EAST GREENWICH, RI (July 8, 2010) – The Burmese refugees don’t know until just days before they arrive in the United States that this country will be their new home. They know nothing of the language, its customs, or even about modern appliances. Poor, largely uneducated, and persecuted by their native country, most have spent at least a decade living in refugee camps established in Thailand.
But when they step off the airplane at the TF Green Airport in Providence, they are greeted by their First Friends, a ministry of Christ Church.
Started less than two years ago, this Evangelical Covenant church’s ministry has welcomed eight families and developed relationships that are helping the refugees start new lives, says Brent Pennington, who initiated the ministry. The church helps the families establish new homes, enroll in school, receive tutoring, seek jobs, and provide any other assistance that might be needed. They also desire to be genuine friends.
First meetings can be awkward, says Pennington. “They get off the airplane and all of a sudden there are people they don’t know picking up their luggage and speaking a language they don’t know.”
The refugees are Karen people, persecuted by the oppressive regime for their Christian faith. (This also is the government that refused to allow relief workers into the country to provide assistance following a typhoon that killed thousands of people in 2008).
Non-government organizations (NGOs) aid the refugees from around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States. Christ Church is working with the International Institute of Rhode Island (IIRI), which has extensive experience working with refugees. It trains the volunteers to welcome and assist the families.
The institute honored the congregation on June 2 as part of the organization’s World Refugee Day observance. Refugees shared their stories as well as music.
The refugee camps are the only homes some of the Karen people have ever known. One family being helped by the church lived in the camps for 20 years.
The refugees have no understanding of what Americans take for granted. “They don’t know what a refrigerator is or a freezer,” says Pennington. “They have to be shown what food goes where.”
The Providence Journal reported on the church’s immediate response to assist three refugee families who were displaced when lightning struck the house in which they were staying and started a fire. The flames were confined to an attic, but the damage made the building uninhabitable.
Congregation members visited the refugees who were provided temporary shelter through the Red Cross, brought them meals, and took them to church. The church has a furniture ministry and provided for all the needs of the families – which included refugees from Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, and Burma – within days.
Pennington says that despite the needed emotional and time investment, volunteers believe they get more out of the ministry than even the Burmese.