April 17, 2013

Former Refugee 'Pays it Forward' by Recruiting Congregations

Claudine Leary at Vineyard Church
Claudine Leary at Vineyard Church - Claudine Leary promotes congregational involvement with refugees at the "Welcoming the Stranger" Immigration Convention hosted by Vineyard Church in Westerville, Ohio, earlier this month (April 2013). Here, Claudine (left) converses with an immigrant from Colombia. Photo: courtesy Claudine Leary

Columbus, Ohio – Claudine Leary says that when she fled the 1994 genocide in her home country of Rwanda, “I depended on others for my survival.”  Now this former refugee and U.S. citizen is helping other refugees not only survive but thrive in central Ohio. 

A United Methodist seminarian, Leary works for Community Refugee and Immigration Services, the Church World Service affiliate in Columbus.  She recruits local congregations to extend friendship and practical help to the refugees resettling to the United States under CRIS’s auspices.

“These are the best days of my life, when I get to give a hand to someone else,” Leary says.  “Often I am on my way to speak to a church about refugees, I get tears in my eyes – tears of gratitude that I am now able to ‘pay it forward,’ you could say. 

“Welcoming communities and welcoming congregations help refugees move beyond the hardships they suffered, integrate and become self-sufficient again,” Leary says, commenting how “thrilled” she is with how rapidly and generously members of the central Ohio faith community respond whenever she calls.  

She has high praise for the growing number of churches in the area that extend welcome to refugees – and is quick to name nearly two dozen actively involved United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Luheran, Episcopal and nondenominational faith bodies. This welcome not only addresses physical needs, but establishes vital relationships.

“Local churches furnish apartments and stock pantries for soon-to-arrive refugee families; assemble ‘welcome kits’ with bed linens or kitchen, bath, cleaning or school supplies; tutor English; collect winter coats, and even provide funding for refugees’ pressing needs.  They also do things like provide a baby shower to an expectant refugee mom, or purchase a car seat or a wheelchair, or give a refugee a ride to an appointment, or organize activities for refugee children.   They are even ready to make calls to their members of Congress in support of legislation that protects refugees – such as the Refugee Protection Act.

“Then those who helped thank me for offering the opportunity!” Leary exclaims.  “They tell me how excited they are to do this, and say they wish they could have been involved sooner.”

Most of CRIS’s refugee clients come from Somalia, Iraq, Burma and Bhutan, and “their stories are not too far from mine,” Leary says.  To help church groups understand refugees’ journey, she always shares her story with them when they meet for the first time.

Leary was a student at Rwandan National University and was in Kigali on Easter break in April 1994 when the genocide started that would claim between 500,000 and one million lives by that July.  She fled, walking and hitchhiking her way to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Later she moved to Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. 

“Life in Dzaleka was difficult for many reasons,” Leary recalls.  “We carried immeasurable pain from our home country.  We had to rely on UNHCR delivery trucks for food.  There was no clear way out of this life, no future prospects.”

But then a camp volunteer helped her enroll at Africa University in Zimbabwe.  There she earned a bachelor’s degree in business studies and met and married Allan Leary, a United Methodist missionary and currently an energy efficiency engineer. 

She moved with him to Fairmont, W. Va., in 2003, completed a master’s degree in business management at Fairmont State University, and worked for a few years before taking the next step in response to a long-felt call to ordained ministry.  This December she expects to complete coursework at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, toward a master of divinity degree.

Along the way, she and her husband have had three children – two girls, now 11 and 8, and a boy, who just turned 2.

“I was blessed to learn CRIS was here in Columbus and serving refugees,” Leary says.  “It is a great pleasure to work with CRIS, helping them get refugees the resources they need.”  

Meet Claudine Leary in this Advent 2012 video, in which she encourages U.S. churches to welcome refugees

Read more of Claudine Leary’s story at https://www.jrs.net/assets/Publications/File/Serv53en.pdf  pages 9-10.

Contact your local CWS refugee resettlement agency or affiliate, participating denomination or CWS at irp@churchworldservice.org or 212-870-3300. 

Visit the CWS Best Gifts Catalog online to give a gift to refugees.

The West Ohio United Methodist Conference has information about how to become an Immigrant-Welcoming Congregation.

Here are the congregations Claudine named as extending a hand to refugees in central Ohio.  First Community and Westerville Community churches (United Church of Christ); Bethel, Good Shepherd, Lewis Center, William Street, Worthington, Broad Street, Peace (Pickerington) and Asbury (Delaware) United Methodist churches; Ascension Lutheran Church; St. Stephen, St. Patrick’s, St. Matthew, and Trinity Episcopal churches; Xenos, and Vineyard along with the UMC’s West Ohio Conference and North Capital Area, and the Methodist Theological School of Ohio.