Saturday, August 6, 2016
Five families, refugees of the war in Syria, gathered outside the US Together – Toledo Resettlement Agency office to meet an American youth group from First Federated Church, 10786 Mahoning Ave.
Jack Acri, pastor of First Federated Church, said the idea for Hand in Hand Cultural Exchange grew from seeing media reports on millions of refugees and hateful rhetoric posted online.
To his congregation, he posed these thoughts ... “Let’s find out what is true. What about the people who have made it here? What can we do to help them feel welcome, safe and a part of their community?”
The youth group of six teens of the church who attend Jackson-Milton and Western Reserve high schools and accompanying adults of the church met refugees, face to face as individuals and families, during a mission trip June 26 to 29 to Toledo, where many have settled.
Pastor Acri, who participated, said church members have participated in other missions trips for cleanup, painting and rehabbing projects. “They’ve all been worthwhile,” he said.
An article in the Toledo Blade about a presentation by Corine Dehabey, US Together Resettlement coordinator at the Sylvania United Church of Christ, pointed the mission opportunity in the right direction.
Pastor Acri contacted Dehabey about the possibility of a group from First Federated visiting. He asked what was needed. They came up with a list of first-aid kit supplies, household cleaning products and school items.
“We didn’t want to show up empty-handed. We wanted there to be a combination of tangible items and personal contact,” Pastor Acri said. “And we wanted the people who could not make the trip to feel invested as well. So we had a little competition between our church and the local high school to see who could collect the most supplies. The school even incorporated the supply drive into their prom festivities.”
Charlie Baker of US Together-Toledo said, “This was easily the largest single-day donation of supplies we have ever received. We were blown away by the volume.”
The Rev. Luke Lindon, associate pastor of families and faith formation at Sylvania United Church of Christ, took charge of activities. He provided the youth group with background on the Syrian situation and culture.
The group delivered the supplies to US Together and toured the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. The next day, they introduced the families to Wildwood Metro Park. They returned to Sylvania UCC to play with the children while the parents prepared food to break the Ramadan fast. The visit concluded with a visit to Imagination Station courtesy of a donation.
For Pastor Lindon, the trip wasn’t about charity but contact. “Contact with real people makes all the difference. Nothing conquers fear like a face. Nothing breaks down walls like playing together and sharing stories around the table. It’s what we did. It had a huge impact on me and we heard the same from the teens and refugee families.”
Abby Sudano of the youth group said, “These families were the kindest, most generous and loving people I have ever met. We learned so much from them, and I will be forever grateful for this experience and the people who made it so amazing. I hope more Americans are willing to open their hearts and minds because we can learn much from every single one.”
Haley Lengyel, another group member, said she felt a similar connection. “I was given the opportunity to meet war refugees. Listening to their stories and interacting with them has been such a life changing experience for me. Meeting these people has made me realize how quick people are to judge. Stop the stereotypes. Start the love.”
Fairgreen Presbyterian Church provided accommodations.