by Tom Sims
One out of every three people in the Central Valley was born somewhere outside of the United States. Four hundred forty-three were born in Syria. For a little over a year, Kings River Life has been tracking some of their stories and the work of Fresno Interdenominational Refuge Ministries (FIRM) walking with them in those stories. This is an update.
According to FIRM’s Executive Director Zack Darrah who has met with each family in Fresno, children are in school, adults are working, families are getting settled in homes around the city, and a strong community is being built. In fact, communities are being built, not just among the refugees, but with the refugees integrating into new communities. Syrian families have partnered with families from faith communities for conversation, meals, sharing of resources, and English learning. These relationships have enriched the Syrians and their American friends.
In addition, there is the community that the new Syrian American neighbors have joined, the extended family of FIRM that is made up of Laotian, Hmong, African, and Slavic refugees. Through FIRM’s multi-cultural events and interaction new Americans come to mingle with longer-term Americans and realize they are not alone. The spirit of FIRM does not take long to catch. It is centered in the love that motivates all staff, volunteers, and participants to build communities of home for New Americans.
Volunteers like Jim Call and Jackie Holmes, joint 2018 recipients of the Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley Award exemplify the passion and commitment of people in the community to welcome these families who have suffered so much. This award is given annually in recognition and appreciation for dedicated service to and passion for Fresno’s refugee community. It is named for FIRM’s founder and longtime executive director, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley who was present at the November annual banquet to present the award and be part of a ceremony where a building on the FIRM campus was named in her honor.
Holmes, who founded Habitat for Humanity in Fresno, is now retired and has personally invested hundreds of hours in Syrian families. Call, similarly has given his time and resources moving people with his truck, rallying his church’s volunteers, and being a friend to refugees.
The families have come to Fresno with nothing, no money, no possessions, and no contacts. FIRM has been able to gather community groups, businesses, non-profits, and government resources to come alongside these families and broker the resources they have needed to become stable and productive members of the community.
The Muslim leaders and Mosques of the city have been vital to this effort and have found common ground with people of other faiths to serve these new neighbors. Two of FIRM’s three staff members assigned to the Syrian projects are Muslim. They bring the resources of their cultures and communities as well as the capacity of FIRM to reach out to a larger group of people because of their fluency in the Arabic language. FIRM is seeing new possibilities to expand its reach to other Middle Eastern people groups. Several churches have been vital to the effort through financial support, direct sponsorships, volunteers, and influence. They have provided circles of friendship so that Syrian families could get to know Americans.
In the early days, there was some community concern, resistance, and criticism, but most of that has tapered off. As people have gotten to know their new neighbors and have understood the community’s sense of call to serve them, they have largely become supportive.
Syrian people are good neighbors. They are accustomed to hard work. They have strong family values. They live by a high moral code. They want to be good Americans.
Several months ago, I had the opportunity to catch a ride with a Syrian Uber driver. His English was quite limited, but he was committed to practicing and learning. As I explained to him my long relationship with FIRM, his eyes brightened. He did not understand most of the words I spoke, but he knew the word, “FIRM.”
“FIRM,” he exclaimed, “I love FIRM! Zack is my friend. He helped me get this job!”
We were instant friends. I knew just the right English word: FIRM.
The families have had time to experience most of our American holidays in community and in a multi-cultural setting. There have been parties, meals, trips to the zoo, and day camps for children.
At the core of FIRM’s response has been case management. Whatever people have needed to get settled has been what FIRM has been committed to provide. Working with partners like Golden One Credit Union, First Five, and many other funders, resources have been offered to get adequate housing, furnishings, and jobs.
These new friends have suffered. They have lost their homes, members of their families, and their lifestyles. They have seen death and danger. They have had to flee for their lives and safety. Fear, trauma, and grief are realities. They have been met with compassion and care, but the healing goes on. Monthly community workshops in Arabic are both educational and therapeutic. Regular peer support groups for men and for women round out the support system. Counselors are always available. Several programs have been especially helpful in addition to direct case management.
The Syrian Literacy program at El Dorado Park works with children and teens after school and over holidays to provide educational, social, and recreational support. About twenty children are involved every day.
In-Home visitation is a project for early childhood where parents are equipped to play educational games with their preschool children and help them reach their educational and developmental goals.
Advocacy, adult education and networking are ongoing efforts. Sometimes these happen in formal ways and sometimes informal. Building relationships and community are at the core of the strategy for making new Americans feel and function as people who are settling in their new homes.
As a result of the community efforts, people are working, children are in school, healing is slowly happening, fears, are easing, and families are moving into better housing.
As Zack Darrah says, “Families are doing better, but there are years of work ahead.”
There are some specific ways that the community can continue to help.
Volunteers are always welcome. Contacts for FIRM are listed below. Volunteers can function in many ways, as friends, as helpers with practical needs, helping with moving, working at events, and assisting people who want to learn English. One of FIRM’s goals is to institute an ESL (English as a Second Language) program for the Syrian people.
Financial help is also needed. FIRM has been extremely generous and committed to providing whatever is needed to help people get started. Most people want to start paying their own way and contributing to others as soon as possible, but they have come here with nothing.
Another area for volunteers is the after-school program. Men and women are needed as role models, helpers, teachers, tutors, and play supervisors. Specifically, contact Lora Nelson if you can assist in this way. Do so by email at lora@firminc[dot]org.
During winter break, the children will have a winter camp for three weeks. Congregations, clubs, and individuals can be involved by taking a week out of the three to help make it happen.
To keep up with the work of FIRM with the Syrian, Southeast Asian, Slavic, African, and other families it serves, sign up for its newsletter here. Follow its Facebook page, or call and request a tour or meeting. Be warned, you will be stepping into a world that is far busier than you could imagine and far more rewarding than you could ever hope.