Churches, Volunteer Groups Help Refugees Stave off Loneliness

May 31, 2017

A map in the Life 360 Church in Springfield pinpoints the home countries of visitors to the church's international campus.
Credit KSMU

Imagine leaving all of your friends, relatives and colleagues behind and fleeing to a safe place—where you don’t know a soul.

Pascal Nzabahanai knows that scenario well. Three months ago, he fled violence and instability in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He’s a refugee.

We met Pascal at his rental home in Springfield.

“It’s like starting a new life, you have no anything, you have no money. You don’t have any way to shop,” Nzabahanai said.

When refugees first arrive in their new country, they often feel disoriented and lonely.

On this day, Nzabahanai is meeting with Katie Webb, who leads the volunteer group Springfield Welcome Home.

She says her group is very different from the government contracted agencies that are paid to help refugees resettle.

In this file photo, volunteer Katie Webb, center, writes down the needs of a new Somali refugee and her brother-in-law earlier this year. Webb's group, Springfield Welcome Home, helps refugees resettle and make friends in the Ozarks.
Credit File Photo / KSMU

“The agencies aren’t set up to create a social safety net in a community, that’s not what they do,” Webb said.

So Springfield Welcome Home tries to fill in those gaps—with things that help refugees make friends and assimilate, like teaching them how to throw a dinner party.

Webb says recent political events in the United States have caused numbers in her Ozarks group to swell.

“We had 600 volunteers, 600 members on our Facebook group. And then when [President Donald] Trump signed the executive order, within 48 hours, we went to 1,300 members on our Facebook group. And I heard from more than one person, that said, ‘You know I was mildly interested in the refugee crisis, but this brought it home,’” Webb said.

Webb says social integration is critical for a refugee’s long-term success.

Some refugees are finding their social needs met at churches that cater to their international backgrounds.

Pastor Damon Duran is the head pastor at the international campus for Life 360 Church in Springfield.

"They may have a faux pas with somebody and they don't know what's going on. They have the freedom to ask us, 'Did I do something wrong?' Or, 'Why did they do this?'" Duran said.

Jim Book, a volunteer at Life 360 Church's international campus in Springfield, formerly worked as a missionary in Africa.
Credit KSMU

One volunteer at Life 360 Church is Jim Book, who once lived abroad as a missionary. He knows how loneliness can be a barrier to a person’s ability to thrive.

"Hospitality is a very strong component of other cultures, and food plays a major role in that," Book said.

A main idea behind the church's international campus is to bring people together to interact socially over a meal, Book said.

But before Pascal Nzabahanai can focus on developing friendships and hosting dinner parties, he needs to find a job.

“I need to go to work. I need to go to school, and I need my children to go to school as well because education is the only waypoint to make a successful life of tomorrow,” Nzabahanai said.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day.

Editor's note:  the KSMU series "Resettling" is a team reporting project produced by the students in Missouri State University's International Reporting class. All three segments will be archived on www.ksmu.org.