The Role of Faith in a New World

Feb 23, 2016

For many refugees, faith provides continuity in a world that is otherwise upended. In our latest installment of WMRA’s special series, Jordy Yager looks at how two religious institutions in Charlottesville have helped Muslim and Christian refugees assimilate to life in America.

For three and a half years, Awadh Alsrya lived with his wife and four sons in a refugee camp along the border between Iraq and Syria. At its peak, there were more than 3,000 people in the camp. Most were Palestinian like him, Sunni Muslims born and raised in Iraq, being forced out by Shia militia groups.

Once, while at the market, his wife was shot in the shoulder, caught in the crossfire between two rival militias. She survived, but the message was clear, they had to leave.

Awadh owned and operated two wholesale grocery stores.

Awadh speaking Arabic

MOHAMMED EITTA (translating): He just locked them and left them.

Awadh speaking Arabic

EITTA: Until today he doesn’t know anything about his business.

Nearly four years later, when Awadh and his family arrived in Charlottesville, they didn’t know anyone. Combine that with years of insecurity and harsh living conditions, and something very common for refugees occurred: depression and despair. Unable to speak the language in a foreign culture. The overwhelming feeling of being isolated and cut off.

It was so bad for his wife, that she was hospitalized at UVa just months after her arrival. There, on her “death bed”, as Awadh describes it, they discovered there was a mosque in Charlottesville, filled with speakers of Arabic and Muslims from all over the world.

Mohammed Eitta was one of them. He’s an accountant in the University of Virginia’s pathology department, but for the last decade, he’s also worked as a volunteer and refugee outreach officer at the mosque.

MOHAMMED EITTA: I remember this day, when they came to the mosque and they were coming, him and his wife and his kids, entering the mosque, and I can see the look in their face like somebody’s lost in the middle of the desert and all of a sudden he found a tree, a beautiful tree with fruits and you can see the smile, the relief in their faces. I can still remember it like today.

When I speak with refugees, many can’t stress enough the importance of religion. When everything around them is in chaos and turmoil, a person’s faith can be their bedrock. But it’s more than that, Mohammed explains. The mosque in Charlottesville is also called the Islamic Society of Central Virginia. As the name suggests, the role of religion for refugees is also about community.

The mosque holds clothing, food, and toy drives. They help refugees learn to use microwaves, air conditioners, and even door knobs for those who’ve lived in tents all their lives. They provide tutoring for kids. They give refugees rides to doctor appointments and the DMV to get driver’s licenses. They help them find new jobs and pay rent if they’re short.

And it’s not just Americans helping refugees at the mosque, it’s refugees helping refugees. The mosque saved his wife’s life, Awadh tells me. And in doing so, it awakened a calling within him. Mohammed translates.

Awadh speaking Arabic

EITTA (translating): After he met with me in the mosque, he started talking with me, he realized he needs to do the same thing, that what he went through he doesn’t want anybody, newcomer that will go through the same experience of that.

Sound of opening prayer call…

I attended a recent Friday prayer, or Jummah as it’s called. It’s in the middle of the day, but it’s the largest service of the week. After delivering the sermon, Imam Ali Roach reminds the 200 men, women, and children in attendance that the refugee assistance fund is empty and, in fact, running on a deficit. Any donations would be vastly helpful, he says, and he points to a large metal collection box in the back of the room.

ALI ROACH: We have a lot of refugee families…and a lot of them have gone through a lot, and are coming to a new country unexpectedly and have a lot of needs and they need a lot of help…So please, give special attention to that box.

One by one, congregants make their way into the foyer to eat homemade foods from their native countries and to catch up with one another briefly before heading back to work. But on their way out, if one’s quiet, you can hear the sound of a community coming together.

Sound of metal donation box opening and closing.

Two days later, on the other side of the city, there’s another sound coming together.

Sound of Bhutanese hymn being sung.

About two-dozen Christian refugees from Bhutan gather every Sunday in the basement of the Covenant Church in Charlottesville.

Sound of Bhutanese Pastor Bimal Chhetri preaching in Nepali.

At the same exact time, upstairs in the adjacent building, the church’s pastor, Harold Bare, is preaching.

HAROLD BARE: And that’s why I stand here on Sunday morning. I stand here because God wants you to do well on planet Earth and then he wants you to go to heaven when this life is over.

Bare encourages Christian refugees to attend the main service in English, which can draw several hundred people, in-part to help them learn English faster. But he knows the value of one’s native tongue. So he’s helped establish services in Nepali and Burmese as well, with the hope that once they get settled in America, the refugees will join him next door.

Bare’s been seeing refugees in Charlottesville for more than a decade now.

BARE: And so we knew we had to do something. What we started doing though was immediately like giving away tons of furniture and clothes and food and then we came to realize that that was a train that would never stop. That we had to do more than that.

And they do. In addition to giving refugee families rice cookers and 20-pound bags of rice, they hold driving lessons in their parking lot. They helped a Bhutanese refugee purchase a new pair of glasses. But the “more” that Pastor Bare is talking about, really has to do with something else. Something he picked up while working with the homeless in Charlottesville. Something that, as he says, is the crux of the refugee experience in America.

BARE: And we’d learned with the homeless that if you do not give people hope, you don’t give them anything, it’s just a meal if they don’t have hope. If they don’t see that tomorrow can be different. That’s what hope is. Hope is believing that tomorrow can be different. Tomorrow can be better.