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Local Faith Communities Sponsor Refugee Family

Julien Harnels

Like many Americans, Gretchen Snow  was horrified at the photos of a drowned Syrian refugee child who washed up on the shores of Greece. Then there were the images of African families fleeing violence in their villages, walking on dirt roads, children in tow and their  belongings on their backs.

Snow decided she had to act. She was not alone.

Snow is a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Bloomington, one of three faith communities that is helping to resettle a refugee family from the Congo. The others are New Covenant Church, based at Illinois State University, and the Sunday Night Group, a small faith group that consists mainly of Catholics who met attending services at ISU's Newman Center. 

Together, members of the three communities have pledged thousands of dollars to help support a mother with two children -- a 10-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy -- over the next two years.

"It just seemed impossible not be responding," Snow said. "Our hearts were opened to being welcoming."

"A lot of us felt powerless and helpless ... and we decided  that the only way to get rid of that feeling was to do something," said Mary Campbell of the Sunday Night Group. 

The faith communities initially had hoped to help a Syrian family to resettle here, but the process of  sponsoring Syrian refugees proved too daunting.

Mary Beth Taylor of New Covenant said it made sense to sponsor a Congolese family. There are already hundreds of Congolese immigrants living in Bloomington-Normal. They did not enter the country as refugees, but under other immigration categories.

Taylor said the faith groups have lined up housing for the family,  as well as furniture and other necessities, arranged schooling for the children, and medical assistance for the 10-year-old who has a severe physical disability.

Volunteers are also helping the mother, who speaks seven languages, find work in the Twin Cities. The family is expected to arrive here sometime in June. 

The churches  have decided to release only general information about the family out of a concern for privacy.

Snow said the woman's first husband died and a second husband abandoned the family, leaving his wife as the sole protection for the two small children amid increasing political violence sweeping the Congo.

The family spent 14 years in a refugee camp in Malawi before arriving in Chicago two years ago through the aid of Refugee One, a resettlement organization. 

Taylor said the family will receive some government assistance for a period of time, and the daughter who has a disability will receive help for her substantial medical needs through the state Medicaid program.

"They will need some assistance for a time until (the mother) can find a job and become self supporting," Taylor said.

All three women said their actions are rooted in their Christian beliefs, and more. "It is  just who our country is and has been from the beginning. We welcome strangers, refugees and immigrants. They have made our country what it is," Taylor said.

Taylor called the mother in the family a "fantastic person, so resilient. She'll bring a lot to this community and the children will too."

Campbell said her family was involved in sponsoring Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s after American troops left that country and South Vietnam fell under totalitarian rule. "Our lives were transformed because of their lives," she said of the Vietnamese refugees.

All three women said their effort  is  "absolutely" something other faith communities can replicate. "It's just a wonderful community effort," Taylor said. 

"If we help this one family we are at least beginning the journey of helping not only other refugees, but ourselves to be better people," Campbell said.

Residents can donate cash or other necessities through Resurrection Lutheran Church, New Covenant Church or Refugee One. 

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