Kao Kalia Yang – author of The Latehomecomer and daughter in the featured family.

Wow. First off, one of the best books that I have read in a long time that kept my attention and me turning the pages. Yang did a wonderful job of putting the words into such detail that I could see the image in my mind.

Welcome. Welcome to America. Welcome to freedom. Welcome to the land that you are able to make something of yourself.

Something that I have always taken for granite is that I have freedom. Freedom to go to a private school. Freedom to worship God. Freedom to go to high school. Freedom to play sports. Freedom to dream. Freedom.

This Hmong family fled their own country, a place of no-welcome; to come to America were they longed for better opportunities and freedom from being persecuted. They were being cashed through the jungle, fathers and sons were murdered before their families, and women and children were left to die in the jungle, alone.  Fleeing families hid in mountain side caves, sons stayed with their mother and sisters to protect them, and babies cried.

Such vivid images were painted in my mind that I could hear her voice crying out for help in the stillness of nothing. Nothing to filter her cry and nothing to answer back to save her or give her hope for a better tomorrow. Their family pushed forward in their journey. They risked their lives more than once, and there were multiply times where they were sick enough they could have died. But they didn’t. Her grandmother believed in the spirits of their ancestors and their grace to help them live for another day.

A story of hope. A story of welcome. A story of grace. A story of love. A story of pain.  The Latehomecomer. At first I didn’t understand the title, but after reading it I think I have decoded it.

Broken down and according to the always reliable internet : www.dictionary.com gives the following definitions…

late : occurring, coming, or being after the usual or proper time
home : any place of residence or refuge
comer : a person or thing that is progressing well or is very promising

If I would put all these together, you would get a definition of ‘latehomecomer’ to something that could possibly be this :

latehomecomer: a person or thing seeking a place of residence or refuge after the usual time

Makes since right? I thought it did. What else would these people be doing besides seeking a place of residence after being persecuted for years in their home country in anywhere but America, the land of the free.

So this past Thanksgiving weekend, I gave thanks for my family, the home we were able to gather in, the bed I was able to sleep in, the roof that protected us from the cold. Everything.

Thanksgiving : a time to give thanks for the things that are in our lives that give us hope for tomorrow, love for each other, and another day to look forward to when we wake again.

The Latehomecomer

October 5, 2010

I have started reading the book by Kao Kalia Yang entitled ‘The Latehomecomer’. What a moving book and I have only started Chapter 7. The words that she uses out of her own experience to write about the resettlement that they had to endure over the years of the Hmong people is simply beautiful. Yang writes with such love and kindness in each word that is written on the page, that as your eyes look over each, you can feel her writing the letters are you read. The book starts with the war-time that was happening at the time her parents were young, and walks you day by day through the life of her mother, untill the day she met her husband (Yang’s father).

As I have been reading, I image myself going through all these same things and I am most positive that it would be the most horrific experience for myself, doubting that I would even survive.  When you read someone story of how they had to run through the jungle, away from bullets, no shoes, and bleeding feet – you take your prefect little life in America and wonder why you thought it was so bad that you had to stand in the cold and wait for the bus to show up 10 minutes late.  It is difficult to see how I could even cry about missing home so much when these people ran and fled for their lives in order to live and come to America where they are placed into detention centers.

I do not want to get on a sermon about how I see what we as Americans are doing is wrong for placing these people in need of help in detention centers, but at least you know how I feel about it all. It gives me such joy to know that what I am doing here currently at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, is able to impact the lives of Americans so that they will see the truth of what is happening.  Not that we all to need fight the governmental system, but that we can make a change for the better for these people.

Pray for them.
Send a card to them.
Visit them in the detention centers.
Listen to one of their stories and tell a friend about it.
Get your church community involved and passionate about helping migrants.
The possibilities are endless when God, man, and neighbor are working together to create a better, SAFER, place for human kind.

