Welcome to America – Part Three

In this third and final post, Jennifer Merck writes about a transcendent moment shared with the newly arrived Khalid family.

Once we unloaded, unpacked, and set up the apartment, we regrouped with Emily regarding the Khalids’ timing. Each refugee family is met at the airport by a caseworker from the resettlement agency, in this case, the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago (ECAC). Resettlement agencies are federally contracted agencies. Some are associated with particular ethnic groups, but all welcome people from many ethnic groups. The ECAC Caseworker reported that they had not yet left O’Hare, but hoped to leave soon.

By this time, the light was waning. The landlord’s workers had left a single spotlight in the living area, powered from the hallway. They would retrieve it in the morning: a gesture of kindness in anticipation of the arrival of the family who would spend their first night in the United States without electricity. The four of us — Michael, Taylor, Emily and I — sat on folding chairs provided by ECAC, talking in hushed tones for 45 minutes, as we eagerly awaited the Khalids’ arrival.

Footsteps. We finally heard them on the stairs: thumping over and over, indicating quite a few people were arriving. We rose from our chairs, knowing that this must be those we’d been waiting for. The ECAC Caseworker (who later shared with us that he’d arrived from Ethiopia as a refugee himself many years ago) introduced us to the Khalid family. Emily introduced Michael and Taylor and me to the Caseworker and the family. We stood awkwardly in the sparsely furnished living area, not enough chairs for all of us to sit. Khalid and his wife and children were tired. We knew we would leave soon, but wanted to show them around the apartment a bit. Mom was most interested in the kitchen — dishes and the not-yet-arrived refrigerator and the cabinets full of utensils & staples & pots & pans. The 17-year-old daughter was most interested in the Vera Bradley backpack someone had donated; we’d left it on the bed that would be hers. The boys were most interested in the bunkbed room, where they would live. They laughed among themselves; it was clear that this family enjoyed one another, even in the midst of their exhaustion.

We were about to leave. We’d given the Khalids a brief tour of their 2-bedroom apartment. We’d let them know that the students’ professor would stop by on the weekend with some fresh fruit & vegetables. We understood that a few of them were headed out with the Caseworker to find some Pakistani food (easily found in their neighborhood!) to bring home for the family to eat. So, we said our goodbyes, ready to head back to Wheaton.

I’ve been on quite a few Welcome Pack deliveries. What happened next was quite profound, something I’d never experienced before.

Eleven of us stood in the living area, quite crowded for the little apartment. We had begun to walk toward the door when the daughter and her father began quickly speaking with one another in Urdu, their native language. Something about their gestures made us pause, instead of exiting. The daughter spoke directly to me, in broken, but clear English: “My father would like to pray for you.” My mind raced: we’d said we were from a church; the family had declared themselves to be Catholic on their refugee status application; he is either very bold, or he must simply feel comfortable offering to pray. I even had a fleeting thought: this will be interesting, since none of us know Urdu!

So, we gathered. In that little space, because it somehow seemed right, we gathered in a circle: all of us . . . 5 Pakistanis fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in our country, 1 Ethiopian already settled here for many years, 1 Caucasian young woman who grew up at a Lutheran church in Glen Ellyn, 1 Caucasian young woman who wants to be a Physician’s Assistant, 1 Hispanic young man who works at Target, and me. We gathered in a circle and we — all of us — bowed our heads, because it seemed the right thing to do.

And then: silence. Two full minutes of silence. The muffled sounds of the snowy evening in the City floated in through the 3rd floor window, but inside that apartment: silence.

I wasn’t sure if I’d misunderstood. Were we praying silently? Perhaps. Was Mr. Khalid waiting for something to happen? Perhaps. But in the silence, I began to realize that I may have misunderstood. Perhaps Mr. Khalid was asking me to pray for them? So, I offered. With my eyes closed, I asked the daughter if she would like me to pray for them. She quietly said, “Yes, please.”

I prayed. With tears streaming down my face, I prayed for this sweet family. I prayed for their safety. I prayed that they would find friends and begin to feel at home in this neighborhood. I thanked God for the opportunity of welcoming these new friends. I was very aware of my audience. I had no idea of the faith background of several in the room. But that was ok — our host (the tables had turned, without perception) had asked me to pray.

God was there in that apartment that night. He joined us as the Khalids arrived and we welcomed them. What a privilege to join in His work. If you’d like to know more about ways that you and your family can welcome refugees, please let me know (jennifer.merck@allsouls.com). All Souls is a place of welcome. We are glad to extend the hand of welcome to others, and would love for you and your family to be part of that work.