At the beginning of 2022, JFCS launched their new Community Sponsorship program for faith-based and organized community groups to directly engage in refugee resettlement efforts. Each group goes through a specific training and must commit to providing both financial and volunteer support towards the family they’re matched with. Since that time, three churches have signed on to be a part of the program, and all of them are in various stages of the process.
Oakmont Presbyterian Helps Mom of Three
Oakmont Presbyterian, matched with a family of four from Democratic Republic of Congo, started their sponsorship in late February. Sharon Myers, who has been leading the initiative for Oakmont Presbyterian, described the first time they met the family. “A group of us went to the airport to pick up the family. We knew we were going to be meeting a mom with three children,” she explained. “We saw the mom walk into baggage claim with two children but the third was missing. We were concerned but then we saw the third child bundled up in a wrap on her back! Ever since then, we’ve been just like family.”
After greeting them at the airport, they moved the mom and her three children into a two-bedroom apartment in Oakmont and helped them get settled into their new lives in Pittsburgh. Sharon said they had around 20 members sign up to volunteer with the family in some capacity. “Not long after they arrived, one of the children had some health problems and was admitted to Children’s Hospital for four days,” she said. “During that time, members from the church helped watch the other children so mom could stay with her child in the hospital. And we also went there with her and helped to advocate for them with the hospital staff.”
Sharon said that while the experience has been more challenging than they expected, they’ve learned a lot about what it takes for refugees to build new lives here in the US. “We’re working with the family to help them learn how to use Google Translate to communicate,” she said. “The oldest child–the daughter–is going to school, so we’ve been helping her and mom understand temperatures using photos so they can learn how to dress for school.” They’ve also taught the mom, who is in ESL, how to shop in the grocery stores and even order online. This summer, the mom’s parents and siblings also arrived in Pittsburgh, so the volunteers at Oakmont have been helping them out with learning some cultural navigation as well.
Westminster Presbyterian Prepares for Second Match
Westminster Presbyterian was also matched with a family from Democratic Republic of Congo, but they quickly learned that the family had relatives in Concord, NH, and wanted to move there instead. The church worked together with Alina, the Community Sponsorship Coordinator, to contact a resettlement office in Concord and get their case transferred. Members from the church drove the family to the airport one week after they arrived to go to their new home. Instead of keeping the furniture they had for their original family, they donated it to another family of refugees for their new apartment.
While the original family they were assigned didn’t work out, Westminster plans to be matched with another family in the fall. Susan and John Van Cleve, who have been heading up the initiative for their church, talked about this decision and their hopes for the future family. “Welcoming the stranger is a part of our faith,” John explained. “This is something that’s very important to our new senior pastor and the leadership of the church.” Susan added, “We feel committed as a church to doing a tangible mission to help our neighbors. And we wanted to bring church members together to do outreach. The whole church is participating in some way, even if they’re not volunteering.”
Trinity Lutheran Church Welcomes Young Family
Trinity Lutheran Church has been matched with a family of three from Democratic Republic of Congo since May. When some members of the church decided they wanted to do something to help refugees, they got in touch with JFCS and decided to become sponsors. Jane, one of the church’s representatives, said, “We did the training with Alina, and it seemed doable. We felt confident that through JFCS we would have support throughout the process.” While they weren’t able to find an apartment for the family before their arrival, they worked hard with the JFCS team to find the family a place to live.
In the meantime, Jane and the rest of the volunteers from Trinity Lutheran got to know the family as they adjusted to their new lives. “Every time I see their little boy he gives me great big hugs,” Jane said. “He just turned four, and he’s into everything. He doesn’t like to stay on the sidewalks. He loves the McDonald’s playground. One of the times we took them, he got up into the playground and wouldn’t come down. One of the older members of our church had to climb up into the playground to encourage him to come down! He’s a lot of fun.” They’ve been working with the parents to help them use Google Translate to communicate. Jane said that she still remembers the first Swahili-to-English translated message they got from the family, thanking them for the care they’ve received.
For all of these groups, the process has been both challenging and inspiring—to commit to caring for and helping a family for a year when they are in a new country with a new language. But all the volunteers expressed how much it has helped them grow and learn. JFCS has been thankful for the support of these community members who are willing to help us continue to welcome refugees into our city and ensure they feel like they belong.