“The Church is the greatest vehicle God has chosen to bless the world around them,” says Joseph Khabbaz, youth and young adult pastor for the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist church in Maryland, United States (US). Khabbaz leads a group of church volunteers in a unique outreach to the recently resettled Syrian refugees in their community. Adventist News Network (ANN) interviewed Khabbaz to learn more.
ANN: Tell us how your church became involved with refugee ministry.
JK: One of our Sligo church members, Hannah Koilpillai, became involved in a volunteer program that helped set up local apartments for newly arriving refugee families. She needed an Arabic translator to help her communicate with one of the families, and reached out to Anees Abdelnour, another church member who is fluent in Arabic.
Abdelnour had been looking for ways to assist newly arriving Syrian refugees here in Maryland and was excited to help Koilpillai. Abdelnour began brainstorming how he could help these families and meet some of their most pressing needs. That’s when he proposed this refugee outreach opportunity to me. When I heard the personal stories of what some of these families have been through, how they risked their lives to get their families out of dire situations, and learned of some of their struggles in their new home country, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of compassion and a desire to help.
The church, especially our young adults group, has become very engaged with this program and the size of our volunteer base continues to grow. We originally had a handful of people helping on their own. We now have a consistent and organized group of Sligo church volunteers who have been inviting families and friends to come and assist. Everyone who has participated in this outreach program has expressed how special of an opportunity it has been to meet refugee families, get to know them for who they really are, see and hear first-hand some of their struggles, and build relationships with them.
ANN: What problem does your program solve?
JK: The refugee outreach program we have is a form of compassion in action. As you can imagine, it is very difficult to uproot and move to a new home with your entire family, while adjusting to a new culture, a new language, and a new way of doing things. We simply want to show Christian love to these people so that they know they are warmly received here in their new community.
Another aspect of this ministry is to provide much-needed supplies since many of these families are struggling to pay for rent, buy groceries to feed their families, etc. We have visited nearly 40 different Syrian refugee families here in Maryland. We provide them with food, cleaning supplies, and occasionally small toys for their children as a gesture of kindness and hospitality. We are exploring other avenues, based on the feedback we have received, to continue helping these families acclimate and thrive in their new community. We plan to provide English classes, computer classes, and health programs.
ANN: What have you learned about the refugee crisis through your involvement in this ministry?
JK: I have learned that this crisis has devastated millions of lives, careers, and dreams. Sadly, it has also forced families to be torn apart, as many refugee families living in the US have elderly parents, siblings and a host of other family members still behind. Many of the families we visit lived a more comfortable life than they do now, and if it weren’t for the eminent threat of death and harm as a result of the unrest in Syria, many of them would have stayed where they were.
I believe many of the volunteers who participate in this outreach begin to see that we are much more similar than we are different. We don’t realize that until we get to know the people behind the term “refugee.” As I have entered into the homes of these families, it is apparent that the parent’s greatest burden is to provide an opportunity for their kids to have a hopeful future without the threat of war and civil unrest robbing them of future opportunities.
ANN: Is there a particular story that stands out to you?
JK: The last time we held our refugee outreach program, one of the Syrian gentleman who we have been visiting shared with us that he has never met Christians who are as dedicated to living-out their faith as Seventh-day Adventist Christians. They really appreciated what we were doing and were moved by our simple acts of hospitality and welcome towards their small community of Syrian refugee families.
ANN: Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
JK: I am most proud of the many volunteers at Sligo church who are giving their time, talents and resources to support families from parts of the world they have never lived in or visited. I believe the Church is the greatest vehicle God has chosen to bless the world around them. There have been times we felt overwhelmed and wondered where the resources and help would come from. I am so proud of the faith and perseverance of our volunteers who believed that God would turn obstacles into opportunities as they trusted in Him.
ANN: What do you think other people should know about this ministry?
JK: Our ministry needs more volunteers and resources so that we can continue providing much needed help to these families. Their needs aren’t limited to material things. As I spoke with families, I asked them what their greatest fear was when they came to the US. Almost all the refugee families said their greatest fear was the language barrier and how it may limit their ability to integrate both socially and vocationally.
Refugee families are very eager to learn English so that they can get better jobs in order for them to adequately provide for their families. Many of them were advanced in their careers before the war and we’ve met people who were small business owners, educators, veterinarians. Many of them are skilled in electrical engineering, car mechanics, and internet technology. The language barrier keeps them from applying for jobs they are qualified for.
Refugees, especially from Syria and other parts of the Middle East, are often viewed with skepticism and at times even fear. We often fear what we don’t understand. However, I would encourage people to get to know refugee families and hear their stories. What people may surprisingly discover is that they have a lot more in common with refugees than they realize.
Our tendency is to think that what refugee families need most are material things. Even though material things have their place, these families tend to describe their struggles in more social terms. Many of them feel fearful, helpless, depressed, and isolated. There can be a mismatch between how others perceive refugees and how refugees perceive themselves and the challenges they are facing.
The strength of this ministry is not just to meet material needs but to also develop relationships with these families to meet their deeper needs: friendship and compassion. As a result of this outreach program, some volunteers have invited refugee families to their homes for dinner, written birthday cards for their children, and bought them gifts. These refugee families deeply appreciate these acts of kindness, especially considering they come from a culture where hospitality is a big part of how they express appreciation and respect to one another. Again, this ministry seeks to go beyond helping in only material ways.
ANN: How have you been changed as a result of your involvement in this project?
JK: This ministry has helped me realize in a greater sense what it means to be truly poor and in desperate need of help. Living in the West, I can easily fall into the trap of defining poverty in economic terms. I have come to realize even more clearly that poverty goes beyond economics and speaks to my broken human nature. I am just as broken as the refugee. I am unable to reach my full potential and be who God created me to be without God’s grace in Jesus Christ. My nature is spiritually poor and destitute and I rely each day on the treasures of God’s grace.
According to the Pew Research Center, last year alone, as of October, nearly 28,000 refugees had been resettled in the United States (US). And, while this story takes place in Maryland, US, it is very likely that there are new neighbors in your community who need to feel Christ’s love and compassion. Here are a few helpful resources if you’d like more information on the refugee crisis: