Waukesha county congregations collaborate to resettle refugee families

You don’t have to go it alone.

That’s one lesson provided by five Waukesha County UCC congregations that joined forces to resettle two families of Rohingya refugees who arrived in Wisconsin in spring 2023.

Working together, members of the congregations — St. John’s in Merton, Redeemer in Sussex, First Congregational in Oconomowoc, Emmanuel in Dousman and First Congregational in Hartland – overcame challenges that included the language barrier, cultural and religious differences, and the lack of affordable housing to help the families build new lives in southeast Wisconsin.

“It deepened my faith in the church,” said the Rev. Steve Hecky, a retired UCC pastor and Redeemer member who, with his wife, Debbie, helped assemble the church coalition. “This brought great joy, togetherness and unity to the five churches that got involved.”

Officially, the UCC team was a co-sponsor of the refugees, working in partnership with Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to support the newcomers during their first six months as they adapted to life in their new home. The congregations raised more than $6,000 to help the families with living expenses and received a $3,000 Catalyst Grant from the Wisconsin Conference and a second small grant from the Conference. But because the refugees were eligible for other financial assistance, most of the money never was spent, and the money is available for future resettlement work.

Housing, not cash, proved the most formidable obstacle. “We had a number of people literally pounding the pavement,” said St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Mary Jane Huber. Because the refugees had no work history to speak of, traditional landlords wouldn’t rent to them. Their luck turned when a Milwaukee landlord whose business renting to Marquette University dropped off during the pandemic offered to work with Lutheran Social Services to house the families.

Redeemer member Linda Graebner-Smith, a retired executive recruiter, played a pivotal role in helping the refugee families’ breadwinners land jobs that would provide a sustainable income. Linda approached potential employers directly rather than through and employment agency. Within a couple of weeks, the two men landed jobs with Palermo’s a Milwaukee pizzamaker.

“There was a lot of excitement in the business community to look at the incoming refugees as entry-level employees,” Linda said.

The family members spoke little to no English when they arrived, and one of the mothers had never been taught to read or write in her own language. Thanks to English-language instruction for the refugees and diligent work by the church hosts, the two groups were able to communicate effectively within a few months.

“One member of our group found a YouTube site where you could learn Rohingya,” Linda said. “I wrote everything down phonetically and put it on cards I could hold in my lap.

The UCC team officially said goodbye to the Rohingya families in November, but not before holding a baby shower for one of the mothers who gave birth in January. “It was a delightful family celebration,” Debbie Hecky said. “The amount of sharing they did – they even showed a photo album they had brought with them. They shared their lives.” The refugees already have invited the group to celebrate the end of Ramadan this year.

The project has enriched the faith of the UCC co-sponsors.

“It lives out every single text in scripture,” Mary Jane said. “Whenever scripture talks about refugees it’s 100 percent consistent: Welcome them, feed them, house them. Remember you, too, were a refugee.”

Is your church interested in co-sponsorship? Email church.relations@lsswis.org to learn more.

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