Dear friends,

Since last fall St. Dunstan’s has been sponsoring a refugee family from Myanmar. That relationship has come to an end. Since most of this work happened away from the church many of you may not know much about it. Suzanne Johnson, our vestry outreach chair, has written this piece to share with everyone the good work being done by our parishioners. Here is her report:

On May 21st, volunteers from St. Dunstan’s and staff from New American Pathways gathered to honor the progress of Syukur Junus and Sharifah Idris, the two refugees from Myanmar (Burma) our church has been sponsoring since last fall. The celebration marked the conclusion of our formal sponsorship.

Although many of the St. Dunstan’s volunteers had also been involved with the Syrian family we sponsored six years ago, we learned quickly that each situation is different and needs different and flexible responses. Syukur and Sharifah had been in the US for about a year when we first met them. They had a partially furnished apartment in Clarkston and jobs working overnight at the airport. They had learned the Latin alphabet (the Burmese language has a complex and beautiful script) and could speak and understand very rudimentary English. 

Vivian Siggers and Mimi Gold organized the team of volunteers from St. Dunstan’s and coordinated with New American Pathways (NAP), an Atlanta based non-profit that helps resettle refugees. We had worked with NAP in sponsoring the Syrian family. Many parishioners contributed to the effort—at the onset providing basic needs for the apartment ranging from toilet paper to an ironing board and later much needed furniture—desks and a dresser. Parishioners assembled the furniture and delivered it to Clarkston. The church bought a laptop and other parishioners provided basic instructions on how to use it and other computer tools.

A core group of eight volunteers (Vivian, Mimi, Charis Bowling, Suzanne Johnson, Peg Maloney, Deborah Reese, Susie and Jon Throop) committed to in-person meetings with the couple to help them learn English—a total of four hours each week. This proved the most challenging part of the relationship. Syukur and Sharifah were always eager and patient learners but illness (theirs and volunteers’), holidays, and other pressing appointments interrupted the schedule. Also, the volunteers found that the couple needed urgent help with making medical appointments, securing health insurance beyond the initial insurance provided new refugees, getting their green cards, and  various other complications of navigating a new country with limited language skills. Often, instead of a session focused on teaching English, the volunteers were dealing with these other issues. We had expected that NAP would handle those issues but the organization was overextended with the influx of new refugees so many things fell through the cracks.

Despite some hiccups, there was indeed much to celebrate. Syukur and Sharifah have continued with their steady employment—Syukur has recently received a promotion. He has gotten his driver’s license and they have bought a car. Their English is improving and they are now enrolled in Zoom English classes provided by the Atlanta office of the International Refugee Committee (IRC). The IRC has a robust infrastructure and is able to provide six hours of English instruction each week as well as other services.

The celebration of Syukur and Sharifah showed clearly the friendship that has developed with our parishioners and their deep gratitude for the relationships. All the volunteers have been reminded again of how difficult it is to leave everything one has known in a previous life and come to a new country with a new language and radically different customs. More importantly, we have seen again the strength of the human spirit and how much we have in common if we are open to each other. 

Early on, Mimi asked the couple if they hoped one day to return to Myanmar. Syukur shook his head and then, with his hands making a gesture like an explosion and saying “Boom”, he conveyed the dangers they had fled. We are glad that St. Dunstan’s has been part of helping them adjust to their new country. Like them, we are grateful for all the support from the church.

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