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See Things Differently: Sponsorship Stories

In this episode we're joined by Bev Stephenson, a dedicated volunteer in refugee resettlement in the US. Bev shares her experiences co-sponsoring Afghan and Cuban refugee families alongside her church. Bev shares insightful stories highlighting the challenges, joys, and profound impact of building cross-cultural relationships and supporting families through their resettlement journeys.

The following is a transcript of Season 8 Episode 4 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well, hello friends and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. My name is Chris Orme. I'm happy to be your host. Today, joining me is Bev Stephenson. Bev – this is what she said in her bio. She's Mark's wife. She's mother of five. She's grandmother of three. Her career was as a special education teacher of students with severe, multiple disabilities. She's still teaching part-time as a homebound educator for students with disabilities. But Bev’s passion is for refugee resettlement and refugee families. Through her involvement in church, she and Mark and her cohort of friends, they've co-sponsored eight families. It's definitely left a mark, right Bev?

Bev: Absolutely.

Chris: So welcome. We want to talk more about refugee resettlement and get into it. But let's start with the obvious: refugee sponsorship is not your full-time work. But you've learned a lot through volunteering and walking alongside people. Can you tell us about someone you've walked alongside and what you've learned from that experience? 

Bev: The family that we're co-sponsoring right now is an Afghan refugee family. That came after the evacuation from the Kabul airport in August 2021. They were all interred on a military basis for four months before they could be released out into the community, because they had to be vetted because it was such a sudden evacuation. So, they came to us in late December 2021, and my team is still very involved with this family, which is a little bit unusual. Usually, a refugee resettlement co-sponsor team would be involved for maybe six months – on an active basis and the relationships go on much longer than that. But with a lot of these Afghan families, they have needed a lot more help of people walking alongside them. So we are still very involved with them. It's been an incredible experience. I have done all kinds of things I never could have imagined when we started this, just because of the unique needs of this family. We now consider them friends and family. Then those relationships have branched out to other Afghan families in the area that have become friends of theirs. It's just been an incredible experience. So I have learned so much. When you do co-sponsorship, I think before you start you don't realize how much you can come to love people that you've never met before, from another part of the world. As time goes on, those relationships develop and you do life together. And you realize in so many ways you're the same, even though their language is different, their religion may be different, their culture is different, their history is different, but still you care about the same things.

Chris: I want to ask: why? 

Bev: Why?

Chris: Like why? I watched the news, I saw the images and it was awful. And I get to be involved in a proximate way, through my work with World Renew. I'm on the team, but I'm not doing the work. Why is this so important to you? Why did you respond? Why do you dive into this the way you do?

Bev: At Intersection Ministries, like you mentioned, we have a history of co-sponsoring refugee families. That started with a family from Cuba. It started very much all of a sudden, with no warning. Bethany desperately needed a co-sponsor for this family and they called Intersection. Actually, my husband Mark and I were gone at that time. A group of people from Intersection said, “Yes, we'll do it.” Bethany said,  “They'll be here in 48 hours. We need to have everything ready to go for them.” So actually our oldest son dove in and helped with this. They were running around picking up furniture, getting an apartment ready. We came back and then stepped in. At that time, I was teaching full-time, so I was a member of the team. That was a really good experience. We all learned a lot. Then a lot of us helped with the next family, and the next family, and the next family, and the next family. We just kept it going. Actually, all the other families have been from Cuba. They haven't all known each other. But some of them some of them did. 

Then there was a pause. Then all of this started happening in Afghanistan. At that time, I had retired from full-time teaching. While I was teaching full-time, I couldn't see how I could take on being in the position of coordinator. So one of our pastors, Tito Menegas, came to me one day and he said, “Bev, you know about the whole situation in Afghanistan and all the refugees coming here. Do you think that we should be thinking about co-sponsoring a family?”  I just looked right at him and I said, “I think we need to,” because there’s such a huge need, such an enormous number of people coming all at once. I said, “We know how to do this, Tito. We've done this many times before.” He said, “Yeah, this will be different. None of us will know the language.” Because all the families from Cuba, of course, spoke Spanish. We're a multicultural, bilingual church, so that wasn't difficult. I said, “But we'll figure it out, doing another language.” I said, “We can make this work.” Then a couple days later he came to me and said, “Well, will you be the coordinator?” 

And I went, “Ooh-whoo.” So I had to pray about it and I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to be the coordinator this time.” Meanwhile Movement West Michigan had been organizing all of this behind the scenes. They came to me and said, “There's another church that would like to partner with Intersection Ministries: Third Reformed Church. They'll help provide funds, they'll provide volunteers, but you would be the coordinator for everything.” And I thought, “That's awesome,” because co-sponsoring a refugee family takes a team. Nobody can do this by themselves. I thought, “That would be great,” because we'll have more people, more resources to make this all work. That's how I got started with this. We really had no idea what we were going to encounter. We got assigned a family and off to the airport we went to pick them up. 

Chris: It's just so cool because I've had the fortune of being able to talk to a few people so far for the podcast and these conversations, and I'm always interested in the roadmap that led to the yes. It seems to be a common thread, a common theme that's there's a point at which we said yes, and then that's when stuff started happening. 

