A group of about 50 Latter-day Saint women in the Lone Star State are doing their best to help refugees — one family and one apartment at a time.
Working with Refugee Services of Texas, the small army of service-minded women and family members are collecting donations from the Houston community to furnish apartments for incoming refugee families. They are considered a “Refugee Welcome Team,” said Rebecca McAllister, the volunteer team leader.
“I can think of no better way to fulfill the invitation of Christ in Matthew 25:35-40,” she said. “These are the least of all people. They don’t have a country to even call their own. They are hungry. They are strangers. Many lack food and health care. They have been detained in various ways.”
How did the group start helping refugees?
McAllister first became interested in helping refugees in 2016 when thousands of Syrians and refugees from other countries sought refuge in the United States.
It happened as Linda K. Burton, former Relief Society general president, introduced a relief effort called “I Was a Stranger” and Elder Patrick Kearon, of the Seventy, urged members to help refugees in the April 2016 general conference.
McAllister wanted to get involved and learned that Refugee Services of Texas needed volunteers. As a mother of three young children, she felt limited but believed that collecting items to furnish apartments was something she could realistically do.
She recruited friends from her local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They gathered everything from kitchen and school supplies to couches, beds, groceries, toys and other equipment, and began making each apartment feel like a new home.
“The first family was from Syria,” McAllister said. “I’m still in touch with them to this day. I had them stay at my home. We took them to our Halloween party for the ward. We had Christmas with them. We just got close to them. It was cool.”
The team began helping at least one refugee family per month. Others became aware of the project and donations were regularly delivered to the McAllister’s house.
One woman wanted to donate homemade quilts. At the time, she was undergoing chemotherapy and her husband was a disabled veteran.
“She told me, ‘I need to donate because I really know what it means to need something,’” McAllister said. “It was an amazing experience and full of miracles every step of the way.”
McAllister’s welcome team has found new purpose and increased opportunities following recent events in Afghanistan.
How does the process work?
Refugee Services of Texas provides the apartment. When a family is coming in (the group recently assisted families from Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo), they notify the welcome team and pass along names, ages and details regarding the apartment, such as the number of rooms and bathrooms.
After collecting and organizing the needed items, a “minivan brigade” — with back seats removed — lines up outside McAllister’s house. Items are loaded and transported an hour across town to the apartments where the women, sometimes assisted by husbands, sons and daughters, unload the items, haul them up a flight of stairs and assemble them in apartments.
“That’s very empowering, when you see what women can do. ... Women on a mission can accomplish anything,” said Rebecca Billat, another member of the team. “And just because they have the pure love of Christ and want to help somebody.”
Members of the group then make welcome signs and bring balloons to properly greet the refugee family at the airport and give them a ride to their new home.
With more refugees and donations, the campaign has increased to furnishing at least one apartment a week.
Along with gathering the essential items, a quilting group creates quilts for each family. Another group paints and donates art to decorate the apartments.
“It is amazing how people are using all sorts of talents to serve,” McAllister said.
Once settled, members of the team check in on the family from time to time, assisting with English, inviting them to activities or taking them gifts around holidays or special events.
More people, including friends of other faiths are getting involved.
“It’s growing,” McAllister said. “Our hope is that this will expand beyond congregation into the community.”
‘Miracles happen at every stage’
Most donations are random items. People bring whatever they have.
One time as the group prepared to accommodate four new families, McAllister reviewed the needs for each apartment — beds, chairs, tables and other furniture, more than 80 items all together.
“It all lined up perfectly to fit the four families,” she said. “It is so obvious to everyone on our team that God is in the details of the details of this work. Miracles happen at every stage. We are all so blessed to be his hands in this great work.”
Another team member, Candy Booth, learned Spanish while serving a Latter-day Saint mission in Spain. It came in handy when she and a young women who was preparing to serve a mission met a refugee family of five from El Salvador at the airport.
As they became acquainted with the family, they learned why they had fled their country. One day the family was at home when someone knocked frantically on their door, screaming for help. The family opened the door in time to see the stranger gunned down by others right in front of them. Because the dead man had knocked on their door, the family became a target as if they were affiliated with the dead man, Booth said.
The family managed to escape and survive with little means for a few years before an agency helped them to leave the country. It was humbling to hear their story and feel their genuine gratitude, said Booth, who felt guilty upon returning to her nice home.
“He kept saying over and over, ‘You guys are angels. You don’t have to be a religious person to know that God works through angels,’” she said. “The refugees are not getting set up in these lavish apartments by any means. They are not in the greatest part of Houston, but they are so grateful and appreciative to be where they are.”
Billat says it’s hard to pick one favorite experience because there are so many meaningful memories.
“I’ve been given so much that there is absolutely no way I can’t help these people,” Billat said. “It is my absolute duty.”
‘This is something that is very doable’
The church has encouraged Latter-day Saints to provide assistance to refugees around the world in recent years. But how?
Helping to furnish apartments is only one example of how to help. McAllister encourages people to look for refugee service opportunities in their own communities. Figure out what works for you, she said.
“One of my favorite quotes is ‘A hero is a man who does what he can.’ ... This is something that is very doable,” McAllister said. “The church is encouraging people to get involved, but people don’t even know what that could look like. Our purpose in sharing this is not to self-promote, but to provide information to other people who really do want to get involved but don’t know where to start.”
Learn more about how to help refugees at ChurchofJesusChrist.org.