Local church adopts refugees as their own

Local church adopts refugees as their own

The Rev. Elie Estephan, second from left, with three members of a Syrian refugee family adopted by the St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Pawtucket. From left are George, his wife Carol and daughter Maria. (Breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)

PAWTUCKET – They had everything they could want: a nice house, friends, stable jobs, a university education.

Then it all went “upside down.”

This family will never go back to their homeland of Syria, never again enjoy the life they once led. All that’s left from the never-ending civil war are piles of rubble in the former city of millions, Aleppo.

Rhode Island’s Syrian refugees are often left to fend for themselves in a country they know little about, accepting what they can get but often dealing with poor living conditions and lonely isolation, say those who are trying to help them.

Members of one local church, St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church on High Street, has decided that the refugees’ plight is their plight, adopting a dozen or so refugee families from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and helping them live better lives.

The Rev. Elie Estephan told The Breeze that the church’s goal of becoming a support network for Syrian refugees living in Rhode Island has not only helped the refugees but done wonders for changing the focus of the church to an outward one.

Some in the church were initially reluctant to help refugees, connecting them in their minds with terrorism or some other preconceived notion, said Estephan. Some also felt like he was dedicating more time to the families than to them, he said, but as he’s involved more people in the humanitarian effort and they've gotten to know the families, that notion has all but disappeared.

Estephan said he has been preaching the simple message that Christianity is “not a religion of books,” but of living out what Jesus did while he was here on earth, preaching while also feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

“I preach of a more practical Christianity,” he said. “God put in our way needy people.”

Members of the displaced Syrian family interviewed by The Breeze, who asked to go only by their first names due to a number of concerns, say the love they’ve experienced through the people at St. Mary’s has given them hope for a better future. They said finding a church has given them a “second home.” They, in turn, are passing on the love and generosity they’ve experienced to other families like them.

The father of the family, George, said he and his family are grateful to the church for taking them in and making them feel at home with people of their own faith and cultural heritage.

George and his wife, Carol, say everything has changed for them since moving to the U.S. on visitor visas three years ago. Carol can barely handle talking about her son, who was denied a visitor visa and had to stay in Syria. Carol and George aren’t sure they’ll ever see their son again after his application was denied three times. Officials apparently saw that his whole family had already come here for various reasons and concluded that he planned to stay.

George, Carol and their two other children are frustrated after two years of waiting to get word on their request for asylum in the U.S. The family is in “temporary protected status,” but uncertainty about the future has been hard. George, a radiologist when living in Syria, would have to go back to school to be certified for the same job in the U.S. He's working a job outside of his field secured through a connection at the church.

The news coverage of the conflict in Syria doesn’t do justice to the atrocities that are happening every day, said the family. They experience renewed pain each time they hear of another family member or friend injured or killed back home.

The family leans on its Christian faith to keep going, finding inner peace and hope through prayer and gathering with others. They said the sanctuary at St. Mary's is very similar to the one they worshipped in back in Syria.

Despite ongoing public debate over U.S. policy on accepting refugees, the family said they’ve felt welcome in this country since arriving three years ago.

One of their biggest adjustments has been to the differences between Syrian and American culture and tradition, from upbringing of children to decisions on living together before marriage. Many U.S. families share the same ethics and values, they said, but the overwhelming messages are opposite to what they’re used to.

St. Mary's, home to Syrian, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern immigrants since 1910, is doing what it can to help refugee families, said Estephan, but the church is limited in what it can do. Though he’s bumped up the church’s charitable fund, it’s still far too small, he said. Estephan said he hopes others will join the effort so it can be expanded to others.

Parishioners are working together to find the refugees jobs in the businesses they own, including convenience stores, networking to get them free legal help, and even paying the difference in rent to get them a better apartment, said Estephan. Many refugees are subject to poor living conditions because the organizations funding them can only give so much money, he said. One woman was breastfeeding her baby when mice ran over her shoulder, he said.

About half of the refugee families served by the church are Christian, while the rest are of the Muslim faith, said Estephan. Terrorists in Syria are persecuting both Christians and Muslims, he said. A “massive” number of people have been expelled from Syria and Iraq.

The church has started a GoFundMe page to help funding continuing assistance efforts. All money raised goes directly to the refugee families.

St. Mary Holiday Bazaar is this weekend

PAWTUCKET – Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox (Christian) Church of Pawtucket will present its 36th annual holiday bazaar this weekend, Friday, Nov. 4 to Sunday, Nov. 6.

The event, which is free and open to the public, features authentic Middle Eastern entrées, side dishes and pastries. Signature dishes will include seasoned meat pies (Sfeeha), flavorful grape leaves stuffed with American lamb and rice (Yabra), grilled lamb and chicken shish kabobs, and freshly baked lamb tenderloin seasoned and stuffed with onions and pine nuts (Kibbee).

Other highlights will include a main raffle featuring high-end electronic items, a 50/50 raffle, and a silent auction featuring dozens of themed gift baskets for couples, babies, sports fans, movie lovers and more.

The event will be held at the Saint Mary Parish Center, One St. Mary Way, Pawtucket with free parking and accessibility for the handicapped.

Ladies from the St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox church, pictured here with members of a Syrian refugee family, prepare food for this weekend’s bazaar at the church’s parish center.