Lincoln churches reach out to refugee communities
Yazidi refugee Khudur Ali remembers the day well.
Like other Yazidi families from Iraqi villages surrounding Mount Sinjar, Ali took his family and fled when ISIS attacked the Yazidi villages in August of 2014.
“I was there when ISIS took over my town. And everyone tried to flee to that mountain but many of them were not able to make it to that mountain because all the Muslims there, they helped ISIS. They took all the females, they killed all male; I was there. But, I was lucky and I drove straight to the border,” Ali said.listen
Today, Ali and his family have settled in Lincoln and are trying to make new lives in their new country. Ali has had an easier time making the transition because he knows English. Before fleeing Iraq, he was working as a translator for the United States Army. But his wife, Ameerah Ibrahim, does not know English. Like many Iraqi women, she has limited education; she left school after second grade.
After arriving in Lincoln in 2014, Ibrahim started taking English classes offered from Grace Chapel, a Christian non-denominational church. It is one of several churches in Lincoln that are increasing outreach in refugee communities as Lincoln continues to resettle refugees. Nebraska led the nation in resettling the most refugees per capita during the last year.
About 15 Yazidi women attend English class at Grace Chapel located off 40th and Sheridan Street on Thursday mornings. The class starts with the women gathered around English teacher Amanda Branum’s marker-board, with American partners sitting on either side of them. Branum begins the class by asking participants to introduce themselves.
Then Branum introduces relevant words having to do with upcoming holidays, money, weather and seasons; she talks about the key words the women might use when discussing those topics.
After large group work, the Yazidi women partner up with an American and work one-on-one or two-on-one if there are less American partners, to complete a worksheet on what was taught that day.
Childcare is also provided during the class at Grace Chapel, so the women are not tied to their homes if there is no one to care for their children.
See what a typical English class is like at Grace Chapel:
Besides the English class outreach, Grace Chapel has hosted a lunch cooked by Yazidi families after service where church members and Yazidis are able to share a meal together. The church also hosts a kids club on Tuesday nights, and has had picnics and Vacation Bible School for kids during the summer in a local park.
Ibrahim says she is happy with the English class offered at Grace Chapel, but wishes the class was held more than once a week. But she is able to attend a Lincoln Literacy class at Lincoln High on Monday nights and another English class at another church on Tuesdays. In addition to Lincoln Literacy, refugees can take English classes at the Center for People in Need and Southeast Community College. Several Lincoln high schools also offer English language classes to refugees.
Branum said the Yazidis are most happy to accept the kindness and community outreach from churches. She believes there is a mutual respect and instant bond between Yazidi people and Christians because they are the most persecuted religions in Iraq. She says Yazidis connect well with Christians.
“That really helps us as Christians here in America, to trust us and it really opens doors for us to go into homes and do programs like the English program and after-school programs for kids,” she said. “They have a trust in us, where in other religions or people groups, they may not trust as much.”
Another Lincoln church helps
City Light, located at 28th and O streets, organizes similar programs for the Lincoln refugee community.
Daryl Racey, an English language teacher at Southeast Community College, volunteers at City Light’s Thursday night Kids Club, where many refugee kids go for games and community time. The club consists of Bible story time, crafts, gym time and other activities.
Racey said church members don’t pressure refugees to be involved in church programs or to believe a certain way.
“It’s up to the parents knowing the kids are coming to a church. If they don’t want to come, they don’t have to come. We had a Yazidi mom come with her kid last week,” he said.
The Yazidi religion has elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. While traditional Yazidis believe in reincarnation and the caste system, they also color Easter eggs and baptize their infants, Racey said. The Yazidis are familiar with Old Testament prophets, yet they do not have their own holy book as Islam does with the Koran or Christianity with the Bible.
“There’s an old Yazidi expression that the difference between Christianity and Yazidism is as thin as the hair on your head,” he said. “Which doesn’t mean they’re anxious to become Christians. It just means there is an affinity to Christians and they’ve lived around Christians all their lives. Some of them were living near Christians in the Yazidi villages and some of them were Christians in the Yazidi villages.”
Austin Edwards, co-lead pastor of City Light, said that Jesus Christ’s mandate for Christians — according to Matthew 28 — is to make disciples of all nations.
“We do want to provide temporary physical refuge for them,” he said. “We want them to feel safe, to find hope, to be well fed and cared about. But at the same time, we do know that there’s a greater refuge that Jesus offers. And so, in the midst of that, we do want to care for their needs but we do believe that their greatest need is eternal. They’re looking for refuge, and we can provide the ultimate refuge.”