Get your community involved, if you need an idea, I have been able to place Beth’s In Search of Welcome project on our website, www.lirs.org/isow .  Check it out.  I would be MORE than HAPPY to send it to your church family so that they may see real-life stories of migrants into America and how they to can be involved.

*WALK by FAITH in HOPE with LOVE that GOD gave YOU*

my SeArcH for WeLcoMe

September 20, 2010

My search for welcome – isn’t that a BIG topic to try to get your mind around?

For me it is, but with the help of people in the LIRS office, I have come to find where my true heart lies for immigration and refugees.

Over the next months, I invite you to follow me through reflection of books that I am going to read, personal thoughts and feelings, and whatever else God lies on my heart to tell the world about.

This weekend I will be starting my first book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang.

I actually just flipped through it yesterday after it was given to be to read, and I found the most lovely poem in the front cover.

Before babies are born they live in the sky where

they fly among the clouds. The sky is a happy place

and calling babies down to earth is not as easy

thing to do.  From the sky, babies can see the course

of human lives.

This is what the Hmong children of my generation

are told by our mothers and fathers, by our

grandmothers and grandfathers.

They teach us that we have chosen our lives. That

the people who we would become we had inside of

us from the beginning, and the people whose

worlds we share, whose memories we hold strong

inside of us, we have always known.

From the sky, I would come again.

Talk about leaving a beautiful image in your mind.  I really have no idea what I am getting my mind ready for, the changes that will happen to the thoughts and feelings that I have, but know that it will all be an open book.

As I wrote in my last post, I live at Reservoir Hill House of Peace (RHHP) here in Baltimore, Maryland.  A place where MVSers (Mennonite Volunteer Service), residents, and asylum seekers are able to live in the same house.  In the short month that I have been in Baltimore and RHHP, my heart nearly breaks when I hear the stories of how these people have been tortured for the beliefs they have help.   Which leads me into where my heart lies with LIRS.
Asylum seekers. Their stories. Their lives. Detention centers. Their trip to America.

As you will quickly learn about me, I love to learn about people. Differences. Similarities. Anything. And everything. I hope you follow with me as I learn about the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful parts of lives of asylum seekers in America.

WALK by FAITH in HOPE with LOVE that GOD gave YOU.

Good Morning Baltimore!

September 1, 2010

Hey Blog Readers! Besides the wonderful introduction from Beth in the last post, I wanted to tell you a little more about myself.

As today is a bittersweet, mix-emotion day for myself and people in the LIRS office that knew Beth and her always creative outfits, distinct laugh, and welcoming smile, we all must say ‘goodbye’ to her today.  Beth will always be remembered in the office, even when people are drinking out of their coffee cups with her and Jamie photos.

As Beth said, my name is Melissa and I am a volunteer.  I started here at LIRS August 24 (a day after my 24th birthday) and will be here for at least the next year.  You guessed it right, I am 24! Nice work.  I graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU), which is about an hour north of Colts country right there in good old Indianapolis.  I was played on the Women’s soccer team all four years of college, a member of the American Marketing Association and VP of Marketing, a member of the SIFE (Student In Free Enterprise) and leader for the Ethics pillar, a friend, a daughter, an aunt, and sometimes loveable roommate.

After graduating from IWU in 2005, I did as most graduates did and moved home. After about 6 months of working for my parents at their bicycle shop, which you should check out at www.familybicyclecenter.com, I was offered a part-time job at the building that I did my internship at during my senior year. I worked part-time for Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, IN as Coordinator for Marketing and Media Assistant & Coordinator for Creative Design and Promotions.  Wow! What a long title I had, no wonder it took me a while to remember it.  I’m sure you are wondering what I actually did, so let me tell you. I worked doing graphic design work to promote the concerts, events, graduations, and trade shows that came in and out of the building.  I loved the live event industry, but quickly learned that it isn’t always about what you love doing, but if God has truly lead you with all your gifts and talents to the work that you are doing for Him.

