Heartland Presbyterian Church Welcomes a Refugee Family

by Diane Abell and Deb Hansen

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” – Matthew 25:35

What an exciting time this has been for the Heartland Refugee Family Ministry Team and the congregation of the Heartland Presbyterian Church. We are so blessed that the Afghan family we are sponsoring has arrived in our community and taken their first steps to adjusting to life in Iowa.

Shortly after the start of the new year, Heartland set a goal to sponsor a refugee family. On February 16th, the family arrived at the Des Moines Airport and was met with several Heartlanders and a case manager from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). A family of six came down the escalator to this group of smiling people carrying signs to welcome them! Heartlanders helped them move their luggage to the Airbnb where they will stay temporarily until an apartment is found by USCRI. The Airbnb was stocked with groceries and a warm meal for their first night in Iowa. Oh, and we must not forget there are Crayolas, coloring books and Play-Doh for the children!

In late September, Amgad Beblawi, Mission Executive, shared information about the great need for support to resettle refugees and specifically how churches can sponsor a refugee family. Through the month of October, we continued receiving updates from him and excitement at Heartland was building about the possibility of sponsoring a family.

In mid-November, Heartland Parish Associate Bob Houser arranged a meeting at Heartland with a representative from USCRI. Over 40 Heartlanders attended, and our refugee ministry had begun! Many had seen the news stories of Afghans who had helped the US and now feared for their lives and suddenly became refugees seeking a safe place to live. The seed grew quickly as meetings were held and plans were made. In a little over a month, a core team of 10 coordinators and 16 volunteers formed the Heartland Refugee Family Ministry Team. The process to raise funds and organize the collection of all the furnishings and household items needed for an apartment for a refugee family was set in motion. With the guidance of USCRI, the HFRM team received training, designed a communication plan, set up a Sign-Up Genius collection portal, and organized storage. In the span of 35 days, hundreds of donated items were acquired and thousands of dollars raised.

Frequent communication with the congregation was essential in the call to action. Church members and friends contributed volunteer hours and generously offered donations. Information was shared weekly through announcements during Sunday services and by using Heartland’s newsletter, website, and Facebook page. References to the Refugee Family Ministry in sermons and prayers by Rev. Alex Thornburg , contributed to the congregation’s willingness to open their hearts to the needs of refugees and immigrants seeking a home in our community.

For the next few weeks, Heartlanders will shop for and deliver groceries to the family. USCRI case managers will accompany the family as they learn their way around town, enroll the kids in schools, and find essential services. In about two months, when an affordable housing apartment is available, Heartlanders will help move all the donated furnishings and home goods into the apartment. As soon as Covid protocols allow, Heartlanders will engage with the family to facilitate learning about Iowa culture and norms.