Today Meant Something More

blog5This story was written by one of our volunteer in-home tutors. We hope her words bless you as much as they bless us.

Every day means something on a certain level — that’s what I tell myself on those many tedious days when I have to muster up the courage to get on that “L” platform in February or when I’m looking at my packed schedule wondering how I’m going to get everything done if I keep my weekly tutoring appointment. I tell myself: every day means something. But, today didn’t just mean something in the greeting card, cat poster, motivational way. Today was different. Today meant something more.

We were working on prefixes, so it was supposed to be a rather boring day. Even still, my student was eager to learn. She bent over the page and, every muscle tense, set to work deciphering the fine print of the tedious language that refused to call her its master. As she copied a list of words into her notebook, a look came into her eye that struck me. I could see her desperate desire to internalize everything I was teaching her. A pained cry escaped her lips followed by a short desperate prayer in her own tongue. She grasped the paper with both hands as if attempting to force it into submission. As far as she’s come, fifty-five is still a difficult age to learn a language.

I stepped in and began to read to her, stopping now and again to explain the words she didn’t know — which were many. I spoke slowly and sounded out the words so each syllable was audible to her untrained ear. At the same time, I was careful not to make it too choppy, else she might pick up the strange annunciation and copy it, thus making her newly discovered vocabulary unintelligible.

As I stressed about doing everything right for her, my student sighed, rubbed her exhausted eyes, then got up, and walked into the kitchen. She returned with a plate of pork with rice and a small dish of butter cookies. I smiled and thanked her. “Eat! Eat!” she said — her way of telling me “Thank You” for teaching her.

As I munched on the food, I looked around the familiar living room. Two years ago when I first started coming here, my student’s family had just moved in. The living room where we study was sparsely furnished — a low couch and a woven matt were the only items to speak of.  Today, the room was cluttered with the varied paraphernalia of an active and vibrant family.

Attracted by the cookies, my student’s little granddaughter — a bright-eyed, twirling, girl with the tendency to randomly burst into trills of “Let it go! Let it Go!” — climbed onto my lap. When I first started coming here, this little girl was an only child. Now, she has two bright-eyed, siblings, both of whom I held in my arms as tiny babies but are now learning to walk.

After I gave the granddaughter a cookie and sent her on her way, my student and I began chatting in simple, broken English. I told her about the project I was working on for a college class. She told me a story about a cousin whose daughter is a budding musician back home in Burma. When I first started coming here, my student and I barely spoke to each other. Our time together was mostly awkward, halting attempts at making ourselves understood, scattered with overly long periods of encouraging smiles. Today, we chattered away.  It didn’t matter that we cheerily skipped through the sentences in a way that wasn’t entirely grammatically correct. We knew what we meant and that was what mattered.

In that moment, I realized that prefixes and suffixes, while good and helpful, had never been the point. I felt this sudden need to tell her how important the last two years had been to me. The words tumbled out of my mouth: it was a privilege to see her family build their life up from scratch; it was a complete joy to watch her family grow. Above all, I truly appreciated her friendship and admired her strong determination.

My student looked back at me with a tear in her eye. “Teacher,” she said, “I see you as part of my family.”

With that, I knew, while every day meant something to her, today meant something more to me.

Standing for the Vulnerable Despite Cuts

PicMonkey CollageThe refugee program suspension has been lifted with a federal judge ruling to block the second executive order on refugees. We are encouraged by this ruling and our ability to continue serving people fleeing unimaginable circumstances. Unfortunately, the ruling does not affect the stipulation that reduces the number of refugee arrivals from 110,000 to 50,000. We know this means that there are still 60,000 people who the US was prepared to receive, but will no longer be offering the protections of resettlement this year.

Because of the cuts, we will be receiving only a maximum of 68 more refugees(208 less than anticipated) through the end of the fiscal year (Oct 1st). This drop in incoming refugees has also resulted in a drop in incoming funding as World Relief Chicago is partially funded through a government grant based on the number of refugees we resettle. We’ve had to cut personnel and many of the remaining staff must fulfill multiple roles. Even still, we are determined to continue actively standing in the gap for the vulnerable and there are many ways we can accomplish this despite the cuts.

