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“It’s just a simple friendship”

Refugee Hope Partners seeks to form relationships with refugees and help them become self-sufficient

“It’s just a simple friendship”

Site director Sarah Beth Sickling helps a girl from Congo with a math worksheet. (Photo by Amanda Herbert)

Refugee Hope Partners occupies a small rectangular building in the middle of an apartment complex in Raleigh, N.C. Shaded by tall pines and a red awning over the door, the building doubles as a community center and one-room schoolhouse. Inside, volunteer Mary Maierhofer explains areas and perimeters to a class of seven students. She points to a shape on the classroom whiteboard and asks if the students think its area is greater or less than another shape.

When no one answers, Maierhofer says, “Just take a guess. It’s OK if you’re wrong.”

“Less?” A girl in the back row guesses. Then silence. Maierhofer says, “Tulizo, I love that you take a guess. It makes you smarter.” 

In the two years Maierhofer has been volunteering, the retired math teacher has overcome doubts. She used to think students were gossiping about her in their languages. She’s learned to make fun of herself: One student, Sonita, tried to teach her Turkish, but “that wasn’t working well.” Maierhofer said they laugh together when one misspeaks in the other’s language. She’s learned to put a premium on relationships: “You know they love you, and you love them. It’s just a simple friendship.”

Those personal relationships are essential to Refugee Hope Partners’ mission: Loving refugees and helping them become self-sufficient. For the past 13 years, the organization has focused on building relationships with refugees from different cultures and traumatic circumstances. Volunteers have learned to share the gospel while respecting cultural differences. Recently, COVID-19 has forced the organization to adjust its offerings to meet new needs.

Photo by Amanda Herbert

Volunteer Mary Maierhofer (Photo by Amanda Herbert)

The ministry began one Sunday in 2007, when a refugee family from Burma walked into Christ Covenant Church of Raleigh. The congregation had been praying about how to serve the community; now was its chance: Church members welcomed the refugees and helped set up their apartment. They settled the children in school. 

That Burmese family knew three more families who all lived in the same apartment complex. Those families knew others, and soon the church found itself trying to help 15 refugee families. Church member Michele Suffridge said the church was suddenly on a journey, “trying to figure out how to serve this population in a way that’s healthy for everyone.” 

Suffridge’s church was not the only one trying to help. One time she parked her van at the complex to take some of the children swimming. There she met a woman from another church waiting to take the same kids to Vacation Bible School. “We had never met,” Suffridge said. “It was just really awkward.” So the two women decided to coordinate efforts: “That was the beginning of Refugee Hope Partners.” (Suffridge is now RHP’s executive director.) 

Through reading When Helping Hurts, leaders understood they should focus on helping refugees solve their own problems, not fixing everything for them. The organization stopped doing things for families and started teaching them to do things themselves. RHP organized after-school tutoring for kids, English classes for parents, and Bible studies for everyone. Later it added the Bridge program to help high-school students navigate next steps. RHP leased two apartments in the complex for office space, and the property owner turned the pool house into a community center for RHP programs.

Photo by Amanda Herbert

A boy from Congo during the Summer Clubs and Fun program. (Photo by Amanda Herbert)

MOST WEEKDAYS, kids trickle to the community center for class or activities. One day in July, two Nepali girls, Preena and Abishna, walked to their fifth grade math class together. Preena grew up in Raleigh, but Abishna’s family moved there seven years ago, after her mother fled from an abusive aunt. 

Volunteers are sometimes shocked at what refugees like Abishna have endured. One Afghan family fled from terrorists who threatened death unless the family paid an ever-increasing bribe. The family finally fled to Kyrgyzstan, and then to Raleigh. Another family moved to the United States so the father could get medical care for his eye. After they arrived, doctors found he had cancer. And another family moved from Burma after the war forced them from their home and six of the children starved to death.

