Local churches open doors to Ukrainian refugees

Joya Breems—Staff Writer

Contributed Photo

On 1st Street SE in Sioux Center, a two-story house sits empty. In the small town, empty houses are somewhat of a hot commodity. This one’s countertops are dusty. It’s been empty for a while. Soon, though, a Ukrainian family will occupy it.

As previously reported in The Diamond, Bethel CRC, Covenant CRC, and Good Shepherd Church partnered with Samaritan’s Purse to rehouse Afghan refugees earlier this year.

This past January, these churches spent hours in training. At Covenant, a seven-module course walked a six-member core committee through subjects including language barriers, the immigration system, and Afghan customs.

 The team considered how to house the refugees, whether they’d be eligible for employment, where their children would attend school, and who would transport them around Sioux Center, amongst other things.

The committee’s members addressed different needs. For example, Verlyn DeWit, a member of Covenant, located a house: a “golden key” available on March 11, the day before the refugees’ March 12 arrival. 

Upon securing the residence, Covenant asked its members to furnish and renovate the house. Its congregation rallied around the deadline.

But the refugees never came. The committee played “phone tag” with Samaritan’s Purse, waiting for the humanitarian aid organization to assign them a family. They were too late. The refugees had already been rehoused. 

During the housing process, the N’WEST Iowa Review published “Welcoming Afghan refugees questionable,” an op-ed urging Christian churches to refuse Muslim, Afghan refugees: “Through his undermining would Satan ruin a Christian community and its surroundings with the influx of non-Christian people?” 

Though disappointed in the article’s rhetoric, DeWit considers it a “turning point” for the Sioux Center community. After the op-ed’s publication, three articles were written in support of Afghan refugees, opening the community’s eyes to the plight of their global neighbors.

As Covenant CRC sat on an empty house, Bethel CRC learned about Ukrainian refugees at the US-Mexico border. Similar to the Afghan refugees, Samaritan’s Purse had been working to connect churches and Ukrainians.

“If we had received this information several weeks ago, we would have shouted, ‘Hallelujah,’” DeWit said. “Now, we don’t want to get our hopes up.”

While Covenant planned to permanently settle their Afghan refugees within the United States, the majority of Ukrainian refugees plan to return to their home country when it is safe to do so. Also, Ukrainians, given their familiarity with Orthodox Christianity and English, lessen the cultural adjustments for themselves and their communities.

“We’re willing to help people from anywhere, but Ukrainians may be a better fit.” DeWit said.

On April 25, the U.S. government granted temporary humanitarian parole to Ukrainian refugees, offering 100,000 Ukrainians a legal pathway to a U.S. residency through a U.S. sponsor. As Covenant and Samaritan’s Purse wait for their arrival, they’re ready.

“Patience does not mean passivity,” said Rev. Joel Kok, the pastor at Covenant. “Just because we’re waiting doesn’t mean we aren’t looking for a step forward.”

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