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Welcoming Refugees

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It might be a cliche, but there’s a reason we say “many hands make light work.” At Woodland, we’ve seen various missional communities form and create an impact far beyond what one person or family can do alone. One such group began with Mark and Sharon Norlander.

When Mark was 12, his parents gave him a book called The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. It’s the true story of how Corrie and her family used a secret room in their apartment to hide Jews fleeing the Nazis. Mark remembered this story many years later when Russia invaded Ukraine. He says, “When the war started, I saw an image of a woman and her two children lying dead in the street with their suitcases beside them. They were simple civilians trying to get to the train station to escape. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind, and really felt a strong urge to do something. But what?”

When the Norlanders learned of a program where Americans could sponsor Ukrainian refugees,they felt strongly this was something they should do. They applied and four days later Vadym and Luibov Holiuk and their three daughters landed in Minneapolis.

With such short notice no housing was available, so the Holiuks moved in with the Norlanders. Mark says, “We moved into our basement, and they lived upstairs for three months. We got to know them very quickly—how can you not when every morning you’re having coffee together in your pajamas!”

Of course no cross-cultural transition would be complete without a few comical misunderstandings. Mark says, “One time we were invited to some friends’ home for dinner and I told Vadym, “This is an anthropology professor.” Vadym misunderstood and thought I said he was with Interpol. He looked shocked and said, ‘Oh no. What did I do wrong?’”

One year after their arrival, Vadym told the Norlanders that the situation was getting worse for his parents, sister and niece who were still in Ukraine. He asked if the Norlanders would consider sponsoring this extended family as well. “We said yes, but we knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we decided to see if there was a way to get help from folks at Woodland. We contacted Kevin Callaghan (Discipleship and Formation Pastor) and Laurie Preston (Missions and Ministry Support Coordinator). They said this fit perfectly into the purpose of Woodland’s missional communities, and the word went out to all the Covenant Partners. About 20 people showed up for an informational meeting, and that was the start of our Ukraine missional community.”

Jonell and her family were part of that first meeting. She says, “Part of our family’s goal is to make a safe and loving space for newcomers and people visiting the U.S., whether short or long term. We have hosted international teachers and teen exchange students in the past, and feel like when you’re far from home, there’s a lot of grace in God’s provision of people who are the hands and feet of Christ. The situation with the Holiuks fit with our family’s value for hospitality.”

The missional community rallied together around the extended family, providing help with transportation, driving lessons, collecting household items and raising funds. Then the entire community helped welcome the family into their new, fully furnished home.

Jonell explains, “Refugees’ needs are both social and pragmatic. They need orientation and rides to stores and appointments, but they also need to feel connected—that they are welcome and belong.”

Walking a whole family through adjusting to a new country and culture is a major effort. Mark says, “It has really increased our awareness of the challenges that displaced refugees face. Language, culture, food, administrative tasks and just daily living are so difficult for them. We really have no clue how immigrants can do all of this without help from an American sponsor. They need help with everything, especially for the first few months.” It’s also too big an effort for any one person to take on, but by working together, the missional community was able to meet these challenges.

The families have grown close. Mark says, “They really became part of our family and we really love this family. It’s so rewarding to know that they are safe from the war and that they have hope for the future. Their girls are in school and Vadym is working and fully supports the family.”

Jonell sums up the missional community like this: “It’s really nice after doing things on our own as a family for a long time, to collaborate with other people. And with different people doing different things, we can do what fits into our family’s existing needs/schedule and still help. It’s not only about what you do, but about doing it together.”

If you are interested in joining one of our missional communities, contact Kevin at kcallaghan@whchurch.org 

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"My almost-three-year-old asks every day if we can go to church. Thank you, Woodland Hills, and all the Heroes Gate volunteers for creating such a great environment for kids. My husband and I met at WH six years ago and now our son counts down the days until we get to go again. My heart could burst."

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