Volunteers need help coping with the intense needs they confront: “You would see a mom really sick, or you would see a kid really sick or lack of food,” Suffridge says. Volunteers “feel the weight of that … situation after situation after situation like this.” RHP has a structure in place to handle various needs, so volunteers report the needs they see, knowing RHP can offer resources to help.

Although volunteers are trained to avoid bringing up past trauma, almost anything can remind children of it: approaching too quickly, crowding them, or loud noises, for example. At one event a volunteer offered a child a hot dog. Then, remembering the child was Muslim, withdrew the hot dog to get an appropriate replacement. The child panicked when the volunteer took the food away. As volunteers get to know individual families and children, they learn what helps each child feel comfortable. 

Although RHP has not seen many refugee families embrace Christ, gospel conversations take place frequently. One Muslim family arrived from Iraq in 2014. The five kids started attending RHP’s English classes. The daughters attended Bible studies, and staff members ate meals in the family’s home. They talked with the parents often about God, but the parents never professed faith. Suffridge still talks with the family: “There’s a relationship there that I feel like God cultivated. … Maybe it’s the next person that they’re open to that shares the gospel with them.” 

Photo by Amanda Herbert

Refugee mothers gather together for a craft night with their ESL teachers. (Photo by Amanda Herbert)

REFUGEE HOPE PARTNERS officially became a nonprofit in 2018, codifying a decade’s worth of experience and practices. The board was making plans to expand when the pandemic struck Raleigh. 

RHP staff scrambled to educate 650 refugees—from 30 countries—about the novel coronavirus. The constantly changing situation did not help, nor did the language barrier or the communal living most families practiced. Suffridge said multiple refugee families had already survived epidemics in their home countries: The pandemic triggered trauma for some, while others failed to see the danger. Many lost jobs and had no internet or devices for their children’s schoolwork. Large families stuck in tiny apartments grew restless and bored. Despite warnings, the kids continued to play soccer and ride scooters together around the complex. 

RHP facilitated conversations between families and schools about distance learning. They brought in a doctor to answer questions about the virus. After Raleigh food banks closed in March, RHP held a food drive. Church small groups packed 250 boxes of food for the refugees. RHP matched families with churches, which provided food and boxes of crafts, books, bubbles, and games to entertain the kids. RHP staff texted and visited families to help them identify symptoms. 

Michele Suffridge said their goal was to “provide calm in the midst of chaos.” She knew the families were watching the staff respond, and because of Jesus, RHP could “walk confidently into this.” Their resources held steady: Churches and individuals continued to donate, and a local business gave two matching grants.

Refugee Hope Partners does not usually give away food and supplies, but Suffridge says this is the first time in almost 13 years when so many refugees are losing jobs. “We have families that are really hurting.” As the pandemic dragged on, some families returned food boxes to Refugee Hope Partners. That showed Suffridge it was time to pull back on the crisis giveaway program and return to meeting individual needs.

Photo by Amanda Herbert

A brother and sister from Afghanistan. (Photo by Amanda Herbert)

THIS SUMMER, RHP programs look different. The kids cannot go to camp or do “read and swim,” where they read books to earn pool visits. Summer learning clubs are happening, with small groups of masked children. Neon tape on the floor marks a 6-by-6-foot box around each child’s folding desk. Staff members still visit families to check on them.  

That apartment complex, surrounded by tall pine trees, remains the heartbeat of RHP. Fast-food cups and broken glass litter the parking lot and sidewalks. Colorful laundry hangs over the balconies of nondescript apartments with window AC units. The smell of frying fish drifts through open doors, mingling with the odor of garbage left outside. Dogs bark, children play, and adults call to each other from balconies or stop to chat in the shade of the trees beside the parking lot. 

“It probably doesn’t feel this way looking at it,” said Suffridge. “But it really is a place of hope.”

Moneybox

2019 income: $272,932

2019 expenses: $292,071

Paid staff: 10 Volunteers: 250

CEO’s salary: $34,600

Website: refugee­hopepartners.org

Charissa Koh

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a reporter for WORLD based in Austin, Texas. Follow Charissa on Twitter @CharissaKoh.