I'd finished making the lasagna, wrapping the gifts, and lighting the candles on the table. My apartment was decorated with strands of glittering white lights and boughs of greenery, while gold and silver ornaments hung on the Christmas tree in the corner. I'd planned this evening for weeks. I wanted it to be perfect. This was the first Christmas my new friends from Kosovo—a refugee family of six—would celebrate in the United States.
The Journey Begins
It was raining the day the Kadriu family arrived in Chicago four months earlier, a cold summer rain that made the city look as though it were a collage of oatmeal and mud-colored concrete. Would the Kadrius want to turn around and hop on the first flight back to Europe? I worried.
The weather wasn't the only thing I fretted about as I drove to the airport to greet my "family." Only a month or so before, I'd decided to sponsor these refugees, and I'd endured many nights tossing restlessly, wondering if I could manage this undertaking. After all, I was a single person trying to help a family of six. I'd recently become self-employed, so I barely had enough pocket change to buy a Starbuck's latte. What did I have to offer?
Yet when I'd seen news reports about these despondent ethnic Albanians trudging through knee-high muck, their homes scorched by Serbs or demolished by stray NATO bombs, I'd felt the urge to help. But the impracticality of it overwhelmed me. What was I supposed to do—fly to Kosovo to clean the mud off their clothes and offer them a hunk of bread? I knew following God could be risky—who knows where it would take me?
My sister Sara has lived a life of adventurous faith for as long as I can remember. She followed God's nudging once and ended up teaching English in Beijing, China, for a year. After she returned to the States, got married, and had kids, Sara decided to start a ministry for struggling moms. Then she followed God into her town's inner city to help destitute teens. Several years ago, she returned to China with her husband to adopt a little girl who'd been abandoned and was living in an orphanage.
I've envied the excitement of Sara's life. Despite the sacrifices she's made to follow God, her life's been like an action-adventure movie straight from Hollywood. Mine's been more like the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. I was ready to dump Jim Lehrer for Harrison Ford. I craved the thrills of adventuresome faith.
So I made a phone call to InterChurch Refugee and Immigration Ministries (IRIM), a local ministry that helps resettle refugees. I discovered many refugees from Kosovo resettled in Chicago and needed sponsors. As a sponsor, I'd help them acclimate to their new country. During the first month I'd help them move into their new apartment, collect donated clothing, raise money for their food and rent, and help them find jobs. I'd coordinate trips to the public aid and social security offices, drive them to the health clinic for immunization shots, and help them wade through the red tape necessary to live in this country as a legal alien. Most important, I'd try to be a friend during their transition.
The task seemed daunting. But with the support and encouragement of the women in my church small group and a few other friends who committed to helping, I prayed, "Okay, God, I have no idea whether or not I can do this. But I'm going to trust you and just go for it. I'm going to start living dangerously."
Turning a Few Fish into a Feast
A week before the Kadrius arrived, I discovered I had to raise $1,800 for the security deposit and two month's rent for their apartment. I panicked! I had only $100 to spare, and I realized I was in over my head. Where would I get the money? I enlisted the women from my small group. They each donated money, but we were still far short of our goal. So we decided to e-mail all our friends. Slowly, money started rolling in. But with only a day left, we were still several hundred dollars short.
My friend Dina and I brainstormed ways we could come up with the rest, but none of the solutions seemed promising. My fears were being realized: Maybe I couldn't do this after all! I thought about resigning my role as a sponsor. Instead. … I prayed.
The next morning, I got a call from Paula, another woman in my small group. Her friends had heard about my endeavor and wanted to donate money. I ended up with $300 more than I needed! Not only could I pay for the deposit and rent on the Kadrius' apartment, but with the extra money I could buy the family groceries for a month! Just as when Jesus fed the 5,000 with a few measly fish (Matthew 14:13-21), God took my meager offering and turned it into a feast.
When the Kadriu family walked off the plane in the crowded terminal on August 25, 1999, they'd come straight from a refugee camp in Macedonia. The four skinny little girls had red blisters all over their bodies. They wore flimsy shorts and t-shirts, and the plastic thongs on their feet looked three sizes too small. The six-month-old baby was emaciated and pale. The few possessions they were able to grab from their house before the Serbs arrived fit into one duffel bag. The interpreter who'd come with me introduced everyone, and we exchanged smiles. I gave Miradije, the mother, a bouquet of flowers.