Through Resettlement

While we are receiving fewer new families, there is still a lot to be done. Resettlement doesn’t end at the airport. Most refugee families come with only a few suitcases, some even less than that. They’ve been through hell and back. While they’re excited to finally have a stable roof over their head, US culture and customs are a whole new set of hurdles. In order to help ensure a successful transition, our case managers are working with refugees to help them heal, adjust and build a foundation for their new life. Our teams of volunteer good neighbors are also coming alongside the families, showing them around, and being that first network of friends where they can find community.  Last fall, we had a large influx of incoming families. There is still a lot to be done in helping our refugees successfully acclimate to their new home.

Through Education

Refugees arrive with varying levels of English proficiency. Learning to communicate means the difference between confidently traversing the CTA or being homebound, getting hired or being unemployed, helping their kids with homework or being excluded. Our English teachers are busy providing intensive, life-skills English language training for newly arrived refugees and immigrants. We also have volunteers partnering with individual refugees for additional, one-on-one, in-home tutoring.

Through Employment

Self-sufficiency is always our goal in refugee resettlement. Landing a good job is a critical factor in making that happen. With last fall’s influx of refugees, our employment staff faced a challenge: finding everyone jobs during a low hiring season. Many refugees ended up in what we call “survival jobs” – which helped them make ends meet through the winter, but were not enough to support their families long-term. As the weather warms up and businesses start hiring again, our employment staff is looking to help place these refugees in more stable work environments.

Through Legal Services

Immigration law is always tricky to understand, especially if you’re a newcomer to the US. Our legal services team is hard at work providing, professional, compassionate and affordable immigration-related legal assistance to low-income immigrants and refugees. Particularly in these last few weeks, as the US has undergone several rounds of changes in visa and immigration practice, many families have turned to us to help them understand their rights.

Through Advocacy

Over the last couple months, we’ve been mobilizing staff to spread awareness of refugee needs. Churches and community groups are requesting World Relief Chicago representatives to come speak on refugee issues. We always value these opportunities to be a voice for those who have none and to call the Chicago community to join us in actively standing in the gap for the vulnerable.

The Executive Order and What it Means

airport-welcome-wisam-1.jpgTravel Ban, 120 days, 90 days, seven Muslim-majority countries, there are a lot of catch-phrases and facts floating around about The President’s executive orders on refugees. With Monday’s signing of the revised order, a new layer of complexity and confusion has arisen. We at World Relief Chicago want you to be informed and confident in speaking about the issue of refugee resettlement. We’ve put together this fact sheet to explain what the new E.O. actually says and what that means, particularly when it comes to our work with refugees in Chicago.

  • The new executive order revokes and replaces the original executive order on refugees. This means that the original bill, which was temporarily suspended due to legal issues, will not go back into affect. The game is reset so to speak.
  • Suspends entry of foreign nationals from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen for 90 days. There are some new clauses that make exceptions for green card holders and allow for case by case judgements on medical emergencies and other special circumstances. But, for the most part, individuals from these seven countries won’t be allowed into the US until after June 14th.
  • Suspends the entire US refugee resettlement program for a minimum 120 days. This is one of the major stipulations that affects World Relief Chicago. It means, from March 16 – July 14, World Relief and all other US refugee resettlement agencies will not be receiving any new refugee families. Not only does this prevent Syrian refugees — fleeing civil war and ISIS — from finding a safe home in America, but it also affects refugees from Burma, Ukraine, Cambodia, and many other countries who are not connected to ISIS. Four months may not seem unreasonable, but, for war-weary parents trying to provide for their children in refugee camps, it’s a long time.
  • Reduces the number of refugees the US will accept this year from 110,000 to 50,000. This is a huge cut that has major implications for World Relief Chicago. This year, the US has accepted 32,000 refugees, 148 of whom have been resettled through World Relief Chicago. This means that from now until the new fiscal year (Oct 1st), only 18,000 more refugees will be allowed into the US and a maximum of 68 will be resettled through World Relief Chicago. These numbers are the lowest in our country’s history. Last year, the US accepted 84,000 and World Relief Chicago resettled 425 refugees. All this stands in stark contrast to the vast amount of need as we are currently facing the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation.
  • Issues a review of the immigration and refugee resettlement process. The current refugee screening, which is the most thorough of all US entry processes, is a multi-step process that generally lasts anywhere between 18 months to 3 years, and includes fingerprinting, biometrics, retina scans, and multiple interviews by different agencies, including the United Nations, State Department, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  For this reason, as well as the system’s proven track record (of the roughly three million refugees admitted since 1980, none has ever killed a single American in a terrorist attack), World Relief has argued that that compassion and security do not have to be mutually exclusive.

