spiritual questions:
Asma arrived here confused and concerned about the negative influences of a society that seemed rather “godless.” As an adherent Muslim, she was trying to figure out the religious factors that influenced her new surroundings.
Within the first few weeks of our friendship, she asked, “There are many Christians here?”
I said, “Well, many more than in Burma, but not all are Christian.”
She asked “Buddhists?”
“What about ‘no God’ people?”
I answered, “Yes, we definitely have a lot of those people.”
She said with a sigh, “So sad.”
I agreed and shared what belief in God meant to me. That set a foundation for many spiritual conversations about Christ. She felt safe with me and was so grateful her new friend believed there was a God and that I was living my life trying to obey and follow God.
Spiritual needs in this stage vary depending on the individuals’ faith. They need prayer. They need others supporting them to follow Christ if they are believers. If they are not yet believers, you can initiate spiritual conversations when appropriate.
But things get easier, right?
Sadly, that’s often not the case. Refugees will need to walk through some hard adjustments first.
Adjustment stage: 1-? Years
A volunteer shared:
The adjustment stage lasts much longer than people expect or hope. Refugees need stable jobs that provide for themselves, their families, and the people to whom they need to send money back home. Refugees need community, people who understand where they have come from, the food they miss eating, the confusion of their new culture, and the grief of living far from family. They need to find a way to recreate their culture to carry them through the grief of life in their new country not being all that they hoped for.
Hala, too, reflects on her adjustment stage:
In the first six months, everything was strange and new. I used to cry every day because we are so far away and we have no family or friends. For the first time, we saw strangers from different countries and different races. My children were afraid of different people.
We used to think that when we took the bus to go to the market, we would be lost, and we were ashamed to ask people. We thought they would be angry or laugh at us.
When we arrived, we only had 10 dollars, and this was really scary. But the World Relief staff quickly removed this feeling from us when they brought us into a well-equipped house, and when they paid us the rent for six months, and also found a job for Hasan.
In the beginning, we were also afraid of people being upset with us or angry with us because we were refugees and did not know the language. We were ashamed to speak or ask for something; we might make a mistake, so they would get angry. But we have encountered many people who are very nice.
Practical needs during the adjustment stage
My friend Ahmed said to me that he needed help understanding our systems. In his country, all transactions are done in person. Here, everything comes in the mail or via email or even via a note taped to an apartment door.
Many families remain in poverty and struggle to find adequate employment.
Language acquisition becomes critical for a refugee or asylee to move through the adjustment stage—yet language can be especially difficult if someone is processing trauma from war, loss, and grief.
Additionally, immigrants often need help navigating the school system for their children, learning to drive, and getting a driver’s license.
They also need help discovering fun things to do, and building connections within their own cultural community.
Hala reflects on her first four years:
I decided to go to school. At first, I thought I wouldn’t learn, but I did not give up. Just getting to school was difficult, as I had to take my baby with me and go and come back by bus, waiting for the bus in the cold or heat. Sometimes I missed the bus and had to walk instead. My children have now mastered the English language, and I have improved a lot. English is my fourth language, and I do not need a translator. I can’t believe that I am now translating for all Syrians here. I also can’t believe that soon I will apply for American citizenship.
Emotional needs during the adjustment stage
Loneliness is the most common emotion felt across both the adjustment stage and the arrival stage. This is also the place where our engagement can have the greatest impact. Help to form meaningful relationships is the best avenue into deeper conversations.
My co-worker shared:
[Immigrants] also need space to miss the life they left. One day at our women’s tea, I asked the women what they missed about their home country. They started answering in English, but quickly switched to Arabic, and then all of the sudden, all eight women were crying! They said they had left so much behind, and they often don’t talk about it. When they do, they feel the weight and ache of leaving their home.
Another volunteer noted, “all of the women I have met talk about depression. They miss all that is familiar. They really miss living in a communal culture where their home is always open. Many could benefit from some kind of trauma therapy, but this is challenging because most come from cultures where therapy is not acceptable.”
Those who have left war-torn countries sometimes struggle with anxiety and survivor’s guilt. One immigrant, Anna, reported this was hard for her to talk about, but she finally confided in a hostculture friend who encouraged her with Scripture and prayed with her.
Spiritually, our new friends need Jesus! Many newcomers seem to believe all Westerners are Christians, but the newcomers know little to nothing about what we believe. As we invite our friends into our lives, using cultural traditions and holidays can particularly become a wonderful avenue to sharing the gospel.
To become acculturated means a person is making their new country truly home. They’ve navigated the difficult adjustment stage and begun to understand more about their surrounding culture. Self-sufficiency is an important goal of this stage. But they still need help.
After 16 years in-country, Anna has completed the acculturation stage. Anna owns her home and car, teaches French at a local high school, and will soon send her daughter off to college. She attributes her success to a group of Christians who mentored her, prayed with her, and stepped in through many tangible ways.
Navigating this stage is not easy, and not all immigrants are successful. Even after many years, some become stuck in the adjustment stage or the early phases of acculturation. As Christians, we carry the opportunity to offer a place of belonging and integration in our communities, churches, schools, workplaces, and families, so they are not marginalized.
How can we help newcomers navigate acculturation?
Those resettled often still need to practice English with a local friend. You could be an English mentor, visiting a refugee’s home regularly to practice conversational English. Many immigrants love expressing hospitality— and even having something to offer in return for the kindness they’ve received.
They need genuine friendships in their host country. Immigrants need friends to truly support, listen, and help when new issues arise—like studying for a citizenship test or moving forward in education.
They may need help navigating the complexities of family life in their new country. Refugee resettlement is difficult for children. Because of the intensity of the parents’ emotional and socio-economic transition, they often don’t have time or energy to help their children in every need.
Children are often caught in role reversal. They learn the language more quickly than their parents and end up being the family spokesperson wherever English is needed. Parents are often concerned that their children maintain their mother tongue, and this can be challenging. Inevitably, refugee children straddle two social worlds.
Parents can be encouraged to provide children with links to their home culture: food from their country of origin, stories from their homeland (from relatives, fairy tales, parents’ childhood memories), and connections with extended family.
They still need practical help. In acculturation, immigrants often must rely on themselves; agencies generally close resettlement cases after five years. Refugees need friends who still walk with them. They are vulnerable to scams as well as getting stuck in a dead-end, low-paying job that does not maximize their interests or skills. They also need help with understanding educational systems for their children.
When asked what she would need to feel fully integrated and acculturated to this culture, my friend Patrice stated she wants to be comfortable speaking English so she can have genuine friendships, navigate life here, have a calm place to live, and have a good job. She described her need for people to truly listen as she processed the trauma of war and leaving her family behind in Central Africa.
Though she earned a college degree from the Central African Republic, currently Patrice is a cleaner on a military base. She has lived in the United States for nearly five years and is nearly ready to purchase a car. She has applied for a Habitat for Humanity home. She highly values friendship—and I can’t wait to attend her citizenship ceremony!
It’s not hard to be Patrice’s friend. It requires only an open heart and the gift of my time. Opportunities with these new neighbors are ongoing; and most are eager for friendship with us.
In a successful journey, resettled families become contributors
Four and a half years after arriving, Hala declared:
I discovered that here you do not feel that you are a refugee, and this is a great thing. I have gone from feeling fear and shame to feeling confident and strong.
So dive into relationships with these new neighbors, compassionately offering the relational and practical “training wheels” to help them gain speed.
Like any of us amidst obstacles and change, resettled families can become powerful additions and gifts to a community—not despite their adversity and differences, but because of them.
This article was originally published in “Finding Home Again,” © 2023 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.