When our pastor asked us four years ago to consider being the voluntary coordinators to welcome and assist a few refugees from Burma expected to arrive in Wollongong and to come to our church, we had very little idea what it might involve. Now called ‘Re-settler Support and Integration’ coordinators, we’ve found it to be a much bigger task than expected, but it has been very enjoyable and rewarding to work with such cheerful, conscientious and industrious people!
Our church already had a solid history of welcoming people from other nations, including Vietnam, South and Central America and, more recently refugees from the Sudan and West Africa.
What started as a group of three single men from Chin state in Burma’s west in 2007 has now grown into about 80 adults and 50 children, mostly from the Kayah and Kayin states in eastern Burma. Many of them had been Baptists in their own country or in the refugee camps in Thailand, where some had spent more than 20 years. Despite often very limited English, these friends began regularly attending our English services, which they’ve continued to do despite setting up their own language services in our building.
From the outset, we realised that it was really important to encourage our existing congregation members and our new arrivals to interact and to get to know each other better. We tried to raise awareness in the congregation of the backgrounds from which the re-settlers had come. We also attempted to give the re-settlers responsibilities and roles within the church, initially ones that did not rely on a high level of English. There is a variety of NGOs in our area that assist re-settlers in material ways, so we decided to focus on spiritual nurture and hospitality. The former included setting up three levels of easy English Bible studies, which are still running and popular after two years. We also tried to involve the children and teenagers with our Sunday school and youth group, as so many churches have seen the second generation of new arrivals lose interest and stop attending church altogether.
On the hospitality front, we’ve encouraged the Aussie congregation members to visit re-settlers and to invite them to their homes. We drew up a two-page list of tips for the Aussies to interact across cultures, and handed it out to our people. We also set up a program which we call ‘Link a family’, connecting an Aussie family with a Burmese one of similar makeup. The Aussie family then tries to line up regular opportunities to get together so that friendships develop. We hope that this will spread and involve larger numbers of people.
We’ve learned many lessons. One of them is that ‘integration’ is a two-way street. Both the existing congregation and the re-settlers need to work at it, and we often find that both groups seem a little nervous at first. Much, but not all, of this is based on language issues. We’ve also learned that enlisting a small team is important, but this has been challenging, as everyone is already fairly busy. However, Aussie members have helped in loads of ways, including leading Bible studies, hospitality, form-filling, transport, furniture removal. And we’re more convinced than ever that we must not lose the second generation, but encourage them to be part of the church’s life and any relevant activities that the church is engaged in. One other lesson was to have a cut-off date for ongoing intensive support for re-settlers. After our friends have been more than three yrs in Wollongong, we have stepped back, and been encouraged to see the re-settler community developing their own support networks.
It has been a real privilege to be involved closely in the lives of these lovely people. Our greatest joys have been to see our friends grow in their knowledge of the Lord, to watch as spouses and other family members are re-united, sometimes after five years of separation, and to attend Burmese weddings. Already our new friends are making a very positive and encouraging contribution to our church fellowship.