According to Tim Breene, CEO of World Relief “This new executive order does not solve the root problems with the initial order—the cutting of refugee admissions by 55% and the inability for some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees to come to the United States, it is more of the same.” World Relief has publicly committed to being both pro-security and pro-refugee. For the past forty years, we’ve carried out our mission, to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. A large facet of carrying out that mission has been in resettling refugees. In a recent press release, World Relief called on the administration to commit the resources and coordination needed to carry out the security review process as quickly as possible to ensure that this life-saving refugee resettlement program is not delayed any longer than necessary. “We stand with refugees. Standing with us are many thousands of American citizens in congregations and communities across the nation who have joined us in this cause,” says World Relief President Scott Arbeiter, “We will continue to appeal to churches throughout the U.S. to continue to support refugees.”

If you would like to join us in supporting refugees, we have released a limited edition #WeWillAlwaysWelcomeRefugees t-shirt. The t-shirt is available for purchase on All proceeds go to support our work with refugees.

Restoration in the ESL Classroom

edited_14_zps71ceal1lThis reflective essay was written by one of our ESL teachers at World Relief Chicago. We hope her words bless you as much as they bless us.

World Relief Chicago has three levels of English classes. Our classes consist of immigrants from our neighborhood community and the refugees we resettle through our agency. As the instructor of one of our classes, I’ve grown accustomed to my front row seat to the life, growth, and depth of our students. Day in and out we practice the mantras of “Mistakes are good, they help us learn!” and “Never be afraid to ask a question!” We practice pronunciation. The stress goes on the wrong syllable. We write the weekly vocabulary on our whiteboard. The first word is misspelled. We practice questions of who, what, when, and where so we can apply these to “small-talk” conversations. Our students sit in conversation groups and reveal their differences, their similarities, their quirks, their fears, and their greatest joys. Those of us who work day in and out in this context forget that, for many, these stories are not a given. Its important to reflect on what God is doing in this unique setting through and beyond the language we share.

One of the most interesting things I’ve observed in my time as an ESL teacher is the direct, but often forgotten, correlation between language and restoration that exists in full-form inside World Relief’s classrooms. Here, the term restoration is referred to as rebirth found in relational and cultural forgiveness, the discoveries and acknowledgements of one’s abilities, and the eagerness to employ skills both newfound and those waiting to be uncovered.

Restoration, in the ESL classroom, is putting back together the pieces that are left in the wake of hardship and seeing the potential for new ones. Restoration is grief in all that’s been lost and hope for all that lies beyond the grasp. Restoration is done through and in relationships and through and in language. English isn’t the key, but attempting to share who you are, who you have been, and who you would like to become provides an outlet, a means forward.

Our students discover a relationship with language and study. Some of our students become acquainted with an academic setting for the first time. Here our students find relationship sitting shoulder to shoulder with each other’s opposing worldviews. They learn to respect and search for the similarities in each other. They work to see the person before the conflict, the human being before the political, religious, or cultural differences.

