For the Least of These
When the need is great, Adventists respond to the call.
By Kelli Czaykowsky
Bundled up in my jacket and boots, my body is warm and shielded from the elements. My stomach is full after my morning meal. I open my car door on this cold day, and more than 50 people swarm around me. I hear the chattering of their voices in incomprehensible languages. The beauty of the different cultures represented here makes me feel as if I am in a different place.
I see grandparents with gray hair, parents with worried yet expectant looks on their faces, and shy, smiling children of all ages. Most are dressed in light summer clothing—short-sleeve T-shirts with sandals on their feet, but they are shivering in the cold. They are here to see what we have brought on this Sunday morning. Something to fill their growling bellies? Maybe something to protect their feet against the cold? Our group tries to organize ourselves so we can distribute what we have brought in an orderly manner, but with so many people and with such great need, it is difficult.
We bring food today—100 slices of pizza, and it is gone in five minutes. “More! More!” the children cry. But we have no more today.
We bring jackets, sweaters, pants, and shoes, all donated by church members, youth groups, students, and friends. People have responded to the call, their hearts touched by the great need. The clothes are handed out and received gladly, even if the sizes are not exact. Shoes that are too small or too big are better than none at all. Clothes that cover their bodies replace the cold with warmth. There are, of course, some that are disappointed today because there is never enough for everyone. Maybe a child received shoes but his sibling did not.
Are we in a remote village in Africa? Perhaps a war-torn city in the Middle East or a forgotten settlement in Haiti? No. This is in the United States of America, in the city of Clarkston, Georgia, only 10 miles outside of Atlanta. And as we have learned, Clarkston is ranked the number one city for housing refugees in the United States.
These people we are here to help are Seventh-day Adventist refugee families suffering in relative silence. Terrorized in their home countries, they have fled because of war and religious persecution—fragmented families who have escaped to safety in the United States. The terrors they have experienced in their collective pasts have left them silent, and seemingly powerless. What they hold on to is their faith and those of us who are willing to help them, for there is very little government assistance.
We Are His Hands
Our organization is called FREE,1 which stands for Friends of Refugees Providing Education and Empowerment. The FREE project started when a group of friends heard about Adventist refugees in the United States who were praying for educational opportunities. We were blessed to be able to help 15 kids complete paperwork and receive the Arete scholarship.2 When the funds ran out, however, we were hit with the realization that these families had much greater needs. We knew we couldn’t just stop with scholarships. We had to help in as many ways as we could.
Naing is 15 years old and attends Atlanta Adventist Academy (AAA). His sister Ning is 14 and attends Duluth Adventist Christian School (DACS). His other sister, Man Kim, is 6 and is in first grade at DACS. These children arrived just four years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. They had to flee because they were persecuted for being Christians.
With guns loaded, Burmese soldiers chased after the kids in the jungle for weeks, treating them as targets. They somehow lived off of very little food and limited water. They prayed to God every night for their safety, in hopes of seeing the morning light. Although not all of the Chen tribe made it to the refugee camp, these miracle children did. They were now free from the soldiers’ guns, but they lived locked behind the camp’s walls. And if any of their family members didn’t make it, they were not allowed to leave and find them.
Jasmine, now a senior at AAA, is from the Karen tribe. Her mother, Do Duu, was pregnant with Jasmine and her twin brother when the government attacked their village and burned down their huts. Do Duu ran away with only the clothes on her back. Hundreds of people fled as fire and bullets rained down on their homes. They lived in the jungle for weeks, where Do Duu gave birth to twins. There was no food or diapers or blankets—only leaves to keep the babies warm.
Many of the refugees who attempted to flee through the jungle simply didn’t make it. That’s why so many members of the tribe were in disbelief when they learned Jasmine and her brother had lived. Though Do Duu, Jasmine, and her sisters were eventually released from the refugee camp, Jasmine’s twin brother was not, and he remains there today. Jasmine’s dream is to become a nurse, go back, and help her people.
Daisy, Jasmine’s 12-year-old sister, is a fifth grader at DACS. She is one of the happiest little girls you could ever meet. Even though she developed a blood disorder while in the refugee camp, her faith is tremendous. Every Tuesday our group takes her to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for a six-hour platelet transfusion. “Just pray for me, Mrs. Kelli,” she says at every visit. And she knows God will help her. Even while these refugees were being tortured and killed for being Christians, they held strong to their Adventist beliefs—full of faith, full of promise, and full of hope.
Gregory, a 25-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, met us one Sabbath when he stood outside for two hours so he wouldn’t miss our Sabbath pickup for his neighbors. Waiting with his elderly father and 6-year-old niece, Gregory approached our packed vehicles and asked if we were Seventh-day Adventists. He had seen us picking up other Adventists and wanted us to know he was Adventist as well. We smiled at each other as we gathered the kids to make more room for him. Gregory now lives with eight family members in the same neighborhood in which many other Adventists also live.
We Are His Feet
What started out as a little project for FREE has now grown beyond measure, and there are many churches and individuals who have opened up their minds and hearts to their fellow brothers and sisters. For that we are grateful. We also believe that as the Lord continues to open doors, FREE will continue to walk through them.
We are currently working with refugee children and families from all over the world. We have provided 14 children with scholarships to attend Adventist schools. We organize food and clothing drives and fund-raising events to help provide for these families, as well as English classes. We take adults and children to medical appointments, and we are trying to find job training for them.
But there is still so much more to be done. We need a community building in Clarkston, in which we can store donated food, clothes, and other necessities. This building would be a place to which physicians could come and provide medical treatment for all who need it, and a place in which more than 300 Adventist refugees could worship God.
While FREE is trying to meet the immediate needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ and empower them so that they can become self-sufficient, we can’t do it alone. But we also know we aren’t alone. God will help us, as He helps others everywhere, to do His work.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matt. 25:40).
1 To learn more, visit www.freerefugees.org.
2 Arete Scholars Fund is a state-approved student scholarship organization (SSO) that administers the Georgia (U.S.A.) Tuition Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income families.
Kelli Czaykowsky is an occupational therapist, wife, and mother of five. She writes from Georgia.