I was getting frustrated not getting an answer from them whether or not their were going to hire me on full-time or just keep me part-time.  I was a mess from about half way through May to the end of June.  Not only was I frustrated, but I missed my college friends and did not want to be living with my parents at the age of 23. After God worked on my heart continuously through the sermons at Maple City Chapel, www.maplecitychapel.com, my home church with Paster Mel, I knew God was calling me into service.  I had a long listening time with my parents and discovered that it was the place for me. Not only did I want to get out of my parents house, but I am able to do one of the things that I love the most, help people. Which leads us to present day!

Wow!, that went by faster than it did in real life so many less tears that were flowing from my eyes during all those long sleepless nights.

After orientation down in San Antonio Texas from August 13-15, I fly home for the weekend, and the morning of Tuesday, August 17 at 5:30a.m. was the last time I saw my home in Goshen.  Not only did the tears of saying goodbye to my handsome brother Brad, his beautiful wife Brandi, their adorable heart-stealing daughter Selah, my wonderful-strong-beautiful sister Katrina, her understand-handsome husband Joe, and their 2 lovable dogs, Scout and Enzo tear me up inside, I left everything I knew to move to where I felt God leading me for MVS.

After 10 hours in a packed down car with my wonderful parents, Mark and Georgia that brought me out, we arrived in this beautiful east coast city of Baltimore, MD.  I have been here for 2 weeks now and it has been wonderful.  As tears are falling from my eyes as I write this heart-felt hello to the blogging world, I am filled with mix-emotions, a confused life of where God is leading me, but a willing spirit to follow Him, and excited mind of the possibilities God has given me here at LIRS to make a difference in this world that we were given.

I invite and would love for you to keep following me as I share my journey through the tears, stories, heart-breaking, stressful days that lie ahead of me.  I am excited for the people I will met. The stories that I will hear. The hearts that will be open. The lives that will be changed. And the moments that I will be in awe of where God has brought miracles into the lives of people coming to America. 

I pray that God give me the strength to share the stories, the love to share to all these people, and the heart strong enough to hold it all. 

And with tears and a smile on my face I say to you, blogging world, employees of LIRS, Baltimore residences, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, social workers, church members, ESL volunteers, congress people, senators and any one else out there, thank you. Thank you for reading my story, for continuing to follow (even if I am not Beth) and for loving the people of the world.

WALK by FAITH in HOPE with LOVE that GOD gave YOU.


August 31, 2010

Dear world of lovely blog readers,

We all knew that one day this time would come… and here we are. On my penultimate day of work in the Lutheran Center I find myself experiencing a mix of emotion. I am sad to leave the beautiful people and relationships that have become so near to my heart in these past twelve months. I am simultaneously excited to begin a new journey, and embark on a new chapter in the wild and intricate story that I get to call life.

As I prepare for my departure from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the city of Baltimore, and the United States for a little while, I reflect on the incredible opportunity I have been given. This past year I have gotten to spend time entering into space with people while sharing and listening stories. I have visited homes, offices, churches, coffee shops, and convention centers; I have met migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, social workers, church members, ESL volunteers, congress people, and senators. I have raised my voice for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and have sat listening as many of my new friends have allowed me to interview them with a video camera.

Through this past year I have experienced welcome in radical ways, and have been invited  into welcome by some absolutely beautiful souls.

It is with humility and reverence that I reflect on this past year, and think of the many brilliant and vibrant people who I have met.

As the saying once again holds true, it is indeed the case that all good things must come to an end, and my friends, it looks like this will be the end of my blogging times with you. However, an exciting new endeavor for this blog will be the new Mennonite Volunteer that you will get to meet!

Melissa Gingerich from Goshen, Indiana has come to spend a year of service with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. I will let her introduce herself to you a little more thoroughly, but, I urge you to continue reading as Melissa discovers and defines welcome for herself as a newcomer to the city of Baltimore.

