Why do I welcome? There are many reasons, but often it comes down to the “moments.” These small but impactful experiences remind me why I’ve landed at World Relief. Of all the key moments that we get to witness and participate in during our new neighbors’ resettlement process—from moving into an apartment to enrolling in English classes to sitting through cultural orientation classes—perhaps one of the most condensed and transformative experiences is the airport pick-up.
As Resettlement Manager at our Whatcom County location, I get the chance, multiple times a year, to be part of the welcoming committee for new arrivals at our little, local Bellingham International Airport. On the one hand, airport pick-ups are a simple enough matter: Meet new arrivals when they get off their plane, offer interpretation in their first language, make sure that they’re healthy, pick up their luggage, and then transport them to their temporary housing.
On the other hand, airport pick-ups mark the start of an entirely new existence for a family who has left everything behind and is starting over. It’s something of a rebirth, and like any birth, it is a fraught, tense, and beautiful moment. These are people who have traveled halfway around the earth—often on their first international flight ever—with little to no idea of where they are bound other than an airport name listed on an itinerary. Often, their journey has been a challenging one as they navigate foreign airports and immigration procedures with little or no English, exhausted and hungry after days of travel.
We can almost always spot the new arrivals before they see us, walking out into baggage claim-wearing lanyards identifying them as refugees, carrying white plastic bags full of documents. For them, the experience must be much different—walking out into a foreign world full of unfamiliar faces, trusting that someone will welcome them on the other side of the door they are passing through. The questions going through their heads must be very basic, yet profound: Where am I? Does anyone know I’m here? Is anyone waiting for me? What’s going to happen next? Are we safe?
And then we step forward with a simple greeting. “Hello, welcome! Are you Reuben and Marisol? Great. I’m here from World Relief, the organization that is going to be supporting your family while you get started in the United States. We’re so glad you’re here. How was the trip?”
Invariably, the first words of greeting are answered by The Look—sometimes it’s a momentary flash of the eyes, a full-body sigh of relief. The meaning conveyed is always something along the lines of Oh, thank God. To be greeted in such a tense situation by someone who knows your name and speaks your language has got to bring a tremendous sense of release.
As we walk with them to the luggage carousel to pick up the entirety of their earthly belongings contained in one or more suitcases, we talk of flights and host homes and where, exactly, Bellingham is to the rest of the United States. Whatever the words we say, I hope that the unspoken message that is conveyed is one of reassurance and welcome. Yes, it’s been a long and difficult road for you. Yes, many difficulties still lie ahead. But we are glad you’re here. Please make yourself at home.
This is why I welcome—whether or not I can actually attend their airport pickup, to know that someone from World Relief is greeting all of our new arrivals in this fashion—this is the shape and direction that I want my life to take, and I am so thankful for everyone who joins us in this work.
World Relief Western Washington
A prayer from an anonymous supporter:
Lord Jesus, today you call us to welcome members of God’s family who come to our land to escape oppression, poverty, persecution, violence, and war. Like your disciples, we too are sometimes filled with fear doubt, and even suspicion. We build barriers in our hearts and our minds.
Help us by your grace,
- To banish fear from our hearts, that we may embrace each of your children as our brother and sister;
- To welcome immigrants and refugees with joy and generosity, while responding to their many needs;
- To realize that you call all people to your holy mountain to learn the ways of peace and justice;
- To share our abundance as you spread a banquet before us;
- To give witness to your love for all people, as we celebrate the many gifts they bring.
We praise you and give you thanks for the family have called together from so many people. We see in this human family a reflection of the divine unity of the one most Holy Trinity in whom we make our prayer.
Steven is the Resettlement Manager in Whatcom County at World Relief Western Washington. He leads the Whatcom team with grace and kindness, as they continue to grow and welcome new neighbors.
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