Project HELP: Refugees -- Stories of Those Who Help

Fondra Magee works with refugees in Washington.

In Mission Friends we have shared the stories of missionaries who work with refugees, both in North America and internationally. We also want to share the stories of people who help refugees in their own communities, whether through their church, job position, or a community organization. Their stories will inspire you, and also give ideas about ways we can help within our own communities.

First up, we share about Fondra Magee, a school counselor at a public elementary school in the inner city of Spokane, Washington. The school is very diverse. Fifteen languages are spoken in Fondra's school, and 77 languages are spoken throughout the school district. Many of these languages are spoken by refugee children.

I first met Fondra as the Utah/Idaho WMU president, and then came to learn of her work with refugees. Fondra has a wealth of insight to share, so I asked Fondra several questions related to her work with refugees:

How do you work with refugees in the school setting?

Fondra: I often counsel refugee students on a myriad of issues related to their displacement, in addition to normal development challenges. Parents of these students also need emotional support and encouragement.

Many refugee children come to America knowing no English or very little, but they pick up on the language much more quickly than their parents. The children often assume the role of interpreter. They may be asked to read all the mail and decide what pieces of mail are important. They often assist in paying the bills. They may even have to interpret for parents at crisis times with a physician, at a bank, or with authorities. These acculturation differences create challenges at home, put added stress on children, and may also lead to parents feeling ineffective as their role has changed and diminished.

As children become more adapted to a culture other than their own, this can cause conflict in the home with youth feeling like they don’t quite belong to either the culture of their U.S. peers or the culture of their parents. Both parents and students can display struggles with identity and feelings of isolation. I work with students and families on these issues, if they are willing.

In addition to counseling refugee students and their families, we have support personnel in my school, including myself, who help these families with resources. Starting and adjusting to life in the United States brings extraordinary stress and upheaval. Refugees have very limited monetary resources and must find a job quickly to survive. They must learn to speak English and navigate a difficult and foreign system of paying bills, taking public transportation, buying groceries, and making doctor appointments. These routine tasks can look quite different in the U.S. than in their native country.

These new refugees almost always live in poverty as is the case of the families in my school. They struggle with how to pay rent, pay bills, and provide for their families. There is very little, if any, social networking among refugees to find resources.

As a school counselor, I can help connect refugee families with some of the resources and support services needed such as English as Second Language classes, citizenship classes, employment support, and other resources.

What is one thing you've been surprised to learn about refugees?

Fondra: The most surprising thing I have learned from the refugee families is the absolute importance on relationship over everything else. Mainstream U.S. view tends to treat "tasks" as more important and we often put things before people. Other cultures value relationships as the most important thing. I have learned so incredibly much from the beautiful refugee families I have worked with and this is, by far, the most important lesson they have taught me.

More than what I can "do" to help them, is building a respectful that shows that I am curious and genuinely interested in the INDIVIDUAL. While it is important that I try to understand the trauma and challenges they have faced as they tell their story, it is also so important to gain an understanding of this individual that goes beyond their refugee experiences.

Being a refugee is not their only story. They are mothers, fathers, brothers, athletes, musicians, and so much more. I can find myself, if I am not careful, feeling pity or sorrow because of their refugee story and that is not helpful nor what they need. They are not a project and I am not their savior.

Because of their lack of English skills and living an unfamiliar foreign land, I have had refugees tell me they feel unintelligent, incapable and incompetent. They are far from any of those things. My job is to build on the individual's demonstrated strength and resilience, encourage, and be their friend.

In what ways are you able to share your faith with refugees?

Fondra: Working in a public school, I am not able to share my faith as I would like, but when questions of faith come up with parents, I am able to point them to a faith community. I have been blessed to have been invited into the homes of some of our refugee families for fellowship and a meal (remember the relationship is the most important thing) and this has proven to be a wonderful time for questions of faith and conversations surrounding the refugee's belief that their survival was due to God.

Are there ways that other individuals or churches are involved in helping the refugees?

Fondra: My school does have a wonderful church that has adopted our school, and they want to get more involved in helping these refugee families. They currently are making sure that our refugee students, as well as others, have the opportunity to attend the weeklong Christian camp they lead each summer free of charge.

We also have mentors from local businesses who come and have lunch with some of our students, including refugee students, once a week at lunch. Of course, our English Language Teachers, interpreters, and international liaisons are all very involved with our refugee families in the way of teaching, helping them find housing, and navigating the complex U.S. system.

We also have a wonderful Cultural Fair at our school, in which our families dress in their native attire, cook delicious dishes from their country of origin, and share music from their culture. This is such a beautiful event and our international and refugee families have taught us all so much about the importance of valuing all people from different cultures and those represented in our school.

What are ways we can pray for you in your work with refugees?

Fondra: Please pray I will have more opportunities to share my faith in a context outside of school by way of invitation into homes. It is very rare and a HUGE in-road to be invited into a refugee's home, signifying trust and a valued relationship.

Pray for me to be respectful of cultural and deeply held beliefs, while allowing the Holy Spirit to gently guide me with what, when, and how He wants me to share the Hope that is found in Christ. Refugees often come to America with a religion that is central to their life. Often this religion is perceived as providing strength and sustenance during incredibly difficult times. This is where I have found ease of conversation into the only real source of peace that is found in Jesus Christ. 

Please pray for individual and community barriers to mental health treatment to be broken.

Many refugees come from countries with little if any mental health infrastructure. Parents often have had little, if any, access to counseling. If their country did have mental health services, mental health issues were often seen as a sign that you lack faith or have committed sin in a past life. Admitting to needing help for themselves or their children may be considered a weakness, carry a stigma, or bring shunning and ridicule from others in that culture.

I have often had students and parents tell me that if they saw a counselor, they would be considered "crazy." As a counselor, I desire to use my God-given gifts to help my refugee students and their families. Pray for barriers to be broken and that these families would be able to receive the help some of them desperately need. 

Please pray for the church that has adopted our school, and our school mentors from the community (many are Christians) as they engage with our refugee families. Pray for more Christian partners!

Please pray for creative ways we can meet these families' basic needs, needs for belonging, and most importantly their need for Christ.

Pray for open doors as our English Literacy Development (ELD) teacher and I have made plans to visit each home of our international/refugee ELD students during the first 2 weeks of school.

We thank Fondra Magee for sharing her story with us. Now what does this mean for you?

Is there a local school in which refugees or international children attend? Could you lead your church to adopt the school, help refugees navigate the grocery store, help children with homework, or simply read to them? Each of us can pray for Fondra and for those in our own communities who serve refugees and international students in the schools.



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