Without further ado, I bid you farewell, and thank you dearly for walking this journey with me.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

More of The Exhibit!

August 30, 2010

“Music is the universal language of mankind.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Outre-Met;Together with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, former refugee from Bhutan, Chandra Bajgai, and local Baltimore musician Caleb Stine get together for a jam session in the living room at Reservoir Hill House of Peace. Together, through participation in the art of music, culture is shared and boundaries are broken. Pictured beginning top left and moving clockwise: Chandra, a former refugee from Bhutan gets together with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Caleb Stine, local Baltimore musician to play music together; A crowd at Reservoir Hill House of Peace enjoying the music as Chandra and his friend’s play with Caleb; Local Baltimore musician Caleb Stine; Caleb Stine’s guitar; Chandra playing guitar; Caleb Stine.

(Left) U Gawsita and (right) U Agga stand in their monastery, headquarters to the All Burma Monk Alliance (ABMA) in Utica, New York. As leaders involved in a famous movement of peaceful protests, The Saffron Revolution (named “Saffron” after the color of their robes), U Gawsita and U Agga are strong advocates for democracy, human rights, and social justice. While living in Burma, as military soldiers began raiding their monasteries both U Gawsita and U Agga fled to the Burma-Thailand border in search of safety. After being granted refugee status by the United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees, both monks were resettled by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to Utica, New York where they now live with three other monks. When asked about the biggest differences between Burma and the United States U Agga answered, “To live in Burma means we cannot speak about democracy or human rights or justice or peace freely like we can here.” He continued, “After we arrived here we can speak openly about our organization (ABMA) and human rights.”

Lutheran Church of our Savior (LCOS) in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware is home to one of the largest English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in the state. As a recipient of a Good Samaritan grant through LIRS and Wheat Ridge Ministries, LCOS was funded to begin this ESL ministry in 2001. Read more about this ministry in the May 2010 edition of the LIRS eNewsletter: Words of Welcome. (Left): ESL advanced student Viviana poses after an interview. Viviana has been taking ESL classes for the past 5 years and hopes to go to college and someday work in a hospital. (Right): Volunter mentors in the kitchen prepare food for ESL students.

After a much anticipated wait, I am excited to show you all my exhibit! After getting the chance to compile some of my favorite photographs and stories from this year, I created wooden canvases to help and display each collection of photos. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service threw an incredible party for the exhibit opening. Friends, family, and valued co-workers all had a chance to view the photography, and local Baltimore musician Caleb Stine stopped by for a visit and a few songs!

Without further ado, I am excited to show you all the exhibit, which, will be available very soon on the LIRS website. Something VERY cool abotu this exhibit is that it gets to travel, so if your congregation, school, or place of work would like to host this art, give a shout out to outreach@lirs.org and let us know!

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service stands boldly with migrants and refugees, speaking out as strong advocates for fair and human treatment of all persons. Join LIRS as we dialouge with lawmakers by taking action and speaking out on behalf of migrants and refugees living in the Unitred States!  As pictured beginning top left and moving clockwise: Rep. Luis Gutierrez  (IL-4) sponsor of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act (CIRASAP) of 20009, meets with ELCA bishops; Bishop Wayne miller, Metro Chicago Synod, ELCA; LIRS meets with Senator Thune’s (R-SD) staff while participating in a Refugee Council USA Advocacy Day; Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO); William Chol, former refugee from Sudan lobbying on Capitol Hill; Bishop Wayne Miller, Metro Chicago Synod, ELCA with Bishop Gerald L. Masholt, Central State Synod, ELCA.