But I want to shift gears a little bit because it's not easy work. So what's something in your experience that people won't say about sponsoring a refugee or a refugee family, but would be a helpful starting point in trying to be a light in the world?

Bev: I think a really important thing to remember in this kind of work, is that I am only one heartbeat away from being in their shoes. One heartbeat of history and our situations could be reversed. To me, it's always important to remember that. Every single refugee family we've helped, at one point we've had this discussion with them. Because they're always very grateful for the help and I always say “We're only doing what you would do if our situations were reversed.” I've said to this Afghan family, “If the United States collapsed and we had to be evacuated, if your country was still stable and we had to be evacuated to Afghanistan, and I was dropped into your village,” I said, “Would you do this for me?” And, of course, they all said yes. That keeps everybody humble. In this process, we're not the saviours, we're not doing this amazing thing. We're only doing what these people would do if our situations were reversed. 

Some other things are that there will be ups and downs. Refugees – no matter where they're from, no matter what the circumstances – they have been through trauma. They have left everything familiar behind. They've left their familiar culture. They left their country behind. They left their people behind, their friends, their family, their house. They left everything behind, coming to a place where they know no one. They may not know the language, people may be a different religion, different culture. They are putting their lives into the hands of total strangers. So we have to be worth that kind of trust. But there will be ups and downs, not everything's going to go smoothly. It takes some persistence. It takes lots of prayer. It takes lots of working together as a team.

Another thing that we found through all these refugee families is that it takes some organizational skills. It takes schedules and all of this stuff to keep everybody on task and keep things organized. One of the things I learned with this Afghan family that I didn't know before is that they operate on a completely different calendar. Their calendar system is set up differently. It's the year 1455 in Afghanistan now. So their whole orientation is different to time. I had to right away get a calendar system going just because there are so many appointments that refugees need to go to: health appointments, and legal appointments, and you name it. There are just a lot of appointments and helping them to stay on schedule. We still do this to this day. We still use all these organizational tools to keep everybody on task.

The other thing is it takes a team. There is no doing this as one person. Just because there are a lot of appointments, there are a lot of things that need to be done. There's a lot of paperwork that has to be done. With our refugee families, it's really varied how much help they need. Some of the people who have come to us have been university educated and they just needed a little time and a little guidance and they could do a lot of it on their own. Other families have needed a lot of help because all these processes were so new to them. Coming to a country where the medical system is a mystery to them, and the whole legal system and government systems are mysteries to them, they need somebody to walk with them and help them to know what needs to be done next. 

Chris: How do you pull a team together? That's something that a lot of our guests have talked about. It's like we needed a team and how do you invite people into this?

Bev: At Intersection, of course, we had a history of doing this with other families. So we already had people who had experience with this and knew the joys that come with this. So, there were people who were right away on board with this. The other family where there were volunteers, there was a coordinator in that church and elder in that church who was coordinating. This other church, Third Reformed Church, also has a lot of experience in working with immigrants. So for us, it was never really an issue. 

I started with twenty-some people on my team. Now that number has narrowed down a little bit as time has gone on, as people have needed to leave and then other people have joined. But. Yeah, part of it is people need to know they’re needed and that there are ways that they're gonna be able to do things that make a difference for this family. Most of my team members honestly just wanted the opportunity to get to know this most recent family that they had. Because they have a lot of unique things going on in their family, a lot of people really wanted to reach out to them. This family is very engaging too. That's another thing for teams to keep in mind. When I think back to the families that we've co-sponsored, these families have been very different from each other. Some of these families we have ongoing relationships with. But that hasn't been true for all of them. As a team, you have to remember that this family's goals might look very different than what you think their goals would be. We had one family at one time that came here and their goal was just to get settled long enough in Michigan to get their feet on the ground so that they could leave and move south. That was their right. These families have a right to make their own decisions. That was really different for everybody on the team, working with a family whose goal was to leave us – to be stable enough that they could leave. Then you change how you're doing things and say, “Okay, then we're going to help you get to the point where you are stable enough that you can leave.” That's what they did. They moved south. Several of our Cuban families have moved south, which is understandable. They made it through one or two or three winters in Michigan and they're like, “Okay this is enough, we need to go where the sun shines  more.” But, some of the Cuban families have stayed here, and they're still here in our neighborhood. 

Chris: It's awesome. I definitely feel the pull to the warmth as well, but here I am in southern Ontario, so… The summer is coming. It is coming. You talked a bit about the unpredictable nature of the work. The unpredictable nature of coming alongside a family who has fled unimaginable situations, probably have been forced to make impossible decisions along the way. What do you do when the messiness or the unpredictable nature of the work comes up? How do you get through it?

Bev: I can give some really great examples of that with the family that we're still involved with right now, the family from Afghanistan. Within the first two weeks, they were here… This is a family of eight people, parents and six children. But they came with parents and five children. Within the first two weeks of spending time with them, I learned that one of the children had some significant medical needs that I had known nothing about. Looking back, a lot of people have said, “God knew you needed to be this family's coordinator.” I'm a special education teacher of students with severe multiple disabilities, so the first time I spent time with them, I thought “Okay, we need to get a medical specialist involved here, some interventions going on.” So I just started working with the refugee resettlement agency and getting all of that going for that child. 

