A New Mission for PCC:  The Refugee Task Force

Resolved, the PCC Board of Trustees authorizes a Refugee Task Force to work under its auspices to undertake such activities helpful to immigrating refugees; the work to include, but not be limited to, organizing church and community volunteers, gathering donated clothing, furniture, foodstuffs, and the like, and requesting donations.

Welcome strangers as you would welcome Jesus.  (Matthew 25:35-40)

Late at night on February 1st, PCC’s second ‘adopted’ refugee family arrived safely in the Bay Area.
A family of five from Afghanistan, two parents and three children, arrived at Oakland Airport amidst the turmoil surrounding immigration issues at airports in the US, and were whisked to their apartment in Oakland in our PCC van.  They have settled in to their new home and were treated to an enthusiastic welcome reception on February 4th by more than 60 members of the Refugee Task Force (RTF) and church members. Colorful welcome signs, cakes, coffee, soft drinks and happiness were the order of the day. In collaboration with Catholic Charities, members of the RTF have been meeting with the family to help set up English lessons, arrange for medical and social services, begin school enrollments and explore employment opportunities. Due to privacy concerns about the family at this time, we are not publishing their names and photos; we trust you understand this cautious approach.

Welcoming Our First Refugee Family

It started in Canada last summer.  PCC member David Schmidt was in Winnipeg, and had about all he could take of the news about Syrian refugees.  He called his friend, PCC Senior Pastor Bill McNabb and said “Bill, we have to do something.” And the PCC Refugee Task Force was born.

When the Schmidt’s returned, a meeting was convened in their home.  All interested PCC members were invited to attend, and 30 responded.  In the meantime, David had been busy researching the best way to proceed.  He found that Catholic Charities of the East Bay had a well-established Refugee Resettlement Program, and PCC signed on.  Their goal is to help refugees to become settled and self-sufficient, by assisting with housing, employment, dealing with government agencies, and in many other ways.  PCC would help with tangibles such as initial supplies of food and furniture, and transportation until the refugees could learn to use public transportation.  And of course, we would provide friendly and caring attention as needed in an incredibly stressful time of upheaval.  Although the Syrians started the ball rolling, it was unanimous: any country, any religion, any ethnicity would be very welcome.

All things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

The call came on Thanksgiving Day.  Before the group was completely organized, David was told: we have a family en route to Oakland.  They are Christians from Pakistan.  Can you help?  Emails, calls, meetings and more emails ensued in a flurry of activity.  The Bhatti family was arriving on December 10 from a refugee camp in Thailand.  Parents Pervaiz and Anila Shahzadi, and three sons: Oniel, Adeel and Samson.  A two bedroom, unfurnished apartment in East Oakland was waiting for them.  The RTF organized itself into committees after brainstorming what was needed to be done.

The outpouring from PCC and the greater community was nearly overwhelming.  Ann Lin kept track of donations, backed up by Suzanne Latham, as PCC members offered furniture and help.  Suzanne put a notice on her Next Door neighborhood website, and her neighbors offered many items of furniture, and two drivers with trucks.  Money was donated for the purchase of bedding.  A couch, chairs, bunk beds: the list went on.  Katy Asher’s Apartment Preparation group scrubbed the apartment so it shined.  Rev. Don Ashburn headed up Moving & Transport, and deliveries by Don, Lannie Spencer and many others filled the house so that it could become a home.   Swee Ling Chen stocked the apartment with food.

And then there was Family No. 1.  Living downstairs was another refugee family, settled by Catholic Charities in April.  The Shahzads: Ghafoor, Teresa, and daughters Sabeen and Emaan and sons Naaman and Hanaan were doing well, having secured jobs and enrolled in school.  Bill Neal, who was acting as “location scout” for the transition, befriended the family.  They had a car, although Ghafoor did not yet know how to drive, and now Bill is his driving instructor!  The Shahzads had met the Bhattis in Thailand, and the two families, from different parts of Pakistan, had become friends.  The Shahzads paved the way for the Bhattis, and could hardly wait.

Albert Chen led Welcome and Shepherding, and discussions about greeting the Bhatti’s at the airport.  The family had lived in the Thailand camp for over two years.  Would they be overwhelmed by too much attention?  What seemed like just right?  Pastor Don drove the church van, and a small enthusiastic group of 10 braved a rainy night to meet the plane.  Don wore a clerical collar.  David carried a large bouquet.  A large “Welcome” banner stretched across the airport hallway, with smiling people behind it.  Jennifer Fox was the official photographer.  Ghafoor Shahzad and sons Naaman and Hanaan were there, Ghafoor so excited, he could barely be still during the wait.  Also present was Sr. Elizabeth Lang from Catholic Charities, a Vietnamese sister who reminisced about welcoming refugees from her home country in the 1980’s.  And Niran Ghaley, Case Manager from Catholic Charities, there for a Burmese woman and her daughter, who were on the same flight.  The Burmese woman’s father was there to welcome her; they had not seen each other for 20 years.

Anila Bhatti recalls that as she walked into the terminal, she had no thought the group with the big “Welcome” sign was for them – she expected only the Shahzads – she thought all those people were meeting family members.  Her tears of joy were contagious.  The family had been in transit for 27 hours, but despite the fatigue, their relief and excitement was evident to all.  And the Burmese family reunion added to the joy in the air.

Back at the apartment building, Teresa Shahzad had been cooking up a storm.  Don, along with David and Bill Neal, drove the family to their new home.  Albert and Swee Ling were there to greet them.

On December 19th, Don, fighting a cold, and son Griffin filled a van to the brim with donated mattresses and beds for the Shahzad family, and delivered their cargo to grateful recipients on a very rainy  afternoon.

On Sunday, December 20th, at the 10:30 service, all eleven family members were the congregation’s honored guests, with rousing applause greeting their introduction in the sanctuary.  Connie Hosemann coordinated transport, and Mallory Lynch drove the families to church.  A reception with cake in the Guild Hall, organized by Janet Peterson, assisted by Lonnie Simonson, photographed again by Jenn, created a wonderful chance for others to meet these extraordinary people.  The reception blended beautifully with the Alternative Gift Market tables, in an atmosphere of present and future giving.

As Christmas Eve approached, members of the RTF and all who helped reflected on the amazing gift they had received.

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  (Hebrews 13:2)

– by Maggie Spencer, PCC Refugee Task Force

Learn How to Welcome Refugee Families to Your Community

PCC Refugee Task Force HOW TO Booklet
Refugee Task Force Donations List
Refugee Task Force TaskList