Interfaithfully Speaking: the spirit moves me to act

by Anne Thorward | Special to the Courier

Helping immigrants and refugees get settled, educated, employed and acclimated to American culture is spiritual work in action. Many religious sources such as the Quran, Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Bible, Buddha’s sayings, Hindu practices, and Baha’i ask us to “welcome the stranger” or serve the “foreigner among you.” Here in Claremont we have opportunities to do just that.

In 2016, a group of Claremont residents organized ways to help Syrian refugees who had arrived in the inland valley. This founding group raised money and worked directly with many refugee families. Volunteers met every two weeks in my home for several months to coordinate efforts,  until I ran out of chairs.

In early 2017, my friend, the late Barbara Aswad, a founder of the ACCESS center in Michigan, inspired us to establish a more formal organization. Thus, the Newcomers Access Center was born. The mission was expanded to include immigrant as well as refugee families.

A nonprofit based in Claremont, NAC serves clients from many parts of the world: Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan, South and Central America, Ukraine, and Nigeria. Three new families have become NAC clients just since the beginning of 2023. Nearly every person serviced by NAC is referred by a resettlement agency.

The UN High Commissioner on Refugees states that nearly 100 million displaced people throughout the world are looking for shelter, food, medical care, and countless other services. Most families NAC serves have experienced unimaginable pain and trauma. Afghans had been coming to the U.S. for several years, then in August 2021 the floodgates opened, bringing many more Afghans to Claremont. In February 2022 another floodgate opened, this time bringing refugees from Ukraine.

Refugees and immigrants are the most vetted and vulnerable people in our community. They need our support. Faced with war, persecution, or terror, they leave everything behind to rebuild their lives in a new country. Many are professionals starting over at lower level jobs outside their profession. A woman with master’s degrees in finance and banking experience works in a mall clothing store; an IT manager is washing dishes; pharmacists, engineers, jewelers, computer programmers, market specialists, a videographer and more all work in restaurants or other service jobs; a teacher is gladly cleaning houses; and a man with a master’s degree in fine arts works at a gas station, and is proud of the work he is doing.

People of faith are usually the first to join in this spiritual work. That is certainly true here. Several congregations, clubs, organizations, and interfaith groups have been involved with NAC. Our partners and donors provide NAC with financial support to assist with housing, rent subsidies, household items, diapers, car seats, cribs, college tuition and textbooks, driving lessons, down payments for cars, and other necessities. Our volunteers help with transportation, ESL tutoring, school enrollments, job sources, the maze of medical insurance, and much more. In addition to formal classes, sometimes clients come to NAC just to chat, ask questions, play games with children, or do small art projects.

I began helping refugees in earnest when the Vietnamese arrived in the U.S. in 1975-76. I was living on the East Coast and volunteered to teach parents to read, beginning with children’s books, which the parents could read to their own kids. Seeing their eyes light up as they learned to read these books fed my spirit, just as my spiritual life is nurtured today when a mom learns to drive, a dad gets a new job, or refugee students start college.

There are many ways to help the strangers in our midst. Join us at NAC anytime. Follow your spirit and see where it leads you.

Anne Thorward is the president of the Newcomers Access Center. More info is at newcomersaccesscenter.org.

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