Our students come face to face with a relational God. On Friday mornings, students rise earlier than normal to gather before school for a Bible study. They read a section of the gospels or Psalms and share stories of how God has gotten them through, how he’s still getting them through. Those same students encounter God when they share those insights in conversation groups in class. They encounter God when vocabulary words like valuable and worthy and creative appear in a daily text. Why does a person have value? Who makes us creative? Why are you worthy? I pose the questions and wait for the critical thinking and the answers. In open discussion, we get to the bottom of God’s worth in us, his creativity in mankind. Maybe, I hope, these conversations put a spotlight on the often over-looked Imago Dei inside each of us.

I think of the stories I’ve heard – words forming up out of the groundwork of language to create meaning to the experience of life.

I think of the woman who lived under abuse, but strove to make it to class every day. “Teacher, this is my second home. This is my family,” she says,  “I feel safe here. I’m not afraid. Now, little by little I feel strong. I’m not cry all the time anymore.”

I think of the married couple who others refer to as “Mama” and “Papa” because of their consistent, parental presence in the class. Every person gets a chocolate bar on their birthday, but our class “Mama” got a student initiated and organized surprise party. Students bought roses, balloons, cakes, and streamers for the event.

I think of the concern a body of students shares for another student who has been separated from his family. As he works to reunify his family, by bringing them to the United States, his classmates bring him groceries and call him when he doesn’t come to class. One day he sat back, looked around, and said, “Here I am alone, but I am not alone, because I have my family in here.”

I think about the tears often shed, or bravely held back, during our family and friends unit. The majority of people have lost family and friends. As we draw and label our family trees, the language and the community gives students space to write, to talk, and to speak. Their drawings and narrations become a kind of memorial to those lost loved ones.

I think of the different religions, political affiliations, cultures, and worldviews existing in one small space. It baffles me that this community even functions.

The fact remains; this is still a sixteen hour a week English class. Pain developed over the years will run deep, will pour over, will keep these students in cyclical patterns of frustration and fear. But, this is a start. Every act of restoration needs a beginning.

Three ways to stand with refugees

If you’ve been following the news this week and wondering how you can stand with refugees in your community, here are three ways you can help:

  • PRAY– Most refugees eligible for U.S. resettlement wait years until they are approved to come to the U.S. Please pray especially for the refugees who were next up in line for resettlement, and now must wait months before they can start their new lives in the U.S. Pray also for refugees in the U.S. anticipating reunification with family members abroad, and pray that the Church will respond with compassion and courage in this time.
  • GIVE– The proposed changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program include funding cuts for resettlement agencies like World Relief Chicago. These cuts compromise our ability to care for refugees and limit our capacity to engage local churches and volunteers in this work. Please consider making a financial gift.

Thanks for standing with local refugees!


What Is a Refugee?

What is a refugee?

A refugee is an individual living outside of his/her home country and who is unable to return to his/her home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

What is the Refugee process in the US?

The refugee process is very extensive and thorough.  It could be years before a person is designated as refugee eligible to come to the U.S.  Therefore, the refugee status has to be granted before the arrival to the United States. Refugees go into a comprehensive background check to verify that they are admissible to the United States.  More information about the extensive screening process can be found here:

Can a refugee work in the U.S?

A refugee is authorized to work immediately upon arriving to the U.S.

Can a refugee petition for family members?

A refugee may petition for family members (spouse and unmarried children under 21 years old) outside the U.S to join them.  There are some qualifications and deadlines that need to be met in order to file these family petitions so it’s important to seek legal advice promptly.

When can a refugee apply for his/her green card?

Refugees are required by law to apply for his/her green card (legal permanent residence card) in the U.S one year after being admitted as a refugee.  Each refugee has to file his/her own application (family members must file separately for their green card).

What are the qualifications to apply for a green card?

For a refugee to be eligible to apply for a green card, she/he must:

  • be present in the U.S for at least one year
  • be admissible to the U.S. as an immigrant
  • refugee status has not been terminated or cancelled
  • not currently have a green card (permanent resident card)

Can a Refugee travel outside the U.S?

