March 26, 2013

Syracuse UMC congregation extends friendship, support to refugees

Pam Suddaby and refugees
On a home visit, Pam Suddaby coaches Karen refugees Aye May and sons in English. Photo: Aye Mays husband/the childrens father Ma Thew

Everybody can do something to welcome refugees resettling in U.S. communities.  Setting an excellent example is Christ United Methodist Church in Syracuse, N.Y.

Since 2002, the church’s all-volunteer Refugee Resettlement Mission project has been extending friendship and practical assistance to refugees living in the city’s Northside community. Most are from Burma, but the church’s outreach also touches refugees from Bhutan, Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries.

The project works closely with InterFaith Works of Central New York’s Center for New Americans, a CWS resettlement affiliate.  Center staff alert project volunteers to refugees’ need for services and donations.  Other needs emerge during the volunteers’ regular visits to refugees’ homes and during visits to the local Karen and Chin churches. 

“Then we find ways to include any willing members in refugee resettlement,” said project coordinator Pamela Suddaby, who also works part time as a nurse.  “Their contributions of time and essential items mean so much to refugees, who typically bring little more than a suitcase with them to the United States and often know no one here.”

Some volunteers scour garage sales for children’s clothing and used bikes, others fix the bikes.  Some knit blankets or fill backpacks with school supplies, others help refugees understand their mail, replace used smoke alarm batteries, visit new mothers, fetch medicine for sick children, give rides to doctor appointments, help with job searches, and host outings to the zoo, pool, parks and restaurants.

 “All this interaction with caring English-speaking friends adds to refugees’ safety; language acquisition; relationship with health care agencies, schools and the community; quality of life, and integration into their new lives in the United States – while continuing to affirm their own culture,” Suddaby said. 

Su Reh andShay Mo and children with their family portrait
Karenni refugee father Su Reh and mother Shay Mo and children with their family portrait, taken as part of the Christ Community UMC Refugee Resettlement Mission. The portraits affirm refugees positive sense of identity. Photo: Pam Suddaby

Take, for example, the Karen refugee family who arrived in October 2011.  A small ecumenical Christian women’s group from Baldwinsville, a Syracuse suburb, welcomed Ma Thew, his wife and their five young boys.

“The group offered initial support, including a furnished apartment, food and clothing, and Christ Community UMC’s mission team continued by helping the family with bikes, backpacks and items for the newest son, who was born this past November,” Suddaby said. “We offered gentle support with school preparation, landlord issues and health issues.

“The father has been working since two months after arrival and recently purchased his first car.  We continue to visit as friends of the family and the boys love to see us.  They are wonderfully independent, active in their Anglican Church and the boys are successful students.  They retain their own Karen culture and traditions and are happy to be Americans.”

A Syracuse University videography student documented the family’s first seven months in the United States.  See “Ma Thew: A Refugee From Burma” at

Christ Community UMC’s involvement with refugees began 11 years ago.  In collaboration with the Center for New Americans, it cosponsored a family from Bosnia, followed by families from the Sudan and – in summer 2008 – from Burma.  “As we set up the apartment for our latest refugee family,” Suddaby recounted, “nearby refugee children popped out of their apartments to help.  We began to sense our mission growing.

“The head of our family was an elderly Baptist pastor.  By that fall, his extended family of 30 had arrived.  Our reach extended into much of the north side of Syracuse.  Now scores of refugees, including more than 150 children, know us by name and look forward to our visits.”

In 2012-13, $2,500 in funding from UMCOR’s Refugee Ministry is helping the Refugee Resettlement Mission toward its goal of distributing:

  • 20 or more bikes.  For adults, bikes have a “profound impact,” allowing transportation to jobs, appointments, shopping and so forth and “encouraging community as refugees can more easily visit family and friends,” Suddaby said.  For children, bikes “bring joy and mobility in the neighborhood.”
  • 50 filled backpacks for students and essential supplies for babies and infants, including new car seats, portable playpens, strollers, and first aid supplies. Gethsemane United Methodist Church hosts “Grandma’s Place,” where the Refugee Resettlement mission organizes, stores and distributes infant and children’s clothing, shoes and toys.
  • 20 or more matted and framed family photo portraits, which affirm families’ positive sense of identity.  Children are also given small photo albums, or carry the small family photo in their backpacks for reassurance at school.
  • educational toys, books and DVDs that enhance English language learning; coats, boots and many household items.  “We stretch our funds as far as we can and fill in with generous donations,” Suddaby said.

May Blue, a Karen mother who resettled to Syracuse five years ago, testified to the value of the church’s accompaniment.  “When we came to the United States,” she said, “I was afraid and had many worries.  We had some family here but we had no English. Pee Pam (“Grandma Pam”) helped us with going somewhere, or our health, or understanding school.”

Karen refugee Eh Ku Wah said, "I had no sponsor and I was a little afraid but a helper was my American friend. I had many questions and worries and I'm glad to have someone to help me.”

Khin Tan Cho with her new son David Bawi Tin Maung
Chin mother Khin Tan Cho with her new son David Bawi Tin Maung. Christ Community UMCs Refugee Resettlement Mission coaches expectant and new parents on pre- and post-natal care and offers essential supplies. Photo: Pam Suddaby

The project mobilizes donations and involvement from a growing circle of partners, including Multiple Moms Mingle, a club for mothers and expectant mothers of multiples, who donate clothing and supplies for infants each spring and fall.  The East Syracuse Minoa School District is a source of clothing and other items from student “closet clean-outs” and unclaimed lost and found. 

Deb Virgo, Sponsor Coordinator at the Center for New Americans, said she appreciates the project’s multiple visits to refugees at home, and especially its outreach to expectant and new mothers. 

“Pam is so comfortable walking into a house with babies and helping with whatever comes along,” Virgo said.  “If someone’s pregnant or has a baby or small child, she will take them essential supplies.  The refugees are often confused by the U.S. health care system, and she explains, ‘Here’s the hospital you’ll go to, this is the doctor, here’s what to do when you go into labor, here’s how to get follow-up care.’”

The Refugee Resettlement Mission measures success by the number of family visits completed and by the number of items delivered.  “Our new partnerships with community groups also indicates our growth and success in our mission,” Suddaby said.  “Our growing knowledge of the cultures and languages of the refugees demonstrates our connection in the refugee community.”

She added, “It sounds like a lot of work, but actually it’s just a lot of fun.  With about 200 members and 100 at worship on the average Sunday, we’re a small congregation - whose members enjoy helping.  They’re always telling other people about the refugees and getting them involved.  In turn, the refugees know that our church is there for them.”