Then one day, I was with one of my team members and we were at their house, and they said to me, “We have one more child.” I said, “Where is this other child?” “We don't know.” They said, “He was separated from us during the evacuation, we don't know what happened to him. We haven’t heard anything in four months. We don't know if he's alive or dead.” So this was all within the first two weeks. And I was like, “Okay.” I mean the first thing we did was we prayed together, because the mother was weeping as they were telling us this story. All I could say to them was, “God knows where he is.” I said, “God knows where he is.” We prayed together and I just said, “I'll start working on this.” So I started making phone calls. Anyway, to make a very long story short, that led to an entire year of intervention. Now this is a very unusual circumstance. Most co-sponsor groups are never going to deal with a circumstance like this. But you never know what unique things there are about this family that you're getting to know. So a year-long process of working with attorneys in an embassy in another country. He had made it 3,000 miles out of Afghanistan to another country. Working with an attorney there, with the United States Embassy there and it was a roller coaster of a year. Just when we thought everything was finally coming together, it would all fall apart. Then we would take a different approach and just when it all seemed like it was going to work and he'd be able to come back to his family, it would all fall apart. But finally, after a year – it took me flying to Europe, to fly with him as his temporary guardian to get him back to his family. But that moment when he and I walked into the airport in Grand Rapids and he walked into the arms of his family is a moment I will never forget. 

I have taught citizenship classes in Holland for ten years. Over those years I've made lots of connections with immigration and attorneys, with our US Representatives Office. So, I already had all those connections to start with. We have a friend who used to work for the Department of State in embassies around the world. So, we just had some really good connections to start with. I can look back and I think, “Okay God, you knew what you were doing.” This seemed overwhelming at the time, but You had already put all of these people in place and I got to know just some incredible people. That led to the last vacation my husband and I took, we spent a week in that country where he was for a year, meeting all of those people in person that I had worked with, because we had all become close friends. We had a blast together, being able to be together for fun instead of working, working, working, trying everything everybody could think of trying to get him back to his family. So yeah, unexpected things happen. But usually, the course of events with a refugee family is much smoother than that. This was just – all these Afghans came through in such traumatic circumstances, so many things happened to them so fast, and we as a country are still unraveling all of that. 

This has led to relationships. I'm now helping several other families who have family members who are in hiding in Afghanistan, trying to see what we can do. That's not part of being a co-sponsor coordinator, it’s just: relationships happen. You get to know people, and you come to love them, and you care about them and what's happening to them, and what's happening to their friends. I've met family members in other places. I think back to some of our families from Cuba. After they were here for a while, in one instance, a mother passed away in Cuba. Well, here they were completely separated. That's really difficult. So we did a funeral, a memorial service, for this mother so that our community here could come around them, and reach out to them with love and support, and know that this mother's life was significant, and that we all acknowledged the pain of being separated. We just did this recently again. Intersection, we have our refugee family right now, but we're also doing private sponsorships. We have two private sponsorships going on. We have a number of people from Venezuela who are separated from their families, so we're working on all of that. One of our people from Venezuela, his mother just passed away, so we did the same thing. We had a memorial service to honor her life, to honor those family relationships, and to come around this person with a loving caring community. We care about what you're going through and the pain you're going through being separated.

Chris: Bev, if you had five minutes to talk to a fellow church member about walking alongside a refugee, what would you tell them?

Bev: I would tell them you will learn so much by doing this. I’d say your world will get much bigger, because you will be learning on a personal basis about another part of the world, about another culture, getting to know people you would never get to know otherwise. It will change you, because you will see things differently, from their experiences. Some of our friends from Cuba were actively involved in protesting against the Cuban government and their lives became threatened as a result of that. So I learned all kinds of things about the situation in Cuba from our refugee families. It's hard to even see going into it how much you're going to learn. I would also tell them: you are going to eat some awesome food, because they're going to want to share the foods that they love from their culture with you. So you're going to get to try things that you would never try otherwise.

And, I would tell them: you're going to laugh a lot. You're going to cry. You're gonna pray a lot. It's doing life with people who have been through some incredibly difficult circumstances, but who have this resilience. They made it through all of that to get here and now they have hope. They have hope for our future. They have hope that their children will live and that their children will have a future. That resilience comes with them. And, I would tell people: you are going to be so inspired by what people can come through, the trauma people can come through, and still have hope, and still have resilience.

Chris: I have to tell our listeners here, the smile on your face when you talk about this work is… It says it all. I said at the beginning, It's left a mark right, Bev. But the smile on your face that I get to see tells me everything I need to know about how important this is to you, how much it means.

Today our guest has been Bev Stephenson. Bev has been at the center of co-sponsoring refugee families and continues to serve in that capacity. Bev, thanks so much for joining us today. Thanks for sharing your story. It means a lot.

Bev: You're welcome. Thank you for inviting me.


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