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Making new friends

Exodus offers refugees in America something very few have: someone to trust

Making new friends

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

CHICAGO- In a rust-colored apartment building on Chicago's north side the elevators stink and the linoleum is scuffed-but the greetings are warm and genuine in Chidananda Sapotka's living room. Sapotka and his family, refugees from Bhutan, arrived in Chicago three weeks ago.

In 1993 the king of Bhutan, a small nation in the Himalayas, decided to expel 100,000 of his subjects. These Bhutanese, who had committed the grave crime of being ethnically distinct from the ruling majority, were exiled into neighboring Nepal. For the next 17 years, their lives were on hold in UN refugee camps. Families lived together in one-room bamboo huts, with roofs of crude plastic sheeting. They had shelter and meager provisions but little else. No jobs. Limited schooling. Waiting-for 17 years.

Dilli Maya Sapotka, the matriarch of the family, serves apple slices and orange juice to her guests. The apartment is stuffy, and as family members sit together on a daybed in the living room and say they are pleased to have finally arrived in America, they recognize the challenges they face. Their English is limited and they have no marketable job skills. For now they are taking English classes and trying to come to grips with America. A teenage Bhutanese neighbor translates enthusiastically if not fluently while checking text messages on his cell phone.

"Here language different, uniform different, everything different, day and night different, spelling is different, very difficult," Sapotka says through his translator. "No time to go outside, go outside, we get lost."

They do have one advantage over other new arrivals. They have two American friends, Curt and Connie Kreuger. They met the Kreugers through the New Neighbors program of Exodus, a Chicagoland ministry that seeks to connect refugees with American families. Once a week Curt and Connie meet with the family and offer a chance to practice English, to ask questions, to confide. When both families went to the aquarium, it was an afternoon of firsts for the Sapotkas. First train ride, first aquarium ("fish go up, down, up, down, up, down! We like the fish"), first American food ("did not like these sandwiches").

The process that brings refugees to America is complicated. The State Department works in the UN camps, screening and rescreening potential immigrants. Then the State Department gives a grant to a resettlement agency, which handles the nuts and bolts of the transition to the United States. The refugees get on a plane-they usually are forced to take out a loan to pay for the trip-and at the destinations they are picked up and driven to their new, preselected apartment (more loans). The resettlement agency provides a small budget for household goods/groceries and provides ESL classes, job training, and job placement. The children go to school. Throughout this process, refugees have their minimum basic material needs cared for.

Exodus exists for something different. Volunteers strive to create a trusted social network around refugees, who have left behind their friends, family, and everything else they know to come to a new land. Without a trusted network, refugees can seek advice in the wrong places, either withdrawing from society or becoming vulnerable to predators.

Kirk Lashley, himself a first-generation immigrant from Trinidad, was a New Neighbor for another Bhutanese family: "I remember taking them to the bank to set up their bank accounts. He had to take $700, which was his entire life savings, and put it in an envelope and deposit it into the slot of an ATM. He looked at me like I was crazy, like, 'I'm supposed to do what?' but he did it." Lashley shook his head. "The amount of trust that must have taken."

Heidi Schoedel helped found Exodus as a way to mobilize the church to help refugees. All volunteers come from local churches, which often provide the ministry's "Welcome To America" packs, gifts of household goods and groceries that are waiting for refugees in their new apartments when they move in. As relationships develop, volunteers talk about their beliefs. At Living Water Community Church in Rogers Park, Chicago, Exodus volunteers and refugee families make up much of the congregation. The Passing of the Peace is offered in five languages, and there is a special Khmer language service for Cambodian refugees.

Relationships are not always simple or easy: Some volunteers find it hard to offer friendship without offering material gifts. In many refugee societies, a close friend is duty bound to give anything he can afford; unwillingness to do so means that the friendship is only superficial. Volunteers may want to give freely after seeing the difficulties refugees face, but that can create dependence and isn't necessary. Schoedel says, "Refugees are survivors, not victims."

The lot of refugees in Chicago is a difficult one. Rent is high. Jobs can be scarce. After three months, resettlement agencies stop direct support, and refugees must take what they can get, which often means a three-hour commute to the slaughterhouses west of Chicago. It's gruesome, low-paying work, but previous generations of immigrants faced similar challenges and made life better for their children and grandchildren.

Relationships can make a difference. Volunteers are encouraged to limit material gifts and avoid telling refugees what to do. Volunteers provide advice, if asked, but they are friends, no more. "You can't go in saying, let's save these people and solve all their problems," Lashley said. "You have to go in saying, let's have some new friends."

The Exodus approach makes it something of an anachronism in a goal-oriented world. Traditional measures of success like income, job level, education, and language skills don't apply. "What defines success for Americans is often standard of living," Julie Carlsen, the director of Exodus' New Neighbors program, said. "We try not to focus on goals like getting a specific job or achieving a specific language level. The goal is always the relationship."

This is an older, more basic form of Christian charity, based on welcoming the stranger in our midst. Without it, refugees may be cut off from society. "I've met refugees who have been here three years, or five years, and have never been in an American's home," Schoedel said.

That, at least, the Sapotkas have avoided. The Kreugers are arranging a barbecue at their house for next week's visit. Meanwhile, Sapotka focuses on his more material desires, his own version of the American dream: "Learn the language, get a job. Get big money, get big apartment. Then go back and visit Bhutan."

The Kreugers listen, smiling, from the corner of the apartment. Sapotka probably won't be making big money any time soon, and he may not ever be able to return to Bhutan. But unlike many of his countrymen, he won't be alone. The Sapotka family might not have much, but they do have friends.

Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the Midwest regional finalists.

To view a video profile of Exodus and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.

Exodus Factbox

Location: Chicago, Ill.

Founded: 1988

Size: 2 full-time employees; refugees helped each year through the New Neighbor program: 620

Annual Budget: $300,000

Website: www.e-w-s.org

Daniel Olasky

Daniel Olasky