My very first visit “In Search of Welcome” was with Vung Lam Man and her beautiful children. As former refugees from Burma, Vung Lam Man and her family arrived to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 2009 where they were greeted by LIRS affiliate, Lutheran Children and Family Services of Pennsylvania. As I went to their home to meet and interview Vung Lam Man about her experience in coming to the United States, I felt incredibly excited. Although we did not speak the same language, through the honesty of hospitality a joyful time was made possible. As we interacted, a moment of pure organic laughter broke out. Suddenly the fact that there was a language barrier had been smashed by laughter and we shared a moment of genuine human connection. After the interview portion of my visit had ended, and written translation was be transcribed, I went to play outside with the kids. From this expereince came some of my favorite memories and best photographs of the year! (Pictured beginning top left and moving clockwise): (Left to right) Vung Sian Cing, Niang Deih Lian, and Thang Suan Pau jump with excitement (and energy!) for the camera; Niang Deih Lian, Vung Sian Cing and Thang Suan Pau sit on their front stoop in Lacaster, Pennsylvania; Niang Deih Lian gives a big smile for the camera; Thang Suan Pau; Niang Deih Lian.

Nicknamed in 2005 “The Town That Loves Refugees” by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Utica, New York is home to former refugees from Bosnia, Dzeusad and Amoid Dizdareuic. After coming to the United States in 1997 both Dzeusad and Amoid were greeted with a number of challenges. While the transition was difficult and the langauge barrier was tough at first, Dzeusad expresses the welcome that he felt, simply through the act of receiving a smile from a stranger. After only 5 years of living in the United States the Dizdareuic family owns and operates both a corner market as well as the hair salon next door. Dzeusad reminds us that “The U.S. is a land of opportunity… you can succeed, but you can also fall down…you have to work hard.” 

Dina Lukudu, a former refugee from Southern Sudan poses with her three children on her back porch in Towson, MD. After meeting her husband while studying in Egypt, Dina and her family came to the United States, escaping the war-torn conditions of Southern Sudan. While interviewing Dina as our featured mother in the 2010 LIRS Mother’s Day video, she reflected enthusiastically on her initial excitement to come to the United States. While she was nervous, especially for her children, she has found friends, family, and work here in the states. (Pictured top to bottom): Diko (9 years old); Emmanuel (11 years old); (Left to Right) Diko, Bande (16 months old), Dina, Emmanuel.


July 30th, 2010

July 29, 2010

Hello to all readers! I have not posted on this blog for a little while, largely due to excessive business that life has seemed to be full of for the past month! I have been entirely blesssed in these past weeks to work on putting together an exhibit of some of my LIRS photography from this year. This Friday, July 30th at the Lutheran Center in Baltimore, MD will be a reception for my work. Ifyou live in the Baltimore area come down to 700 Light Street and check it out! Photos to come next week! I’ll be sure to let you know how everything goes!

In Search of Welcome A Multi-media Project by Beth Azarow

 July 30 through September 30, 2010

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

 Artist’s Reception  

Friday July 30, 2010

4:00p – 6:00p

The Lutheran Center, 5th Floor

700 Light St Baltimore Maryland 21230


RCUSA Advocacy Day

June 28, 2010

Last week at this time I was preparing to spend a Tuesday on the Hill, running back and forth between the House and the Senate, snapping photographs as quickly as my camera’s shutter would let me. 

Just two days after World Refugee Day I spent time down in DC  taking pictures of a Refugee Advocacy Day put on by Refugee Council USA.

“Over 50 refugee advocates spent the day on Capitol Hill meeting with Senators, Representatives and their staff to discuss recommendations on how the U.S. government can provide improved protections and services to refugees and other vulnerable newcomers” (LIRS Advocacy Update, 6/28).

Below are a few of my favorite photos from the day. See more on our facebook page at:  www.facebook.com/LIRSorg .

