“The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” Isaiah 62:2
As we enter Volunteer Appreciation Week, we are sharing inspiring stories of relationships between World Relief Memphis volunteers and our refugee and immigrant community. We’re confident you’ll agree with us, our volunteers are #LoveInAction!
When refugees first arrive at the airport, it is often after a long travel journey of several flights and multiple days. This would be enough to leave the average person weary. But for refugees, this is really the end of a much longer journey, that usually includes fleeing home at the point of death, waiting for years in an underfunded, overcrowded refugee camp, and then spending a minimum of eighteen months applying for resettlement to a Western nation like the United States. Bien Fait, one of our former clients at World Relief Memphis, remembers this feeling: “Our flight was two days, we were very tired, you know flying for two days, it was a very, very big issue, because we have taken five flights. All the people, my children, were tired. Myself, I was tired. My wife, was very tired. But when we reach the airport of Memphis, we say, ‘Thank you, God.’”
Finally arriving to the airport in their new city marks the end of long, arduous journey for refugee families, but the beginning of a new one to build a life in America. And that journey requires the help and commitment of people like Melissa Peeler.
Bien Fait remembers when he met Melissa for the first time: “We met with Melissa Peeler and Michael on August 24, 2016. She came there [the airport], she received us, she was introducing herself to us. She say, ‘I am Melissa Peeler, I will be your volunteer, to show you everything in America, until you will know about America. And I will never give up, I will be with you everyday, everytime. If you have some questions, if you need some help, call me.’” He also remembers being struck by such a strong statement from someone who he didn’t even know, telling us, “It was the first time to make friends with a white man, to know American people. When she was coming and saying, ‘I will be your volunteer, your friend,’ I was scared, thinking, ‘Why will this white man be my best friend, my volunteer? What is going on?’”
Melissa remembers that day in the airport, too, and how she felt meeting Bien Fait for the first time: “You know, I honestly do not remember saying those exact words to Bien Fait that night, but I absolutely remember thinking that to myself before I committed to being on a good neighbor team and ever knew his name. I knew this was going to be a pretty big ‘volunteer thing’ and I took it seriously…I think I was so overwhelmed seeing them walk off the plane so late that very first night, and was just overcome with the raw emotion of their circumstance and how young and unsure Josephine and Bien Fait and the kids were – and just wanting to say something reassuring to Bien Fait. My heart leaps at the thought that he remembers that I said something that translated to, ‘I was committed to him and his family’ that night.”
Melissa’s promise was not in vain. She taught Bien Fait and his family many things. He humorously recalled the first time that Melissa showed him how to use a slow cooker: “She said, ‘Because you are in America, you should learn how to cook American food!’ She came with a pot, that had power for cooking, and she put all the stuff in this pot, and she said, ‘You have to wait one hour and twenty minutes, and then the food will be ready and you can eat it!’ We said, ‘What?! In Africa, we don’t cook like this! In Africa, we cook on the fire, and you put the pot over the fire, we need to see that something is boiling. How do you cook like this?’ and she said, ‘This is a good way to cook in America! People will leave the pot, and then go to church, and when they come back, they find that the food is already cooked, and eat it.’ I said, ‘Okay!’ She showed us, and we tried to get experience to cook this food.”
Melissa remembers those first few weeks being marked by difficulty: “In the very beginning, we were very much a needed helper – a driver, an appointment maker and taker, a school registrar and uniform finder, for what seemed like more than a few pretty intense weeks…but the more time we spent with each other, the more comfortable we got with each other and things naturally grew into a genuine fondness for each other.” Eventually, Bien Fait’s family was celebrating holidays with the Peelers. “Melissa’s was the first American home to visit. She invited us there. We went there with my whole family. The first day was for Thanksgiving Day. She said, ‘Please, I need all of you to come to my house! Thanksgiving Day we have to share together!’ So we went there, she provided some very, very, very sweet food, very good food, which we shared together with Michael and the children. After that, she said, ‘If anyone has something he wants to tell, because it is Thanksgiving Day, we have to say something, to say thank you to God, for what He did for you.’ It was our first time [to celebrate Thanksgiving]; in Africa we didn’t know about Thanksgiving…This was the first time, we found this in America. It’s good, it’s good!”
