Elgin church helps Afghan refugees

An Elgin church is helping a refugee family from Afghanistan start a new life in Chicago.

Associate Pastor Lois A. Bucher and other members of First Congregational United Church of Christ greeted the family - mother, father and seven children ages 2 to 15 - at O'Hare International Airport on Thursday afternoon, and took them to their new home, an apartment in Chicago.

"The family is beyond exhausted," Bucher said. "The mom was even dehydrated."

A welcome surprise for the kids was finding baseball caps and sporting paraphernalia - soccer balls, baseball bats and more - waiting on their beds, she said. "We explained to them that those were gifts from the children (of the congregation)."

The church sponsored the family through RefugeeOne, a Chicago nonprofit agency. That means the church contributed $8,000, which will help cover rent and other expenses, and fully furnished the apartment and stocked it with food, clothes, bath and cleaning items, school supplies and more, Senior Pastor Paris Donehoo said.

Church members worked "feverishly" to get everything ready after getting word last week of the family's impending arrival, Donehoo said.

"Until we knew the size of the family, we didn't know how many beds and sheets. And until we knew their nationality, we didn't know the food to stock the pantry with."

That included buying halal meat, or meat slaughtered following Islamic tenets, because the family is Muslim, Bucher said. "We believe we have a responsibility to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We didn't care where they were from, or their religion or background."

RefugeeOne assists about 2,500 refugees and immigrants to find housing, learn English, develop computer and job readiness skills and secure employment, according to its website.

Donehoo and representatives of RefugeeOne declined to share details about the family, citing concerns regarding the safety of relatives in Afghanistan. They also asked media not to interview or take pictures of the family.

"They've been in refugee camps somewhere. For various reasons, they've been thoroughly vetted by the government," Donehoo said.

RefugeeOne found the family's apartment, located in the north side of Chicago, and the expectation is that the father, who speaks English well, will secure a job within three months, church officials said. The mother's brother, also a refugee, has been in living in Chicago for two years.

To ensure the family is adjusting to their new life, members of the Elgin church and other churches in Chicago will be visiting the family on a weekly basis, Donehoo said. "This is a cooperative effort."

This was the first refugee family sponsored by First Congregational Church, which put together the $8,000 sponsorship money by combining a Christmas Eve offering and a portion of its mission grants money, Donehoo said.

"Because Jesus was homeless to start with, we said, 'We want to support the homeless at home and around the world.' That was the whole idea."

Bucher said she hopes the congregation, which numbers about 380 people, will decide to sponsor more refugee families, perhaps on a yearly basis. "I think this has been a positive experience for everyone," she said. "Being part of helping a family build a new life, it's really exciting."

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