It is important to always ask a legal representative before the refugee travels outside the U.S.  Travel can lead to loss of the refugee’s status and possibly put the refugee in removal proceedings from the U.S.  Also, a refugee should not be using his/her home country passport to travel outside the U.S.  A “refugee travel document” is needed to travel outside the U.S.

Can a refugee renew his/her home country passport?

It is strongly recommended that a refugee does not use or renew his/her home country passport when travelling.  Using or renewing a home country passport would cause issues to his/her original assignation as refugees.

Can a refugee vote in the United States?

A refugee is not eligible to register to vote or vote in the United States. Only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote in the U.S.

When can a refugee apply to become a U.S. citizen?

After a refugee has had his/her green card for five years, he/she is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

What are the benefits of becoming a U.S citizen?

Some of the benefits of becoming a U.S. citizen are:

  • Voting rights
  • Eligible to bring family members to the U.S.
  • Children born abroad to U.S citizens are automatically U.S citizens as long as certain criteria is met
  • Ability to travel with a U.S. passport
  • Eligible for Federal jobs
  • Ability to become an elected official in the U.S.



*The contents of this blog post are intended to convey general information only and not to provide legal advice or opinions.  For advice on specific legal issues, please contact our Immigrant Legal Services department.


La pasión de servicio de una voluntaria fue encendida nuevamente

Shobhana Kasturi ha colaborado como voluntaria con World Relief desde diciembre de 2014. Como abogada voluntaria, Shobhana ayuda en nuestro Departamento de Servicios Legales de Inmigración realizando la evaluación legal de casos y preparándolos conjuntamente con otros miembros del equipo, así como asistiendo con eventos de divulgación. Estas son algunas de las tantas tareas que ha realizado para asistir a nuestros abogados y consejeros de inmigración.

Hannah Kiefer, Coordinadora de Voluntarios de World Relief Chicago, tuvo la oportunidad de pasar un rato charlando con Shobhana sobre su experiencia con la organización.

¿Cuál ha sido su experiencia asistiendo en nuestro Departamento de Servicios Legales de Inmigración?

“. . . He visto clientes que vienen sintiéndose desesperanzados y abatidos, y luego, cuando salen de una consulta, hay alegría y optimismo, porque se les ha dado alguna esperanza. Veo que cada consejero y abogado quiere ayudar genuinamente.”

“No es inusual que [los clientes] vengan y den suvenires, agradecimientos, traigan comida, etc. Algunos vienen y se sientan y quieren charlar porque ahora su relación ha evolucionado. Ha trascendido incluso esa relación [de servicio]. Eso dice mucho acerca de los servicios que se proporcionan. Significa que el cliente ha sido afectado positivamente por el trabajo que se ha hecho. ”

¿Qué tipo de desafíos y/o alegrías ha experimentado durante su servicio como voluntaria?

“. . . el programa de Servicios Legales de Inmigración de World Relief. . . proporciona un mejor cuidado y atención a pesar de que [hay] una gran cantidad de casos que pasan por el mismo. No siento que los clientes sean un número. Sus abogados y consejeros los conocen por su nombre. Conocen sus casos de arriba a abajo. Si fueras ahora mismo y le preguntaras [a un miembro del personal] sobre un caso, podrían recitar fácilmente todos los detalles. El nivel de dedicación y cuidado es realmente muy alto.”

“Si tienes compasión cuando estás abogando por tus clientes, logras un impacto tan significativo. Es por eso que tienen tan buena reputación.”

Shobhana tuvo observaciones adicionales para compartir.

“[El Departamento no sólo] les proporciona servicios legales, sino que también les dan esperanza, una pequeña luz de esperanza. El abogar por los derechos de otros nos es una tarea mecánica, sino que se combina con la pasión y el deseo de lograr su éxito.”

“Ésta ha sido mi experiencia y es por eso que quiero seguir teniendo una relación con el Departamento