The small city of Clarkston, Georgia, has been called “the most diverse square mile in America” and “the Ellis Island of the South.”
Since 1979, World Relief’s Atlanta office assisted thousands of refugee families who resettled there, helping them find apartments and apply for jobs, enrolling their children in local schools, bringing them to medical appointments, and giving them a hand with paperwork.
Then, on a quiet morning last fall, the agency’s former director, Joshua Sieweke, got the call that his office–like other branches in Nashville, Miami, and Columbus, Ohio–would be shutting down.
Though the evangelical organization remained as dedicated as ever, there were simply far fewer opportunities to help and much less funding to do so. The number of admitted refugees had dwindled from a national cap of 110,000 in the previous administration to 45,000, then 30,000, then 18,000 under President Donald Trump.
That day in 2019, Sieweke called the pastor of his church to update their network of prayer partners. After serving with World Relief for 20 years and personally helping over 10,000 refugees resettle in the community, Sieweke told him, “I feel like my calling is being taken away.”
Sieweke, fellow former World Relief staffers, and a city packed full of Christian ministry workers and refugees themselves have been forced to rethink how their mission could continue. This month, the Trump administration announced, as predicted, another record low: Just 15,000 refugees will be welcomed into the US over the next fiscal year.
John Arnold, a 23-year veteran of World Relief Atlanta, joined the Welcome Co-op, a new nonprofit formed last year to make the most efficient use of dwindling dollars. Using shared resources from the handful of remaining resettlement agencies in the Atlanta area, Arnold continues to provide logistical support–helping the few incoming refugees find jobs, obtain affordable housing, and get situated in the Clarkston community.
Arnold’s job security is still directly tied to the yearly caps for new refugee arrivals and resettlement funding, which are determined at a national level. Given the precarious trajectory set by the current president, Arnold and his team have been forced to prepare for two potential futures. Depending on the outcome of this election, they have developed a Biden plan and a Trump plan, the latter of which includes the bleak prospect of extinction.
And after more than two decades of serving refugees, Arnold says, “Never before has my life been so directly affected by who will become president.”
Should these limitations and restrictions continue, the consequences could prove dire–both for those seeking refuge around the world as well as those who are already resettled in our country.
“What’s more concerning to us than any impact on our operations is the impact it could have on our refugee friends,” says Ben Irwin with Preemptive Love Atlanta. “Hardening policies toward refugees can lead to hardening attitudes, which can mean less help for those trying to escape violence.”
A community built on welcoming
Kitti Murray, the founder of Refuge–a Clarkston coffee shop that hires refugees and offers them career training–has seen firsthand how these national statistics have translated to the local level. Her shop is the de facto town center, where native and foreign born alike gather. This diverse community is the heart of Clarkston and a symbol of the American dream.
There is a unique sense of cultural camaraderie in the town, which sees itself as an example of how a community built around refugee resettlement could be successful. In Clarkston, a third of the population is foreign-born, and 60 languages are spoken in just over a square mile. Residents fear any threat to the resettlement program in the nation at large could affect the atmosphere of welcome that Murray and others have fought so hard to cultivate.
Moreover, as an evangelical Christian, Murray is grieved to see how receiving refugees into our country has become such a politicized issue. “Systemic unwelcoming is counter to the scriptural mandate to provide for the vulnerable,” she said. “I see daily the impact of our unwelcoming.”
These recent reductions are most heartbreaking for refugees who are in the process of trying to reunite their families. Everybody has a story–of husbands and wives forced to flee to different countries, of children separated from their mother or father, of brothers who are still looking for their sisters. “We live and work in a community of incredibly heroic and resilient resettled refugees whose families are stuck in dangerous places because our doors are increasingly slamming shut,” Murray said.
Each time refugee resettlement agencies received word on a further round of cutbacks in new arrivals and allocated funds, any active plans for family reunification had to adjust accordingly–flights got canceled, medical screenings expired, paperwork had to be resubmitted. And sometimes a process that already takes years, even decades, must begin all over again. Meanwhile, resettled refugees are left to wonder when or if they will see their loved ones again.
Another former staff member of World Relief Atlanta, Chantal Ndenga, was a refugee herself before being resettled by the organization in 2000. After losing her parents and a brother, Ndenga and her remaining siblings registered for refugee status in the Congo and were sent to live in a refugee camp in Benin.
Although some refugees can spend decades in the camps, Ndenga stayed there only eight months. And yet her faith was tested by an overwhelming sense of despair. “You have no future. … There’s no hope,” Ndenga says.
She and her sister prayed fervently for God to send them a Christian case manager–a prayer that was answered months later when their case was assigned to the World Relief office in Atlanta.
Finally, after weeks of interviews, examinations, and paperwork facilitated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ndenga found herself on a flight to her new home in America. She still remembers the moment she saw Sieweke’s wife standing at the airport terminal, waiting to greet her when she arrived.