I hoisted the four year old into my arms as we set off through the terminal. She wrapped her tiny arms around my neck and pressed her cheek to mine. I knew this family was from God. The minute I saw them, it was as if a pressure valve had been turned on somewhere inside me, and in a rush, love flowed out of me for this family I didn't even know. Maybe I couldn't buy them Ralph Lauren sheets or a new VCR, but I knew I could love them. I realized I did have something to give.
Through our interpreter, I soon discovered they'd left their home in March when the Serbs came. Miradije and her husband, Qerim, had wandered through the mountains with their four children (the baby only a month old), until they finally arrived in Macedonia. They spent months in the refugee camp there where temperatures soared to more than 100 degrees every day. They ate only bread and tomatoes. The baby had been sick with dysentery.
Lying in bed that night, my stomach churned with conflicting emotions: heart-rending grief for what the Kadrius had been through and the pain I saw on their faces; fear that I wouldn't be able to help them; excitement for the journey I'd started.
Lessons from "The Least of These"
A few days later, my friend Heather and I took Miradije to an eastern European grocery store. It was the first time she'd shopped for her family in seven months. She tentatively placed items in the cart, her head down, avoiding eye contact. I sensed she didn't realize we were offering to buy her anything she wanted.
To communicate this to her, Heather and I started putting food in her cart—potatoes, rice, strawberries, apples, grapes, ground beef, chicken, loaves of crusty European bread. By the time we got to the checkout counter, the cart weighed as much as a Toyota! We paid the bill with the extra money our friends had donated, and took her back to the apartment with 20 bags of groceries.
Miradije spent the afternoon cooking a special Kosovar dish to serve Heather and me. We'd already sensed their discomfort at receiving our help—we'd given them bags of donated clothing, bought them groceries, taken the girls to a physician, and given them rides to the public aid office. They wanted to give us something in return.
In the months that followed, this became a pattern. As much as I wanted to tell them they didn't have to give me anything in return, I obeyed their orders when they told me to "sit down!" (the only two English words they knew) so they could serve me Turkish coffee and Kosovar "specialties."
I thought I was serving them—but in the end, they're the ones who've taught me what it means to serve. I accept their hospitality and generosity graciously. But I wish I could tell them they don't have to "repay" me—that even without all the food and Turkish coffee, they've given me so much more than they'll ever know.
Finding the Abundant Life
As I reflected on my interactions with the Kadriu family, I realized I'd been clinging to my self-absorbed world, but what had it given me back? In contrast, when I started giving away my time and energy to help them, I was blessed beyond imagination. Sure, at times I was exhausted after spending the day in the health clinic with the family in between my work projects, or frustrated when they called at 9:00 P.M. telling me in broken English that they needed formula for the baby. But whenever I've given to them, I've received life in return.
Frederick Buechner wrote in his book The Hungering Dark, "We are really alive when we love each other, when we look at each other and think, Grace and peace be with you, brother and friend. When there is such life as this, [one life] is not nearly enough." I realized this was the secret 1920s Christian activist Dorothy Day discovered when she dedicated her life to rescuing homeless immigrants in New York City. And what my sister learned when she packed her bags for China.
I'd been trying to find abundant life through physical perfection, exciting experiences, or material possessions. But every time, I'd come up empty. As Dorothy Day once said before she gave her life to God, "I wanted the abundant life. … I did not have the slightest idea how to find it."
In the past few months I've discovered the truth of Luke 6:38: "Give away your life; you'll find life given back" (The Message). When Christ told us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27), he knew if we did, we'd find the abundant life we desperately seek.
Now when I visit the Kadrius, the girls squeal as they jump into my arms and plant wet kisses on my cheeks. They've learned enough English to tell me about their day at the park or the latest episode of Sesame Street. Then they curl up next to me on the couch while I read from Dr. Seuss. Miradije and Qerim are slowly learning English, but they have a long journey ahead of them to find better jobs. But I find comfort in the fact they're safe, warm, healthy, and have something more than bread and tomatoes to eat. They call me their "angel," and repeatedly thank me for everything I've done for them. But someday, I'll explain to them they shouldn't thank me, but the One who loves them far more than I ever could.
As for me, my action-adventure movie has begun. Maybe I'm in a leading role, but there are many supporting actors, and God—not Harrison Ford—has turned out to be the star. I think he deserves an Oscar.
Karen Beattie, a freelance writer, lives in Chicago.
Here's how you can help!
This year, approximately 70,000 refugees will arrive in the U.S. Check out these organizations to get involved.
Church World Service
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Episcopal Migration Ministries
InterChurch Refugee and Immigration Ministries (IRIM)
For general information about the plight of refugees, check out www.refugees.org
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