Bien Fait’s family has learned much about American culture from Melissa, but the Peelers have also learned a lot. “There are more small and medium things than I could ever say, but two of the most important things I’ve learned from the Mfaume’s is Faithfulness and Resilience. If you had asked me two years ago if I really understood what those words meant and if I had those qualities I would have honestly told you I did! I felt very faithful and comfortable in my faith walk and had overcome enough difficulties at the time to say I had built up quite a resiliency. MY WORD…it’s honestly laughable as I say that now, knowing the depths of the Faithfulness and Resiliency the Mfaume’s have. The devout trust and faithfulness the Mfaume’s have in God and his control in their lives is inspiring. I mean like big “I” Inspirational. They are grateful for every little blessing in their lives and talk about that openly and intentionally. They honestly put and continue to put their future in God’s hands daily. The patriarch of the family, Patient, had endured a pretty gruesome war injury and lost an eye that caused him terrible headaches and shooting pains down his neck. I never knew how much it hurt him until I accompanied him to the surgery consultation about repairing it. With the help of a translator, I learned the story of the ambush and fleeing with his young family and all the difficulties and pain the eye injury had caused and continued to cause him. But I never knew Patient without a smile on his face; he was the gentlest husband and father and walked around enduring this horrific physical pain without whining about it or even mentioning it for six months. The day of his surgery, I realized that Patient didn’t really understand how unlikely it was that any of the things one the waivers he signed (saying all the possible complications that could result, including death) might actually happen. Just as he was being rolled back to surgery he asked if he could take just a moment and pray! It was a long and beautiful prayer we had translated. He asked for blessings on all the doctors and nurses in the hospital, and he thanked everyone there and prayed for me and his family, and that God’s will be done with his life–as in, if he didn’t make it through the surgery, that I would keep helping his family and that God would take care of them. It was so incredibly moving! There was not a dry eye in pre-op that day at Regional One, I can tell you for sure. I promise it was the dearest prayer I have ever heard in my life! That’s faithfulness and resilience all rolled into one story and that’s one example of hundreds I’ve witnessed with refugees.”
Volunteers are crucial to the work that World Relief does. Bien Fait reflected on how differently things might have turned out without Melissa: “My life was very difficult without Melissa. When my wife was pregnant, she did a lot for us. Each appointment, she came and took my wife to these appointments. I work, so she was by herself here. If she had a problem, who was she going to call? I would call Melissa, she would come quickly and take care of her. Without Melissa, my life would be very difficult in America.”
Bien Fait was so moved by his relationship with Melissa and her family that he decided to name his newborn daughter Melissa, in honor of his first American friend. He told us, “Because of the mercy she showed to my family, I say, ‘I have to give your name to my little baby. When they went to the hospital for the ultrasound, they said she would bear a baby girl. The same day, I said her name would be Melissa. To show to her how much we love her. How much we say thank you for the things she has done for us. Some people in my family, they ask, ‘Why did you call your daughter Melissa? What does it mean?’ I would say, ‘I did this because a woman with this name did many things for me when I was new to America. It was a white woman who did everything for me. She helped me with everything. For keeping this name in my mind, I will name my little baby Melissa.’ They say, ‘Okay.’ Because they need to know the meaning, and where this name came from. It is not a family name. It is a new name.”
Melissa remembers how she felt when Bien Fait told her of his decision. “I could not believe it, and I immediately burst out into tears and said it was just too much! I have to say, it’s the greatest, sweetest honor I’ve ever received in my life. My three daughters are completely jealous and think that I love Baby Melissa the most now. I have to say she is really beautiful and the happiest little baby you’ve ever been around!”
Melissa and Bien Fait’s story is not necessarily typical, but it is a testament to the life-changing possibilities that emerge when people are willing to get out of their comfort zone and love someone who is very different than themselves. We asked Melissa and Bien Fait what they might say to someone who is unsure about refugees in America.
Bief Fait said, “American people have to leave this idea [being fearful of refugees]. Because, if you need to live better in a new country, you have to meet with the people who live in this country. Because those people, they will teach you how they live in their country. If they leave you, you will be everyday afraid of the rules, afraid of the new laws, but we meet with American people, and they need to be our friends. Because they know how to teach people about culture, and rules, and the laws, and when they teach you, you will be able to live without being afraid of anything. They have to come to help the African families, because we need them. We need to be with them. If they leave us, they do wrong. If the people say, ‘We cannot meet with an African family,’ we have to pray for them. Because that is not Christian. When a Christian sees someone who needs help, he has to help, without seeing the color, without seeing where this person is coming from, because the Bible says we have to help each one, without thinking about the race or the color.”
Melissa responded as well, saying, “First and foremost, STAY INFORMED and understand the truth about the refugee crisis in the world, and arm yourself with actual facts to proactively share with others or if you hear or read misinformation! Get on e-mail lists and advocacy texts, and follow refugee agencies on social media to keep up with current events and know what and who to PRAY for. Go to a volunteer training at World Relief Memphis- even if you don’t end up committing to a Good Neighbor team, there are lots of ways to donate money or goods or services that are greatly needed, as well. SHARE STORIES with others about what you know about refugees. It is almost impossible for even the most hardened folks to hate a maimed grandfather that fled his war-torn homeland and works from 3 in the afternoon until 11:00PM because no one else wants that shift and he just wants to feed his family and save enough money for his green card. There is SO much misinformation and misplaced distrust right now towards refugees. The truth and goodness of their stories deserve to be told, too!”
– By Noah Rinehart, Rhodes College, Bonner Scholar Intern
Photos by Emily Frazier Creative and Peeler family