Picture 1- Rev. Yohannes Mengsteab, LIRS Board Member, former refugee from Eritrea

Picture 2- Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) reading LIRS materials

Picture 3- Checago Bright, former refugee from Liberia; William Chol, former refugee from Sudan

Picture 4- U.S. Capitol building

Picture 5- LIRS President Linda Hartke along with other RCUSA delegates in a meeting with Senator Carl Levin (D- MI)

This past Sunday, June 20th, was a special day for multiple reasons. Not only was it a time to celebrate Father’s Day, but also a time to recognize the 16 million refugees in the world today.

As a member of Mennonite Volunteer Service (MVS) I am able to work with LIRS this year, due largely in part to the support of North Baltimore Mennonite Church (NBMC). The large community house that I live in, Reservoir Hill House of Peace, is a building and ministry sponsored by NBMC in partnership with the Atlantic Coast Mennonite conference. While NBMC supports the volunteers that live in the house, the Church also supports and sustains the Asylum Seekers Housing Network (ASHN).

ASHN provides people who are currently seeking Asylum in the United States with a place to live, legal support, ESL classes, transportation funding, a food stipend, and volunteer opportunities.

This past Sunday, Father’s Day and World Refugee Day, at North Baltimore Mennonite Church, MVS and ASHN came together for a service celebrating the lives and stories of asylum seekers, refugees, and newcomers to the United States. Each week during the Sunday worship service NBMC has a “mission moment”. A member of the congregation shares about a project or ministry that they are involved in. This week I was asked to give the mission moment and speak on my time with LIRS.

I began by explaining what LIRS does. I discussed our involvement with refugee resettlement, children’s services, legal services, and newcomer advocacy. I got to show the World Refugee Day video I made (see below).

After I had finished sharing, some of my housemates, two men from the Democratic Republic of Congo who are currently ASHN clients were interviewed. I LOVED listening to them speak. I got to learn a lot about their lives, their stories, their travels.  I heard one of them speak about family, what it has been like to find family in the United States. As I sat in a pew, watching them speak and listening to their words, I felt many things, but overriding all other emotions was a deep sense of honor. I felt entirely honored to call these men my housemates, my friends, and a part of my family in Baltimore.

After the service I went to see them and was greeted with hellos and hugs. My time spent at North Baltimore Mennonite Church on Sunday morning was an absolutely perfect way to spend the morning of world refugee day.

World Refugee Day

May 24, 2010

Take the LIRS challenge and send this video to three friends!

Los Suns

May 5, 2010

Awesome article! Click here to read about the Phoenix Suns basketball team. The title reads “Suns to wear ‘Los Suns’ uniforms to honor Phoenix’s Latino Community”. So beautiful!

It is the first week of May. After a Mennonite Volunteer Service retreat to the mountains this past weekend I am undeniably aware that I am now 2/3 of the way complete with my year of service. In ways I am relieved. I am excited for next year, to make money, work part time, and officially enter the post-collegiate “real world”. In other ways I am sad. To leave Baltimore means to move away from people, places, and memories that have managed to creep into my heart and become rather dear to me throughout the past eight months. It is hard to believe I have been here eight months already.  As I examine my personal learning and the growth that I have seen take place in my life while living in Baltimore, I am excited for the person that I get to be in September, and the ways my life might look different as this year is complete.

I came to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service knowing very little about what my time would be like this year. My knowledge on Lutherans, immigration, and refugee services was, needless to say, less then abundant. As I began to work and engage with my colleagues and communities, I found that it did not take long before these three words became integral pieces of my everyday thought and conversations.

My personal interactions with the stories of immigrants and refugees have been entirely transforming. The significance of story is something that has always been dear to my heart, but this year, in a whole new way. I continue to learn not only the significance, but the preciousness of individual and person experience. The boldness and courage that I have seen exhibited in the heart of each person that I have gotten to meet, interview, and photograph for my project this year continues to humble and inspire me. As I begin to look forward and see little pieces of what my future might hold beyond this year of volunteering, I remain excited for my last 4 months here in Baltimore and with LIRS. As I continue to meet and interview people I continue to see a fuller picture of this world. What a joy this is.