“It felt so amazing,” Ndenga said, “to know somebody out there cared about me, that somebody wanted me.”
Years later, when the opportunity arose to work for World Relief as an immigrations specialist, Ndenga leaped at the chance. She helped families file the proper documentation to obtain green cards, schedule regular appointments, and prepare for the final interview and examination.
Ndenga would tell each of her clients, as they finally arrived at the last step, just before crossing the threshold into citizenship, “After this, you are not a refugee. … You are an American.”
Even though she spent several years helping hundreds of families make that transition, nothing could prepare her for her own journey. She remembers being led down the hallway and into a bright room where she was seated at a table before a uniformed representative, who began flipping through a large case file laid open between them.
In the folder, Ndenga saw every official document that registered her as a human being–from her birth to a Burundian mother and a Rwandan father, to the years she grew up living in the Congo, and the months she spent praying in that dusty refugee camp in Benin–everything that had led her to this moment in time. “She held my life in her hands.”
Strangers become neighbors
Today, Ndenga is a proud citizen of the United States of America, but she still thinks back to those early experiences whenever she finds herself seated across from fathers, mothers, and children who share that familiar look of nervous anticipation.
She now lives comfortably in the suburbs, with her two children well on their way to graduating college. Recently, Ndenga overheard a fellow “new citizen” echoing some of the anti-immigrant complaints that come up in politics.
Ndenga responded by recounting her friend’s history. Less than a decade ago, he had to flee his home country and find refuge in a nearby nation. This man had to travel across three different borders, illegally and without documentation, before he was finally able to claim asylum and register for refugee status.
While he was one of the few selected to come to America and build a new life for his family, Ndenga gently reminded him that there are still millions of other men, women, and children out there who are just like him. These families are facing similar dangers and life-threatening situations, and they too long for the safety and security he found here.
“If God has saved you from that,” Ndenga says, “how can you not want the same for others?”
There are hundreds of thousands of stories just like Ndenga’s–of former refugees who are not only surviving but thriving in their own pursuit of the American dream.
Brian Bollinger worked at World Relief for six years and has since become the director of community and economic development at Friends of Refugees, an organization that helps new citizens succeed long after resettlement–including equipping many who want to start their own businesses.
Coming from a small town in Kansas settled by Mennonites, Bollinger’s idea of welcoming refugees takes after the forgotten art of “neighboring” modeled in his hometown. And shortly after buying a new house in Clarkston, Bollinger saw the cycle of neighboring come full circle when he noticed that the Burmese family moving in next door were former clients he once helped resettle through World Relief.
Today, their children attend a Christian school, and the father still works at the same poultry plant where Bollinger placed him nearly a decade ago. He has since been promoted three times, from line worker into management.
Eight years ago, Bollinger and his wife helped this family take its first steps to rebuild their lives in America–and today, they are able to enjoy a variety of cultural and culinary blessings as their next-door neighbors.
Bollinger lends his expertise to assist the father with technical homeowner issues, and the Burmese family will gift them with giant gourds from their backyard–a coveted crop the Bollingers’ own garden has yet to produce. And every fall, the families gather together to harvest the pear tree on their property line.
Stories like this are a testament to the bountiful fruit of Christians working to welcome refugees–the joy of witnessing strangers become neighbors and neighbors become like family.
The church’s unique calling
The divine mandate to care for this cause is based on a number of Scripture passages in the Old and New Testament, like God’s instruction to Israel that “the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Lev. 19: 34).
This message appears in many sermons preached by Trent Deloach, the pastor of Clarkston International Bible Church–a local evangelical church that has partnered with World Relief for decades. Deloach also recently helped the Southern Baptist Convention expand its Send Relief program to serve the area.
On Sunday mornings, the church represents over a dozen different nationalities and hosts six more congregations during the week–groups that are led by foreign-born believers who became church-planting leaders.
For Deloach and his staff, refugees and immigrants are nothing but a blessing to their church. Not only have they learned deep spiritual lessons from their fellow brothers and sisters in the global body of Christ–many of whom have endured and escaped great persecution for their faith–but everything from potlucks to prayer meetings have grown richer as a result.
As Deloach often jokes from the pulpit, “If you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.”
Now more than ever, the prayer of Deloach, Bollinger, Ndenga, Arnold, Sieweke, and others is that more evangelical churches would step up to serve their local refugee populations in the wake of recent national policies–and especially in the withdrawal of sufficient government funding for organizations like World Relief in Atlanta.
To them, the God-given duty to welcome the foreigner is unchanging, even if society or the government’s political posture and commitment to the cause has changed.
“The ability to be hospitable is a powerful opportunity,” said Sieweke, who is still looking for his next step after World Relief.
“To use our hospitality to transform lives,” he said, is a unique calling that the body of Christ must not take for granted.
Stefani McDade is a freelance writer who recently completed her master’s in theology. She and her husband live among the diverse international community of Clarkston in the Atlanta area.